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Experts: Don’t surprise people with pet for Christmas

Canby and Cally, two dogs available for adoption through Prairie Paws Rescue, hang out on a couch at the home of Kaye John, Prairie Paws co-founder, who is fostering them. Because the two dogs don’t have teeth, their tongues hang out much of the time and they require some extra care — though they can eat ordinary dog food. (Kari Lucin / The Sun)1 / 2
Rocky, a 1-year-old male hairy Chinese crested mix, sits outside wearing a sweater as the snow falls. Local animal experts say the holidays may not be the best time for a new pet. (Photo courtesy Prairie Paws Rescue)2 / 2

Buying a pet for Christmas may sound fun, but surprising someone with a pet can result in a disappointed human and a forlorn animal ending up at a shelter.

“The person on the receiving end needs to be aware of what they are receiving. It’s a lifetime commitment,” said Kaye John, co-founder of Prairie Paws Rescue.

Each year, Prairie Paws gets about 10 to 15 pets “returned” after the holidays for various reasons and from various locations, including pet stores, pet adoption services and people who can’t take care of their animals anymore.

Due to the adoption screening process, though, only about five pets of the 200 placed annually by Prairie Paws are returned to the organization, John said.

The James River Humane Society also has a screening process for adoptions.

“The person receiving the gift has to have knowledge of it,” said Kris Meidinger, dog manager at the Humane Society. “… unless it’s a situation … where it’s parents giving their child the puppy or dog.”

Surprise adoptions are otherwise not allowed.

Some shelters don’t even allow adoptions as gifts at all, particularly during the holidays, Meidinger said. The James River Humane Society opts instead to be more careful about adopting during the holidays.

Of the Humane Society’s 99 dog adoptions last year, only five were returned.

“People, their intentions are so good,” John said. “... (Prairie Paws pets) all have a hard-luck story, and it’s our mission to make the rest of their lifetime a good one.”

The Prairie Paws adoption application process includes questions potential adopters may not have thought of before they decided to get a pet.

For example, how long would the animal be alone each day? Where will the pet stay when the owner is on a trip? Where will the pet sleep at night? Does the owner have time for a pet?

Typically, Prairie Paws processes the potential adopter’s application, checks the references given and then lets the person think about it for a while.

The organization also does home visits, which aren’t intended to catch someone who hasn’t dusted in a while, but are simply intended to pick up on any pet-related home hazards, such as frayed electrical cords.

It’s very important that people not purchase a pet on impulse, John said, and if adopting a pet, it’s also important to get the right pet.

Puppies require a lot of training, and they tend to chew on things, John said, so people who don’t want those issues may be better off looking to an older dog or a cat. A more mature dog may be a better option for a more mature person, too.

“People think a puppy’s cute, and then three months later, the puppy needs training and is chewing everything in sight, and it’s so much easier to give them back,” Meidinger said. “… a puppy is cute, but it needs to be housetrained, and it needs to be taught.”

Dogs that don’t shed usually require a visit to a groomer every six to eight weeks, an additional expense, John said.

 “As a rule of thumb with the application process, we don’t pull any punches,” John said. “We tell people exactly what to expect with the pet.”

And any pet can have a medical problem that will require extra resources, including both money and time.

“They’re all maintenance. It depends on each individual situation,” Meidinger said. “It depends on the family. Different families have different needs and different living situations and stuff.”

An animal’s size, age and energy level all need to be taken into consideration, she added, along with the family’s available space and time.

Dogs aren’t the only ones brought back to the shelter, either. Cats are sometimes returned too.

“We do suggest that if people are looking for a dog or cat as a gift that they talk it over seriously, meet the animal several times, make sure that the person receiving the gift knows about it and is wanting the pet,” Meidinger said. “Those things make it a much nicer gift all around for the dog and for the family.”

Sun reporter Kari Lucin can be reached at 701-952-8453                     or by email at