Are Pets a Good Gift?

9 mins read
Funny kitten and golden retriever puppy in red christmas hats together. isolated on white background.

Justyna Misiewicz of Lamanda Park couldn’t say no.

In October, when her friend discovered a litter of feral-born kittens living in terrible neglect outside a house on a busy street, Justyna was unwilling to turn a blind eye. With the help of, the kittens were rescued from almost certain death. Two of the kittens, an angelic-looking, bonded female pair, are still with Justyna as she searches for their forever home.

This tragic scenario plays out daily in our city and beyond. Animal shelters are overflowing, and recent spikes in the price of spay and neuter services contribute to the rising tide of unwanted kittens and puppies. “Kitten season” is now year-round.

Which brings us to Christmas and holiday gifting: Is a pet a good gift? Hard-liners say no. We say maybe. But be careful.

Challenge #1: Is the recipient pet-ready?

Hard-liners advise against gifting pets because we typically don’t really, truly know whether the recipient is ready for the commitment of an animal.

Kids holding kittens and puppies make for adorable photo ops, so we naturally want to gift pets to our littles. However, this is risky business, especially for the animals involved. For instance, at Easter, we’re tempted to gift them wiggly live bunnies, fuzzy ducklings, and chicks because they look so cute.

Beware of “cute.” Pet parenting requires many of the same qualities necessary for effective human parenting: space, a safe environment, energy, attention, time, patience, consistency, and resources, including cash. A “free” kitten won’t be free for long. Even the healthiest, lowest-maintenance pets require doctor’s visits, for example—starting with regular dental cleanings.

“Cute” can get us in trouble in other ways, too. During the peak of “Game of Thrones,” viewers fell in love with wolves, which is entirely understandable. But the result was painful. Huskies, Samoyeds, and other giant Arctic breeds with a wolf-like appearance flooded the pet market.

But Huskies are not suited to apartment living and don’t do well in isolation. They’re sweet-tempered as a rule, but they’re born to run, with props to The Boss. To thrive, this muscular, high-energy breed needs strenuous daily exercise. They’re born diggers and jumpers and can make short work of any wall or fence by going over or under (resulting in lots of escapes). Furthermore, Huskies are true pack dogs and are happiest in a Husky group. If you leave a Husky alone in the house for 8-10 hours a day while you’re at work, you’re likely to return home to a shredded couch and window screens simply because your growing Husky is lonely and bored.

Oh, yes, and then there’s the howling. Like wolves, Huskies howl. They howl when they’re happy; they howl when they’re sad. They’re just made that way. Neighbors typically aren’t too thrilled.

Husky puppies— marshmallow puffballs with bright blue eyes—are almost irresistible. But to offer this pet a happy, satisfying life requires doggy dedication long after the initial cuteness overload has worn off. This is simply an illustration of the judgment calls that are crucial to successful pet parenting.

Challenge #2: Is it a match?

Let’s say that your intended gift recipient is an experienced pet person. Next comes the question of chemistry. Yes, Scott may like cats (dogs, rabbits, hamsters, donkeys, pot-bellied pigs, horses, pygmy goats, parrots, guinea pigs, goldfish, lizards, snakes, turtles), but will he like (love) this particular cat? And will the cat even tolerate Scott? As with all matchmaking, there is a wild “X” factor that’s impossible to predict.

When you’re considering giving someone a pet, or if you’re considering adopting a new pet yourself, survey the setting and assess the environment. If the potential pet recipient, including yourself, already has a companion animal, how would a newcomer fit into the ecosystem? You may reason that a sole cat or dog wants same-species company, and you may be right…but it’s a risk. Animals, like people, may be competitive and territorial.

And consider the personality of the recipient. Brad, a noise-sensitive, introverted writer, would probably not be an ideal match for a parrot, for example, because parrots are loud. They just are. They like to screech. See above: Brad is probably not ideally suited as a Husky parent, either. The success of a human-to-pet bond relies on many elements, starting with the temperament or personality of both the human and pet.

Check for compatibility

Back to the question of gifting kids with pets: It’s a commonly held belief that caring for a pet teaches a child responsibility, but remember that this belief must still be accompanied by the presence and support of a competent grown-up to pick up the slack. If little Johnnie forgets to feed the kitten or walk the dog, well, somebody has to do it. Guess who? It’s unconscionable to let an animal suffer to make a point.

