Q. My husband and I are thinking of getting a little dog for my mother for Christmas. She is retired, lives by herself and could use the company, frankly. What do you think?
A. While I hate to steer you away from the Kodak Moment when you surprise your mother with the gift of a puppy in a box with a bright red bow, I have to advocate for the lifelong relationship between the pet and the owner. That’s where the value of the human-animal bond truly is, long after Christmas morning — and the unexpected arrival of the dog — is over.
Making a Pet a Good Gift
There‘s no blanket answer to your question, but I can offer some guidelines. First and foremost when you are giving a pet as a gift, you need to consider the intended recipient carefully and make sure the animal is truly wanted. A pet is not a sweater, after all, and returns are not in anyone’s best interest.
Since you can’t fully know your mother’s views without discussing them with her, that rules out the idea of the pet being a surprise. Even if you grew up with dogs, and your mom has always had one in her home until recently, she may no longer want one, for reasons that are entirely her own business. Even if you believe she’d be happier and healthier with a dog — perhaps to get her going on a daily walk — it’s not your decision to make, however well-intended.
If your mom really does want a little dog, she probably wants to pick out her own. That’s why I recommend that you give her the gift of paying the adoption fee for the shelter or rescue group. Some shelters provide a “gift certificate” for the fees, and that could work, but she’ll have more choices with a wider net, using Petfinder to search all regional shelters and rescue groups for exactly the dog she wants.
Surprise! We Got You a Dog!
Should a pet never be a surprise? I’m not saying that — remember, no one rule covers every situation. If, for example, the pet is for your own children, I think a surprise gift could be completely appropriate, with a couple of important considerations. Again, make sure your children are interested in having a pet, and are a good match with the kind of pet you have in mind.
Before surprising your children, though, lay a good foundation by discussing how pets need proper care and handling. (You can do this without tipping your hand, perhaps by opening a discussion after reading a pet-related book or watching a video.) While the final responsibility for a pet’s care falls to the parents, children still need to be taught how to behave around pets for the good of both the child and the pet. Finally, don't neglect to consider the pet’s potential reaction to the surprise. While some animals are outgoing and friendly enough to deal with the shrieks of delight, it may be too much for many other pets.
The bottom line here is that the long-term welfare of the pet needs to be a priority. If that cannot be managed properly, the gift of a pet — whether surprise or not — isn’t a good idea.
But if your mom wants a dog and you'll be helping her find one, I think it's a wonderful gesture on your part. And since, as a veterinarian, I am interested in the long-term health of that pet, I’d like to recommend that you include as part of any gift a pet health insurance policy. If your mom is on a fixed income, having insurance to help with the veterinary bills could come in very handy in a pinch.