(KIDS & PETS) During the holidays it is tempting to include animals in all of the festivities, but that might not always be what’s best for the animal. More than just including pets in questionable holiday activities, giving pets as gifts is never a good idea. In this preview from her upcoming book Raising Kids Who Love Animals, child psychiatrist Dr. Sujatha Ramakrishna explains why giving pets as gifts can teach children the wrong attitude about caring for animals. — Global Animal
Preview with permission from the book, How NOT to Raise a Serial Killer: Teaching Your Child to Have Empathy for Animals by Sujatha Ramakrishna, M.D.
During the holidays, children who love animals naturally want to include their pets in the family festivities. Some of these activities can be lots of fun for all involved, but some can be stressful for the animals. To find the best way to keep it enjoyable for everyone, let’s take look at it from the animals’ point of view.
First, let’s help the kids choose some gifts. Would the family cat like some new toys to play with, and some treats? Definitely! Most kitties love new toys, and they also enjoy healthful snacks. How about a sweater and snow boots for a poodle who lives in a cold climate? Absolutely. She will be grateful to be dressed up in those warm doggie clothes when January weather hits. Should we hang up a stocking with the hamster’s name on the fireplace, so Santa doesn’t forget to leave some gifts for him too? It’s fun for the kids, and it makes no difference to the hamster, so that’s also a great idea.
On the other hand, would most dogs enjoy wearing a cute little Santa Claus hat, or maybe some reindeer antlers? Probably not. I learned that lesson the hard way, when I bought one of those hats for my own dog during her first Christmas. After a bit of a struggle, I got it fastened to the top of her head and took some pictures. She looked so dejected. A friend and I also took our dogs to visit a pet store Santa that same year. In the photographs, you can see both of them leaning away from Santa’s grip, looking like they want to jump right off the bench.
A good rule of thumb is, if the pet benefits from being included in the event, go for it. If not, encourage the kids to consider the fact that what is fun for them may not be so fun for animals, and help them find another activity. Many holiday traditions that human families find enjoyable hold no interest for our companion animals, and some can even cause them harm.
The worst example is giving pets as presents. Most humane societies strongly advise against this. Even if the recipient has said that he wants a certain type of pet, only he can make the final decision about when he’s ready to accept the responsibility of caring for one. Countless animals given as gifts end up abandoned at the local shelter.
When children are involved, there are additional issues to consider. Many parents grumble when they get a pet as a present for their child, then end up having to do all the work themselves. Their initial mistake was probably twofold. First, most children are not mature enough to be given the sole responsibility of looking after an animal. The younger they are, the more help they will need. Parents should always be prepared to take over if the kids lose interest after a while, which happens more often than not.
The second error that many families make is treating the animal as if she were the property of any one person. Some parents constantly remind a child that a pet “belongs” to him or her, and find themselves entrenched in ongoing battles about who is going to feed or clean up after the animal. This sends kids the message that caring for companion animals is a burden, rather than a privilege. These parents would set a better example by simply taking over these duties, not as a personal favor to the “owner,” but because it’s the only compassionate way to treat the animals that live in our homes.
Choosing the right pet takes time, and a great deal of consideration. The best outcomes occur when everyone in the family meets the animal before the adoption is finalized, to make sure that it’s a good match. When the pet comes in a box or tied up with a bow, that kind of planning becomes impossible. Moreover, holiday visits from friends, parties, decorating, and wrapping presents can be exhausting, leaving little time for a family to help a puppy or kitten adjust to a new household.
When teaching kids to have empathy for companion animals, we must remember that pets are not toys, or novelty gifts, or miniature human beings. They are independent creatures with their own wants and needs, which may be quite different from ours. As we get caught up in the holiday spirit, it’s important for all of us to remember this simple rule.