If you want the kids to find a cuddly puppy or kitten under the Christmas tree, make it a stuffed toy -- or wrap up a book on pet care with a leash and promise to get one after the holidays.
That's far better than buying a pet impulsively just before Christmas, says Carolyn "Nicky" Ratliff, director of the Humane Society of Carroll County Inc.
"The holiday season, especially the time right around Christmas Day, is perhaps the very worst time of the entire year to adopt a pet or to bring a pet into your home," she said. "There are a lot of dangerous obstacles for the puppy or kitten."
Tinsel and turkey bones, eggnog and electric lights, excited children and even the sap in the tree stand are all potentially fatal hazards for a baby animal.
As a result, she said, the Westminster shelter for years has banned holiday adoptions, an increasingly widespread practice at both public and privately run animal shelters throughout the country.
A check of shelters around the Baltimore metropolitan area found moratoriums at most, although some allow people to choose a pet and pick it up later, or they allow adoptions of animals that are about 4 months old.
But not puppies and kittens.
"Children are getting lots of toys for Christmas," Ms. Ratliff said, "and a new puppy in that setting is just another toy. When you bring a new young animal into the house, children need to be taught -- and it needs to reinforced in a calm setting -- that this is absolutely not a toy.
"The animal doesn't need to be handled excessively," she said. "It does need a lot of routine in its life, and stress needs to be minimized. And there's probably not a more unregulated or exuberant time of the year for the family than Christmas."
And, Ms. Ratliff said, "a lot of animals were being returned after Christmas."
In Harford County, the local Humane Society started its no-adoption policy more than 17 years ago, in response to the numbers of young dogs and cats returned in January and February, according to Patricia Billings, the director.
The holiday moratorium saves the new pet some time in the doghouse, Ms. Ratliff said, because "packages and toys and things that both kittens and puppies love to get into lead to constant reprimands."
It also saves some broken hearts caused when an animal bolts into traffic as a door is held open for guests, or when an animal is injured by holiday ornaments, she noted.
"Puppies especially will chew on just about everything -- even pieces of the glass balls," Ms. Ratliff said. "If it ingests any of the tinsel, it wouldn't be the first family where the puppy dies of having its intestines all fouled up -- or the first family that spent a lot on vet bills."