We consulted with local animal rescuers and advocates, so check out a few of their tips:

  • Kittens are not ideal pets for small children because very young children lack self-regulation and impulse control. It doesn’t mean they’re bad kids; they’re young! Kittens require plenty of rest and downtime; kids just can’t comprehend this—the frequent result: scratches, tears, and runaway kittens. A young adult cat (1-2 years old) may be a better match for a child who is a first-time pet caregiver.
  • Senior dogs and cats may be a good match for senior adults in terms of energy level. Senior animals often languish the longest in the shelters. People are more likely to adopt puppies and kittens (see “cuteness” above). As a result, adult animals—not necessarily decrepit by any definition–-are euthanized daily.
Who’s a good boy…or girl!
  • Dogs bark and need walks throughout any 24-hour period. Arguably, dogs also need some outdoor space just to be dogs. Raising a happy dog in an apartment is possible, but be conscious of the noise level. Also, ask yourself: if the dog’s human works, will the human be home from work every day in time to walk the dog and prevent doggie accidents on that priceless wool-silk-cotton Isfahan Clark Sickle-Leaf rug?
  • Reptiles are intriguing and ancient. Reptilian rizz makes up for what they lack in the warm-and-fuzzy department. Turtles, lizards and snakes are not zero-maintenance. Know that these animals have specific dietary and environmental requirements, notably clean water, heat, and a sunning spot (the latter may be provided with special UVB and heat lamps). Some reptiles require live food. Also, remember that reptiles, like all living things, grow. Back to “cute.” Where will you keep that baby alligator when it tips the scales (pun intended) at 1,000 pounds at 30,40, 50, or even 60 years of age?
  • Amphibians are quiet (bullfrogs excepted), slippery, slimy, and wonderful. Salamanders, in particular, may display extraordinary colors, patterns, and body shapes. They require large tanks and careful environmental monitoring and may live for decades!
  • Birds are both wonderful and problematic. Most modern pet bird experts agree that pet birds enjoy life more if they’re uncaged or allowed outside their cages for part of the day. Parrots, parakeets, lovebirds, and cockatiels can all be hand-trained and love to bathe and splash in a dish of tepid water, play with toys, and ride on your shoulder. Note that your environment needs to be bird-proofed to prevent injury and escape. Bear in mind that parrots may live for 80 years or longer. Also, bear in mind that groups of birds – a few Society Finches or Zebra Finches, for example—will quickly breed and produce dozens of cheeping, peeping offspring. Sounds so cute, right? Until it’s not.
  • Rabbits are quiet (virtually silent!), gorgeous, and are one of the most frequently abandoned animals at the shelter, usually due to a lack of information and knowledge on the part of their humans. Rabbits do not do well in hutches or cages, especially if left outdoors. We live in coyote (bobcat, bear, owl, hawk) country, and these predators can often pop the lock on a cage when they’re hungry enough. Rabbits need to live indoors except for supervised garden jaunts. Their teeth grow fast, and they sharpen their teeth constantly. Unless chew toys are provided (every pet store carries these), rabbits will chew through electrical cords. Again, they’re not bad bunnies; they just do what comes naturally. Note that rabbits can be, and should be, sterilized.
  • Rodents are often good first-time pets and may be a good match for people with limited space. Rats are highly intelligent, highly social (they like to be handled), and adapt well to people. Chinchillas are active and playful but aren’t cuddly like domesticated mammals. Like many non-domesticated animals, chinchillas are often active at night, which may irritate your diurnal household. Note that pine and cedar shavings used as bedding can irritate a chinchilla’s sensitive respiratory tract.
  • Aquariums may appear decorative, and they are often used this way. But the fact is that fish are people, too! Well—okay, you know what we mean. Aquarium fish are susceptible to an array of diseases, generally related to poor filtration in the tank. Note that goldfish, koi, and carp are champion poopers. They need a lot of water volume per fish and strong filtration to keep their environment healthy. Saltwater tanks are beautifully hypnotic, chemically fussy, and may require the regular services of a piscine professional to monitor your water quality.
  • Insects, like mantids (Praying Mantises) or Hissing Madagascar Roaches, aren’t for everyone. Ditto for tarantulas, scorpions, and other arachnids. But they’re beautiful, interesting, and way badass. They require close supervision since it may be difficult to detect illness or injury.
  • Exotic pets are a sore point with most animal advocates. Most of them reach our country illegally. The methods used to collect monkeys, toucans, lemurs, ocelots and many others are uniformly brutal, and their care in captivity is consistently demanding. With this in mind, animal rights champions ask that no exotic animal be purchased from a pet store or dealer. If you encounter an exotic beast at your local animal shelter, well, then what? If you decide to give an unusual animal a home, commit to ongoing research and be prepared to pay close attention to your companion. Fun fact: Land-dwelling hermit crabs are considered exotics, and they chirp. Yes, really. They don’t have vocal cords, but they stridulate, like crickets, by rubbing their shell or exoskeleton surfaces together. They usually do this at night, when the moon is full (yes, really!), or when they’re preparing to molt. It’s creaky, a little creepy, and crazy cool.

