Your child has been begging for a kitten for Christmas. It’s on her Christmas list – at the top – and you heard her tell Santa that she wanted one at the outdoor holiday event you attended. There are pictures and drawings of cats on her bedroom wall and fridge.

Without a doubt, kittens become integral parts of a family. They help teach a child about responsibility and provide an incredible amount of warmth and companionship.

So what’s the best way to bring a pet into the family or give one as a gift?

The time to prepare is before the kitty joins the family, especially during the holidays. Because cats are typically more reserved when joining a household and the busy holidays are not the norm, you’ll need to do some homework.

That is a good thing, since too often pets who are purchased impulsively may react inappropriately to the stress of the new environment.

Visit the shelter before actually adopting to learn about the different personalities of the cats there and discuss which ones might be a good match for your family. You’ll probably have to fill out an application and get pre-approved. Try to learn something about the cat’s background. A timid cat used to a quiet lifestyle will have to be introduced gradually to a busy household. Better yet, look for a kitty who is more outgoing. A bonded pair might be a good idea for two kids or if they’ll be alone all day. (Keep in mind there may be fewer kittens once winter sets in.)

Pat Cotton, shelter manager at Branford Compassion Club in North Branford, Connecticut, discourages the adoption of shy kitties by families with small children. “Kids want to carry the cat around,” she says.

She says that people often come in at the holidays desperate to adopt a cat, and because there are few kittens available, impulsively adopt a shy or fearful adolescent, who is subsequently returned because he doesn’t fit into the household. “Their intentions are good,” Cotton says. “It may be better to give a gift certificate.” She adds that a kitten may get lost in the excitement of the festivities.

Cotton encourages people to be mindful when it comes to picking up a kitty at Christmas. “Shelter workers are not going to be available at 6 p.m. Christmas Eve or 11 a.m. Christmas morning.”

First some cat-etiquette.

Share books on cat care with your cat-loving child and discuss the proper way to pet and pick up the kitty. It’s never too soon to learn about the kitty’s body language: what it means when the ears are back, when the eyes are dilated, the tail starts swishing. Bites and scratches are too often caused by the impulsive behavior of a child who hasn’t learned the right way to approach an animal. Assure your child that it’s all right if the kitty just sits near her, rather than being carried around, especially in the beginning.

Speaking of health, do some test visits with friends who have cats to make sure your child is not allergic to cats – allergies are a common reason for relinquishment.

Now go shopping for your kitty. This is the fun part! Buy a comfy bed, carrier, scratching posts (more than one!), collar, litter box and litter, leash and harness if you plan on taking her outside, safe toys – everything you need to make your new family member feel welcome. Be sure to prepare a quiet area – a bedroom or spare bathroom – where she can gradually get used to her new home. You might want to use a Feliway plug-in or flower essences to help reduce stress, and keep a radio on playing soothing music.

Once you’ve decided on the lucky kitty, it’s homecoming. We’d recommend picking her up a couple of days before or after Christmas to avoid stressing her out. If you have a busy, noisy household, especially if you’re having a holiday party, be sure she stays in the quiet room. If you’re introducing her to guests, keep it brief and watch for signs of stress. Let her choose whether she wants to interact and reward her with a treat so she sees the positive association with people.

Be sure she doesn’t eat tinsel or decorations, chew on electrical cords, or climb the tree. A trip to the emergency vet will put a damper on holiday festivities!

Maybe all of this planning will take away the “gift” or “surprise” aspect of adopting a cat. But shelters and the streets are full of unwanted souls. Pets are living, breathing creatures who require a long-term commitment to their care. With proper preparation, adding a new kitty to your family will make it the best holiday ever.

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Sally Bahner
Sally Bahner is a freelance writer based in Connecticut, writing about everything from construction to cats, although her passion is cats.