Your child has been asking for a dog or cat all year. And now you're thinking of bringing home a cute little ball of fur as a surprise present for Christmas or Chanukah. The best advice? Think again.

This is the time of year when everyone loves looking at photo-cards of cute children with cute kittens and puppies. But parents need to think far more about "safe" than "cute," particularly when it comes to young children.

Toddlers often find it hard to gently stroke or properly pick up an animal. They may try to hug a puppy, but instead may grab, tug, or otherwise hurt the animal. Baby animals need gentle care; that's why experts caution that they should not be in homes with very young children.

Then, there's the issue of the work involved in pet ownership. That cute ball of fluff will need to be fed and cared for, get proper medical attention, companionship, exercise, and lots of love—for the rest of its life, which could be 15 years or more.

"Often, parents make the mistake of thinking a young child will learn responsibility if he or she has a pet," says Donn Umber, Shelter Supervisor at the Santa Monica Animal Control, in California. Surprising as it may seem, most returns to shelters and pet stores occur because families don't realize how much care an animal actually needs, he says.

Consider necessary care

The fact is, even older children can quickly tire of pet-related responsibilities. They may not want to walk the dog if they have plans with their friends, or if it's raining. And as every parent/pet owner knows, parents often end up shouldering many pet-care responsibilities, including all that involve transportation.

The obvious caveats apply. Puppies need a lot of care. Dogs need more attention than do cats. Even relatively low-maintenance pets such as fish or reptiles still need proper food, clean environments, and medical care.

Your family is ready—now what?

Once you've addressed the realities of pet ownership and have concluded that having a pet is a good idea, experts still advise waiting until after the holidays. "The holidays are a bad time to bring any new animal into your home," says Madeline Bernstein, president of the Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals, Los Angeles.

Intentions may be good, but the results can be chaotic: Kids have other toys to play with that will take their attention away from the animal. A dog will have accidents when its environment is changed. A cat can shred draperies or upholstery.

Moreover, any pet can be harmed by (or be a hazard around) poisonous poinsettias and mistletoe, dangerous toys, candles, and tree lights. Nobody wants to rush to the vet on Christmas morning after the puppy or kitten has eaten some tinsel!

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