Consider Fostering

If your intended pet recipient doesn’t have much experience with animals, treat that person to some less-committal contact. Fostering may be a great option, meaning that the person “adopts” the animal for a limited time until a permanent adopter is found, giving both human and non-human the opportunity to assess each other. Every animal rescue agency and many shelters worldwide offer fostering programs.

For even less commitment, suggest visits to places like Pasadena’s Tail Town Cat Cafe, where guests can interact with felines available for adoption without obligation to do more. If you’d love for someone on your list to discover the joy of being a pet parent, present that person with a few visits via gift card or certificate to a “pet salon” setting where they can meet, mingle, and match.

The Bottom Line

Don’t be discouraged. A living creature can be a truly wonderful, heart-opening gift. But unlike gifting someone with (another) ugly sweater or that subscription to a magazine, acquiring an animal under any circumstances brings ethical and practical concerns.

Underlying the matching process is one persistent fact: a competent pet owner must be financially stable. Do you need to be a millionaire to have a pet? No, but in all seriousness, pet insurance and access to credit are considerations. Stable housing is also a requirement. Many animals land in shelters or on the street because their human’s housing or employment situation suddenly changed.

Where to find a perfect potential pet? The answer seems obvious. Shelters. Again, animal advocates urge potential fosterers and adopters to skip animal breeders and pet stores. The reason is that the world is filled with more than enough unloved cats and dogs (and hermit crabs) needing homes. Most shelters are high-kill, meaning that an animal taken into the facility may have only a few weeks, or sometimes no more than a few days, to find a home before being euthanized. Many rescue groups in the Pasadena area pull “death row” animals from the overcrowded Downey shelter (562-803-3301) and other high kill-rate facilities, seeking temporary support from fosters while a permanent home is found.

Many dozens of animal rescue programs serve Southern California (we list a few below), which will work with you as a foster or adopter. Most vets and groomers also have an inside line on pets needing homes. Rescue organizations routinely provide fosters with pet food, litter, bedding, toys, and vouchers for medical care at no charge; many rescues will transport the foster animal to and from the vet for procedures and pay for needed medications.

And sometimes, even when you’re just quietly minding your own business, the universe intervenes and urgently commands an animal (or two or three) into your care. Just ask Justyna Misiewicz. The two four-month-old kittens rescued by Justyna have already been vaccinated and are scheduled for a pre-paid spay procedure in mid-January, courtesy of Cat Posse. Cat people interested in meeting the kittens, which must be adopted as a pair, may contact Justyna at [email protected].

Or find your next pet here

  • Pasadena Humane, (626) 792-7151: Love black cats? So do we. More than 50 black cats and kittens are waiting for you at Pasadena Humane. Not to mention 33 or so stripey tabbies, nine gingers and torties! Something for everybody! Note that through December 31, Pasadena Humane is also offering large dogs (40 lbs. and up) for a $0 adoption fee, sponsored by Pet Care Foundation.
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Victoria Thomas

Victoria has been a journalist since her college years when she wrote for Rolling Stone and CREEM. Victoria describes the view of Mt. Wilson from her front step as “staggering,” and she is a defender of peacocks everywhere.
Email: [email protected]

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