One size fits all…not: Think twice before leaving a living gift under the tree

Dr. Anna Dunton-Gallagher / Photo

Dr. Anna Dunton-Gallagher

So, as some of us start our holiday shopping around now, some have finished, and some will start in about two weeks. I fall somewhere in the middle, but often struggle to think of what to get. What do I really need in life? My dogs, cat, horses and job. None of those things can be gifted! Often our minds jump to kittens or puppies under the tree because, well really, does anything make a cuter picture or happier recipient? However, pets as gifts are a bad idea with a few exceptions.

There are a select few cases where gifting animals is okay, but the vast majority of the time I warn against it. I will talk about some of the hidden traps that come with pets and why their arrival needs to be well thought out.


The cost of purchasing a pet is actually very small compared to the cost of keeping them. Pets need food, leashes, litter, bowls, vaccines, surgeries, and many other things which add up. As a veterinarian, I often run into situations where people have unexpected costs and must make heartbreaking decisions between money and love.

A healthy animal may need relatively few things through its life. However, monthly preventatives and food plus routine care can still cost more than people expect. Heartworm and flea/tick prevention can add up to quite a bit monthly. If you decide to forgo these, the fall-out from any disease caused by those things is much more expensive. Even rodents and rabbits need bedding and food. In those situations where your pet ends up needing life-saving surgery or emergency care, people can be forced into difficult situations where money becomes a deciding factor.

Before getting a pet for someone, you must be sure that they are able and willing to financially support it. Believe it or not, there are several “$2 pets” that we have done surgery on. Many children don’t want to hear that their best friend hamster isn’t worth the money it will require. Emotional value of my pets runs in the millions, while their actual value is fairly small (don’t tell them I said that!) Once a person, or child, comes to love a pet, the original value is meaningless.


Pets take a lot of time! I spend at least two solid hours of my day walking, feeding, brushing or playing with my pets. This only includes my indoor pets. Some animals are very demanding of your time, while others are not. Many times you won’t know until you have them. Fish, reptiles and rodents obviously will require less time than dogs and horses. Some cats are happy with a feeding twice a day, while others (like mine) get upset when you have long days away from home.

Remember that travel vacations come into play as well. Does the pet giftee want to and can they afford to pay a housesitter for that time? Will they want to board their pet? Are they able to?

Often people don’t fully realize the amount of time a dog takes, especially younger dogs. Even if you get up at 5 a.m. to jog the dog before the active day starts, they shouldn’t be home alone for too long. This may mean running home at some point in the day to feed and let them out. Older dogs require time and exercise as well. Dogs are more difficult to fit into a busy life. When you get up early, get the kids to school, go to work, make dinner, help get kids to bed and clean up from the day, do you have energy to walk a dog? I know small dogs that run miles a day and big dogs that are lazy. Breed or size is not always an accurate predictor of energy levels. Many people have a hard enough time with their hectic lives, so it is very important that you consider these time commitments.


Your nephew will adore the kitten he got for Christmas, but how old is he? Kids turn into teenagers who turn into adults. Does your 10-year-old niece have plans for a puppy when she turns 18 and leaves home? When I went to college I left my mother with a menagerie. Some parents are fine with this, but not all!

The absolute number-one most important thing about giving pets as presents is to make sure that either the recipient or their care-givers are completely on board with every aspect. In truth, many people aren’t completely aware of the time and money that pets may require even before they purchase them. Getting a pet as a gift adds a whole other dimension of surprise.

Shelters fill up after the holidays as pets that weren’t planned for, or weren’t planned for correctly, get relinquished. Much of this can be avoided by careful planning, or holding off on pets as gifts. If the person getting a pet or their guardian is completely aware, on board and prepared, a pet is a gift of forever love. Make sure that every aspect of a pet’s life is taken into account before you commit them to a human.

If everyone is in agreement about a pet gift being OK, it is then important to decide what kind. Every person has a personality that may fit a different pet. Space, finances, time, physical ability, allergies and many other things become factors. Take the time to do some research on these things. Reptiles, fish and rodents are the most low-maintenance (though beware of the heating/housing needs), followed by cats, then horses and dogs.

Usually, it is a good idea for pet gifts to NOT be a surprise. While there is a magical element in finding a pony in a new barn with a red bow (is that just me?) pets are something to be prepared for. This is different if you are getting a pet for a child or significant other, and know that you are prepared to care for it if needed. A “gift certificate” for a pet which allows the recipient to visit the shelter and pick out an animal on their own is usually the best bet. This way, they can take their time to make sure personalities and needs are matched.

Remember, pets aren’t inanimate objects, so gifting them is something that requires a lot of thought and consideration. If the situation is right though, there are few sweeter things than sharing your holidays with a new loved one.

Dr. Anna Dunton-Gallagher

Dr. Anna Dunton-Gallagher is a veterinarian at All Points Animal Care in Rutland. Have a question on this or any animal health topic? E-MAIL:

More Posts - Website