Peeking out from under the tree with a bright red ribbon around his neck, he was their favorite present on Christmas morning. The kids threw the ball for him until he flopped down in happy exhaustion, tongue lolling and tail whipping wildly. They paraded him around the neighborhood every day and snuggled under the covers with him at night. But it wasn't long before he went from adored to ignored. His family was too busy playing video games or dashing off to the next appointment to bother with him.
One day, the man clipped a leash to his collar. A car ride! He paced in the back seat in excitement. But when they reached their destination, he tucked his tail between his legs in fear. The man led him into a building full of barking dogs. "He's getting too big. We just don't have time for him," the man said, handing the leash over to a woman. He tried to follow the man out the door, but it closed in his face.
This is the sad story of countless dogs and cats who are given as "gifts" for Christmas, only to be tossed out like stale fruitcake after their novelty wears off. Every year after the holidays, shelters across the country scramble to accommodate the surge of abandoned animals. Yet animals who end up in shelters are the "lucky" ones: They will be cared for and have a chance at being adopted by a different family, one that will love them for life -- not just for the holidays. The less fortunate are banished to back yards and chained up like old bicycles, with nothing to do but shiver and watch the snow pile up. Others are driven "out to the country" and dumped, where they starve, get hit by cars or freeze to death.
This is why, even if you're certain that your loved one wants and is prepared to care for an animal companion, it's crucial to resist the temptation to give him or her a living, breathing "present." Adding a cat or dog to the family means making a 15-year-plus commitment to love and care for the animal, for better or for worse. It also means finding an animal who is a good match for one's activity level, experience, abilities and personality. These aren't decisions you can make for someone else.
If you're thinking of getting an animal as a "gift" to yourself, hold off until after the holiday hoopla is over. Animals require vast amounts of time, attention, patience and money -- all of which are in short supply during this season. With parties, events and shopping filling up most families' schedules around the holidays, new animals' needs are often neglected, and the animals suffer. Left for hours with nothing to do and no one to take them outside to relieve themselves, animals are likely to chew on furniture and have "accidents" in the house -- and then be unfairly punished for it.
Putting a puppy or kitten under the tree isn't a "gift" for anyone. If you're certain that your loved one is prepared to give an animal an excellent home, consider wrapping up a dog bowl or a leash and offering to accompany him or her to a shelter after the holidays to choose a loving animal companion for life, not just for Christmas.
Lindsay Pollard-Post is a staff writer for the PETA Foundation.