It might sound like a good last-minute holiday gift idea -- surprising a loved one with a cuddly puppy or cute kitten -- but animal-care experts say it's a bad idea, for people and for pets.
"The holiday season is absolutely the worst time of the year to bring a young animal into your home," said Nicky Ratliff, executive director of the Carroll County Humane Society.
Ms. Ratliff said that most "reputable animal care and animal welfare organizations suspend their adopt-a-pet programs for the holidays."
Young animals, especially puppies and kittens, "need calm, structure, consistency, attention and a puppy- or kitten-proof environment," Ms. Ratliff said.
The Westminster-based Humane Society halts adoptions of animals younger than a year between Dec. 16 and Jan. 2.
The Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals' Maryland Adoption Center of Baltimore County similarly suspends adoption of pets younger than 16 weeks until Jan. 2, said Debbie Thomas, executive director.
Dr. Kevin C. Doherty of the Bond Street Veterinary Hospital in Westminster said he generally opposes giving pets as gifts because taking on that responsibility should be a family decision.
Ms. Ratliff and Ms. Thomas also noted the amount of harried activity within a typical family during the holidays as an excellent reason to avoid bringing a young pet home as a gift.
"These young animals can be seriously harmed by many holiday items in a home," Ms. Thomas said. Tinsel is particularly enticing to cats, and chocolate wrapped as a gift under a Christmas tree may be fatal to dogs, she said.
Dr. Doherty said animal owners should not panic if their young pets happen to nibble on chocolate or the berries of a plant.
"Just as with humans, most would have to ingest a large amount to become very ill," he said. "But again, just as with humans, every animal is different. Some could have a severe intolerance to such holiday plants."
From the SPCA's perspective, the most common problem, especially for dogs, is that everyone wants the cute puppies but many are brought back to the animal shelters two or three months later.
"By then, the puppy's cuteness is gone. It's too big and too unruly. It has been ignored, untrained and is not sociable," Ms. Thomas said. "That's the pity. Too often, we have to decide if such animals are adoptable."