Every so often, I see a rom-com with a hokey gift-giving scene. An actor giggles in delight as the surprise gift of a puppy plants wet kisses on them. Though this cliché pulls at my heartstrings every time, in the real world, gifting a pet to a friend, lover, or family member can be a bad idea.
“An animal is not a first-date type of gift. It isn’t a casual gift,” said Julie Castle, chief executive of Best Friends Animal Society, a national rescue organization. “I wouldn’t recommend gifting a living creature to anyone unless you are willing to also take responsibility for that life.”
Yet experts like Ms. Castle admit that giving a spouse or retiree an animal companion isn’t unusual — and there’s a right way to do it. Here’s what to consider when getting a loved one a pet.
Opt for the next best thing
Planting a big red bow on a new pet is endearing, but gifters should find alternatives to just showing up with a living being. I’m a fan of giving new pet owners a pet basket, like a new pet bed filled with treats, accessories, and a voucher for a complimentary visit to a veterinarian. As Wirecutter’s pets writer, I’ve written about what to buy before adopting a cat or dog, how to choose a pet food, and the importance of vaccinating and microchipping your pet. This not only eases some financial stress but also makes it feel less like a burden for recipients who aren’t ready to welcome a new pet.
If the idea of a pet basket seems hollow and you really want to get your loved one a pet, our experts said you should go for it. Although, don’t gift a pet exactly.
Many animal shelters sell gift certificates that cover the rescue fee. “Giving a gift certificate to cover the cost of adoption allows pet parents time to research what they’re looking for and adequately prepare for the exciting arrival of a new companion animal,” said Dr. Gary Weitzman, president and chief executive of the San Diego Humane Society. Plus, both parties can pick out the new addition together, making the gift even more special.
Match the pet with their lifestyle
Always encourage the potential pet owner to research the type of pet they want. But keep in mind that generalizations about a particular breed or species won’t always cut it. “Every animal is an individual, just like every person is an individual,” said Mary Margaret Callahan, chief mission officer at Pet Partners, the nation’s largest therapy animal program.
Ms. Callahan recommends considering a pet’s age, size, and energy level before committing to one. Puppies and kittens need more training than mature pets, and their care is usually more expensive. Small dogs are better for households with people who can’t lift heavy objects, such as big bags of kibble or a squirmy, large-breed dog during bath time. Skittish cats can be trip hazards in a home where anyone has mobility issues, as can larger untrained dogs who regularly bump around. And some breeds, like Border collies and Savannah cats, need loads of exercise.
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Gifters who have an inkling of what type of animal may be an ideal match for their loved one should also encourage them to meet the potential pet first. If the encounter goes well, some shelters let adopters foster a pet for a weekend to ensure it’s a perfect pairing.
Consult everyone in the home
The recipient’s desire to own a pet isn’t the only opinion that matters. Pets are messy, expensive, trigger allergies, or annoy existing animal residents. According to our experts, everyone affected should get a say before bringing a new life into the home. “The last thing you want is someone in your family not being supportive of adding a new member to your family,” Sadie Cornelius, a writer at Canine Journal, said in an email.
Adults in the home should agree on the type of pet they want and how to divvy up the responsibilities, from mealtimes to socialization. Those who have limited experience with animals might prefer a calmer dog, or a mature cat who’s already trained to use a litter box. If allergies are a potential problem, a visit to an allergist can help figure that out. (And no, a truly hypoallergenic dog or cat doesn’t exist, writes the American Academy of Allergy, Asthma, and Immunology.)
Assess how existing pets may react to a new addition too. Pets who are less territorial may be more tolerant of a new animal, though that’s no guarantee. A slow introduction can prevent fearful or aggressive behaviors. (Best Friends Animal Society has a series on pet introductions under its resources guide.) Wirecutter recommends installing pet-friendly calming diffusers or sprays, like Feliway for cats or Adaptil for dogs, throughout the home to help ease the transition.
Consider the financial costs
Caring for a pet isn’t cheap. Just ask Renée Bacher, a dog owner who’s fostered more than 100 dogs through Companion Animal Alliance, a municipal shelter in Baton Rouge, Louisiana. One day, Ms. Bacher’s 90-pound American bulldog mix Crespo got too excited when the letter carrier appeared and smashed through a windowpane. Crespo’s accident set Bacher back $700. It’s a more extreme example, but our pet experts agreed that unexpected costs come with the territory.
Unforeseen expenses aside, the American Pet Products Association, an industry trade group, estimates that pet guardians will spend $75 billion on their animals in 2019. Crudely divided among the roughly 84.9 million US households with at least one pet, that means each home spends about $883 annually on routine expenses like pet food and grooming supplies.
Potential pet owners who can afford a pet’s care may still appreciate a little help. Experts suggest offering to pay for immunizations or spay-neuter surgery — in lieu of giving someone an actual animal — to lighten some of the initial costs associated with getting a pet.
Remember that a pet is a lifetime companion
Whether you buy, adopt, or rescue a pet for someone else, remember that such a gift is a lifelong commitment. An animal will be in the recipient’s life for 10 to 20 years, sometimes more. Every decision a pet owner makes, from where they live to who cares for their pet when they’re ill, impacts their pet’s life too.
“These aren’t stuffed animals,” said HollyAnne Dustin, owner of Feline Friends Cat Care and Consulting in Waterboro, Maine. “It shouldn’t be an impulsive decision.”
Pet owners should have a backup plan in place in case of changes to their health, finances, family dynamics, or housing situation. Some breeders and rescues welcome animals back, no questions asked, so inquire about their policy before you bring a new pet home. Owners can even establish a pet trust and designated guardian so their pet is cared for even after they die.
Gifting a pet to someone else can be done thoughtfully when the gifter understands their responsibility to both their loved one and the pet. Ultimately, no pet should be a complete surprise to the recipient.
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A version of this article appears at Wirecutter.com.