Vet Talk

I Want a Hippopotamus for Christmas...but not a Puppy

If a pet is truly wanted there are some great options to put under the Christmas tree

Published: December 03, 2018
Chewy pretends to be a boxed Christmas gift. Photo by Dr. Loretta Choi.

The snow is falling, lights are twinkling, and the sounds of carols play faintly from the radio. As December emerges, a festive mood of anticipation builds. Amidst the holiday parties, tree decorating, and baking, gift giving is also high on the priority list. Therein lies the million-dollar question: what is the perfect gift?

Let me paint the picture for you.

The quiet street leads you past the brick-faced pet store. The window is decorated with boughs of holly and you peer inside. The tiniest puppy meets your gaze with wide eyes. A red velvet bow is tied around his neck, making him the most perfect Christmas gift ever! Cue the Christmas music

Or perhaps another scenario:

A peaceful Christmas morning is punctuated by excited footsteps towards the tree. Everyone gathers around to open the gifts. A colorful box from Santa seems to be emitting cute little sounds. The children throw open the lid and reveal a fluffy kitten with a jingling red collar.

These classic images are often woven into our perception of giving a pet for Christmas. When looking through this rosy lens, it seems like a wonderful experience. Unfortunately, I’m here to be the mean ol’ Grinch with a message of humbug. Straight from the veterinarian’s mouth, I’m telling you to pause and consider the implications of this idea.

Do not give pets as Christmas gifts.

Why not? I know that you’ve come to this question with the best of intentions, but a pet is not the million-dollar answer. To begin, let us remember that a pet is a long-term family commitment that can span upwards of 15+ years. A careful decision with everyone involved is needed. Here are some important things Dr. Grinch would like you to contemplate before jumping ahead.

Points to consider:

  • Is it even possible for the receiver to have this pet? There could be health challenges, allergies, unsuitable home environment or constant travel scheduled within the family. With any one of these factors, the likelihood of keeping a pet would be low.

  • Pet ownership comes with an expectation of regular expenses. Throw in an unforeseen illness and bills can quickly put a strain on any budget. Additionally, people may have their finances already stretched during the holiday time. Adding more to that may be impractical. Giving a gift without knowing the full financial situation is risky and irresponsible.

  • Age of recipient. Young children may not be ready to have a fragile new pet. Sprains and broken bones can accidently be afflicted upon puppies, kittens, chicks and kits (baby rabbit). In contrast, elderly recipients may not have the physical ability to walk or handle a rambunctious puppy as it grows.

  • Who will be the primary caregiver? In over a decade of vet practice, I cannot count how many times a pet owner has lamented that they bought the pet for their children. “They promised to take care of everything!” Almost without fail, the responsibility eventually falls back onto the parent. It’s not fair but it’s the truth. Remind yourself of the lifespan of that adorable puppy you’re considering. Chances are, it is going to be you picking up doggy doo on a frigid January evening, and every evening afterwards, for the next 15 years. 

  • Do you really want to housetrain a puppy in snow, rain, ice, freezing rain, sleet, bitter wind chill, or below zero temperatures? There is likely to be deep regret, and most veterinarians have heard an earful from clients about it.

  • Source of the pet. Is this pet from a puppy mill, flea market or mass breeding facility? In some of these places, there are health concerns including inbreeding, lack of sanitation, improper parasite control, and infectious disease. Socialization and training from these sources are probably nonexistent, and lack of socialization adversely impacts the puppy's temperament. Furthermore, every pet bought from these places represents the loss of a forever home to a rescue animal patiently waiting in a shelter. 

  • After that magical moment when the pet is received, the real work begins. Now that the excitement has subsided, the real work begins. Much time is required for training and bonding with a new pet. The holiday season is already packed with events and is not the best time to integrate a pet into the family. 

  • Nobody likes to think that their gift is unwanted, but the cold reality is that a large proportion of these pets end up in the local shelter. Some pets are sadly returned or discarded like a rejected toy. Many shelters are already operating near capacity and cannot accommodate the massive post-holiday influx. This could, in turn, cause some shelter inhabitants (the elderly, the sick or less popular breeds) to face euthanasia from overcrowding.

Now that Dr. Grinch has had my soapbox moment, I’d like to step off and discuss alternatives. If a physical pet isn’t a good option, what can be given instead?

For young children, there are amazing robotic furry animals that can mimic a pet. In my daughter’s toy box alone, there is a pooping puppy that walks on a leash, a unicorn that moves and blinks, a cat that randomly meows, and a colorful bird that mimics her voice. Although it is not the same as a real pet, these interactive toys provide ample hours of fun and engagement for kids. It also allows them to practice caregiving and teaches them some basic skills on gentle handling.

“That’s right, sweetheart, if you drop that expensive robotic unicorn and it shatters, the repercussion will be dire! Crystal Petal’s head will not be surgically re-attachable and Santa will not be offering replacements.” 

I happen to believe that this lesson is best taught on a non-living example.

If a real live pet is truly wanted and the family is open to it, there are some other great options for putting under the Christmas tree. A gift certificate to the shelter or reputable breeder can be purchased. Similarly, a symbol representing the pet, such as a leash or food dish, or a photo of the selected animal, can be wrapped up. This symbol may in fact bring more joy and anticipation on Christmas day. The family can then later choose and welcome the pet when everything is ready.

The holidays are a beautiful time that encompasses giving, sharing, celebrating and spending time with loved ones. With a bit of planning and careful giving, you can bring some wonderful sparkle and magic to the Christmas season and still give a pet when you know it’s wanted.


Heather Cherry
December 29, 2018

It is brilliant that you pointed out that a dog acquired in December will have to be trained in December...January...February...March - in the freezing cold outside when it may be a real misery to do.

Maria Deng
December 17, 2018

Thank you Dr. Choi for highlighting the issues surrounding giving pets for a gift. I would have never thought of those specific issues, especially the one about finances, which doesn't always cross one's mind when giving a particular gift. Another issue which I had never thought was caring for the pet, which depends wholeheartedly on the age of the recipient. One always thinks that children will take care of their pets, however, it most often always falls on the parents, which can be tiresome considering their own busy schedules. I love how you outline each of these issues in detail, giving us a clear picture as to how caring for a pet can truly be! I'm looking forward to your next article Dr. Choi, they are always insightful and well-researched.

December 8, 2018

Well said.

December 3, 2018

Beautiful article loved reading it. So many valuable points & I couldn’t agree more Dr Grinch ;)

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