Experts: Giving pets as gifts not wise, but if you do, here's what to know

photo Most experts don't recommend giving animals as gifts.

Thinking of giving someone their first pet for Christmas?

Though many veterinarians and animal shelter professionals say it's not a good idea to surprise someone with a dog or cat, they also realize it's inevitable. What they suggest is that, if you do give someone a pet as a gift, particularly someone who has never had one before, give them detailed tips on how to care for the animal.

Karen Roach, director at DOGood for a Dog Friendly Chattanooga, a local volunteer group that advocates for responsible dog ownership, doesn't recommend giving animals as gifts at all.

"Sadly, puppy mills and people who breed dogs just to make money always make sure to have plenty of puppies available for the Christmas holidays," she says. "They are the ones who advertise in newspapers and publications. A reputable breeder would never advertise their puppies that way.

"A reputable breeder would never sell a dog or cat to someone who plans to give it to another person. With small dogs, reputable breeders and rescue groups are very cautious about placing a puppy in a home with small children."

Some rescue groups and shelters won't let a pet be taken home until the person who will own it has gone through a background check.

"And many do home visits to make sure that the home, surroundings, and other family members and pets will be a good environment for the dog or cat," she says.

Liz Lovett, a veterinarian at Riverview Animal Hospital in Chattanooga, says deciding which breed of dog to give is the most important consideration.

"It is very important to do some research before committing to the adoption," she says. "Many breeds, such as border collies, German shepherds, Australian shepherds were developed to do a job and are very high-energy. These working breeds demand daily exercise in order not to develop undesirable behaviors.

"Certain breeds are better with children than others. The size of the dog should be considered as well."

Lovett says that most cats adopted at shelters are a mix of breeds as domestic short hairs (DSH), domestic medium hairs (DMH) or domestic long hairs (DLH).

"Medium-haired and long-haired cats require more maintenance in the form of brushing as their coats can get matted, which can be uncomfortable as the hair pulls," Lovett says. "These cats are also more prone to getting hairballs from grooming themselves, which they ultimately can vomit up. Therefore, we recommend 'hairball diets' or supplements that help ease hairballs through the digestive tract."

Like puppies and dogs, kittens and cats need to be kept active as well, Lovett says.

"They can be prone to obesity if sedentary, which can lead to other health problems such as diabetes, arthritis and bladder problems. Adopted cats and kittens should also be screened for feline leukemia virus and feline immunodeficiency virus. Although these viruses may not cause imminent disease, they can lead to life threatening conditions later in life. Cats positive for this disease cannot ever go outside as they can spread the viruses to other cats. Owners should know of these special needs before adopting a retrovirus positive cat," she says.

Eileen Price, director of Wally's Friends, a spay-and-neuter advocacy group based in Red Bank, says people should consider a mature animal for first-time pet owners.

"Shelters are full of mature dogs and cats that are waiting to be saved," she says. "Mature animsals can be much easier to care for an teach children the gift of compassion. Rather than 'surprising' your friend or child (with a first-time pet), how about allowing that person to meet his or her own match? Animals are individuals, so the right match is so important."

Despite warnings, Roach says there undoubtedly will be new pets under the tree this Christmas, so there there are certain steps that need to be taken once the animal is in the home.

"The most important steps they can take are to locate a good veterinarian," she says, and suggests asking friends who own pets for vet recommendations.

"Start training classes right away ... and don't just take one puppy class," Roach says. "As soon as our dogs graduate one class, we sign up for the next level."

Lovett says it's imperative that pet owners immediately have their animals immunized.

"Puppies and kittens need protection against life-threatening diseases such as parvovirus, distemper virus and adenovirus (puppies) and rhinotracheitis, panleukopenia and calici virus (kittens)," Lovett says. "These diseases require three to four boosters between the ages of six and 16 weeks for the pet to be fully protected.

"All pets are required by law to have a rabies vaccine at the age of 12 weeks as this disease can be transmitted to humans and is fatal with no cure available at this time. Many vaccines need to be repeated on a yearly basis, so it is important for your pet to see the veterinarian at least once a year."

Roach also recommends socializing your dog as soon as vaccines allow.

"During the set of 'puppy shots' that young dogs must receive to assure that they do not get sick from certain diseases, puppies should stay away from other dogs and areas, like dog parks, where other dogs have been," she says.

Don't forget that, for dogs, it's also important that they get regular exercise.

"Walk your dog every day, even if it is only a small house dog," Lovett says. "Dogs need exercise, and sharing leash time with your pup is a great bonding and training time, as well as insuring that your puppy is receiving enough exercise so they are not getting into mischief while home."

And don't get a dog only to toss it outside and make it live in the back yard. Your pet should live in your home, she says.

"Only keep your dog in the house. Dogs are pack animals and, when you invite a dog to share your family, they also need to share your home. Dogs do not deserve a life outside in the elements.

"I'm very passionate about this; if you are not ready to welcome a dog for their entire lifetime, you shouldn't have a dog. The shelters are filled with adult dogs that were once someone's cute little puppy that was cuddled and loved, then thrown away."

Price also says owners must make sure that animals and, in particular young pets - are protected from the elements.

"Puppies and kittens cannot regulate their body temperature," she says. "Therefore it is vital to keep your new little friend in a warm environment."

Roach notes that the "initial magic" of bonding with a "cute fuzzy puppy or kitten in the stocking" can wear off quickly when the reality of what it takes to care for the pet sets in.

Without love, attention, exercise and training, "a pet may soil in the house, become destructive and/or unsocial or become poorly behaved, thereby weakening the bond between the owners and the pet," Lovett says.

And finally, a question that comes up a lot with new pet owners: Is it OK for the animals to sleep in bed with their owners?

"This is a personal choice," Lovett says. "I know of no health risks associated with pets in the bed."

Contact Karen Nazor Hill at or 423-757-6396.