The first holiday season with a new dog doesn’t have to be ruff

by Michelle Kretzer

Last Christmas was our first with our rescued pup, Capone. He looked dashing in a candy cane-striped collar as we took videos of him tearing into wrapping paper, sticking his head into gift bags, fervently attacking his new plush sheep toy and testing the limits on the number of cookies he could persuade us to give him in one sitting.

The celebration was even more special because it was his first Christmas indoors — a far cry from the filthy porch he’d been tied up on for two years before he was rescued by PETA fieldworkers. But there was another reason our holiday was so relaxed, worry-free and joyful: Capone had already been with us for almost a year. He had settled in and felt comfortable with us. He was house-trained, and he was familiar enough with life at our house to take the added excitement of the holidays in stride.

Pet stores pull out all the stops to sell animals as “presents” during the holidays, and they bank on families falling for the picture-perfect appeal of a puppy or kitten under the tree. Unfortunately, even well-intentioned people get suckered in. They often find themselves underprepared and overwhelmed when holiday pandemonium and the new-animal adjustment period collide.

When Capone first joined our family, he couldn’t resist gleefully destroying slippers, shoes, washcloths and T-shirts. He loved marking the furniture legs in our guest room. And we were exhausted from the midnight walks he required so he could relieve himself. I can’t imagine also having to prepare a giant holiday meal and host guests in the midst of handling all these new-dog challenges.

Travel, visitors, parties, shopping, cooking and the other hectic hallmarks of the season make it tough to provide the time, attention, patience and money that an animal — especially a puppy or kitten — requires. Without a calm atmosphere and a consistent routine to help them figure out the “do’s” and “don’ts,” animals are bound to make mistakes and may even be unfairly punished for it. Many are surrendered to a shelter, imprisoned for hours on end in a crate or banished from the house altogether and sentenced to a lonely life at the end of a chain — like Capone had been.

When I worked in an animal shelter, I also saw countless animals given up because caring for them cost more than had been anticipated. Giving a dog or cat as a gift is akin to handing your loved one a bill for tens of thousands of dollars, due in mandatory monthly installments for the next 10 to 20 years. As reported by CNBC, the lifetime cost of caring for a cat ranges from $21,917 to $30,942. A dog will run you between $27,074 and $42,545. When Capone was trying to get the hang of playing on our slick floors, he crashed into the baseboard and broke off a nail. Thankfully, we didn’t have a crowd of holiday guests to apologize to as we grabbed Capone and ran out of our blood-spattered living room. But our mad dash to the emergency vet came with a hefty bill.

If you are certain that your loved one is ready to give a dog or cat a lifetime of care, saving a life is the best present. Buy a soft bed and fill it with toys, treats and a stuffed animal — complete with a big red bow. Include a gift certificate to the local shelter to cover the cost of adoption so that your recipient can find the perfect new family member after the holiday whirlwind dies down.

Today, we’re excitedly gearing up for another fun Christmas full of shareable Capone videos. And his grandma has already bought him a festive new holiday collar.

Michelle Kretzer is a senior writer for the PETA Foundation, 501 Front St., Norfolk, VA 23510; www.PETA.org.