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It's the most adorable gift ever, and one of the most expensive to maintain

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By Jeffrey Klineman

Dogs long ago earned their reputation as man’s best friend. They’re loyal, lovable, and furry. In this holiday gift-giving season, you may be toying with the idea of tying a red bow on a little pup and handing over the cuddly bundle to your grandchild.

Yes, sounds like a swell idea. Before you swoop up a fluffy pet and sign any papers, though, you'd do well to ask yourself: Just how much do you enjoy seeing those grandchildren of yours?

If the answer falls anywhere within the quite-a-bit to lots-and-lots range, you'd better walk out of the kennel right now and think about getting them a different gift. If there's one surefire way to lose your guest room privileges, it's by foisting a cute little critter on a family that wasn't expecting one.

In giving a pet, you're adding another member to your adult child's family — even if it is a furry one. And people tend to get choosy about whom they accept into the family. My wife was quick to narrow our decision down to this choice: (a) a cockapoo so well-prepared for family life — the breeder slept on the floor with the litter for his first six weeks of life — that he lets the babies drip ketchup on him without complaint, or (b) a pile of clippings from a nearby groomer.

"Taking care of a pet properly is a major responsibility," says Bruce Henderson, a psychology professor at Western Carolina University. "Would it make sense for a grandparent to give a grandchild a brother or sister?"

Okay, pets aren't kids. But they do affect family dynamics. They need to be walked, fed, taken care of medically, and have the unfortunate ability to either die or poop in the house at the exact wrong time. Henderson warns that grandparents who take the leash into their own hands, or even talk about getting the grandchildren a pet without the parents around, could create major disruptions.

Transfer of Ownership

Now, if you still have a hankering to pull a guerrilla Rover maneuver, and think you're charming enough to stick around after the attempt, ask yourself: How much do you want a new pet of your own?

A grandparent pet buyer's outcome may likely be this: That sucker is gonna be yours, and yours alone. Hope you've got a space picked out. Unless, that is, you want to contribute to the thousands of animals that are abandoned annually. In Massachusetts alone, more than 26,000 pets were left with the MSPCA in 2006.

Talking Points

Still, kids will talk. And sometimes they'll talk to grandparents. And sometimes that talk will involve their desire for a pet. If you're still keen on the idea, and you think your grandchild should have a pet (that you'd like to provide) have a discussion with the parent(s) ... without the children around. Here are some talking points to raise with your adult children on the topic. They'll be thankful that you've thought this through and considered the ins and outs of pet parenthood:

1. Is the child developmentally ready to be responsible for a pet? When a parent has to nag the child to take care of the pet, the parent-child relationship is likely to suffer. If parents already complain about having to nudge the kids to finish their homework and wash the dishes, chances are feeding and walking the dog would become part of the same unpleasant routine.

2. What demands will the pet add to regular family functions? Is a needy pet -- i.e., a potty-training puppy -- going to put a strain on an already busy family? Does anyone in the family have allergies?

3. Who will take care of the pet (a) during the day, and (b) when the family goes away somewhere the pet can't go? This is a fundamental question here. If the parents have no answer, and you have no answer, spare the pup.

4. Who will pay for everything? From food to average medical costs, a typical medium-size dog costs about $1,190 to take care of in the first year, and about $620 annually after the first year, according to the ASPCA. Cats cost about the same. Are you giving them a gift ... or a new expense?

5. Why do you want your grandchild to have a pet? Is it because you had pets growing up and think it was a good experience? Or do you worry the child doesn't get enough love from busy parents and needs a friend? Or could you be thinking that your grandchild is not being taught how to be responsible and that the pet experience can fill in for bad parenting?

Phew. Sounds like quite a bit to worry about, doesn't it? Maybe a visit to a petting zoo isn't such a bad idea after all. Of course, make sure you bring the Purell with you. Parents hate germs almost as much as they hate unwanted pets.

Image: Marvin Kuo / via Flickr

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