Two gray-and-white kittens take a snooze curled up against each other oblivious to the other cats, dogs, rabbits, birds, and gerbils waiting to be adopted at the Animal Rescue League of Boston. In the cage below, a saucy terrier sniffs a curious toddler's hand. In the cage next door, a trio of orange tabbies meow plaintively when the little boy's sister peeks through the bars.
Children are often fascinated with animals, and taking care of a pet can help teach them responsibility and make them feel needed. In turn, pets can be affectionate and faithful companions as a child grows up.
Animals can also make special gifts, and parents may be tempted to give their children a pet on Christmas Day. But some animal experts recommend waiting until after the holidays to introduce a pet into the home.
''There's a lot going on during the holidays and if you bring a pup into that environment - between the guests, meals, and other presents - that puppy may be forgotten,'' says James Sokolowski, a veterinarian and manager of the Gaines Nutrition Center. ''A better choice is to get all the things the puppy needs and maybe take a snapshot of the type of dog the family is going to get. Then give the child a gift certificate and pick (the animal) up later.'' It may be a glamorous idea to have a puppy under the Christmas tree, but parents may be able to build even more excitement by having the child think about the dog ahead of time, according to Dr. Sokolowski.
In choosing a pet, ''We strongly recommend that if people are getting a pet for the first time, they carefully research it,'' he says. ''They may go out and buy a fluffy puppy without realizing how large that pet may grow.''
He also recommends that parents visit the animal shelter or pet shop the first time themselves to narrow the selection and bring the child in later. Animal shelters usually have a wide variety of animals up for adoption, and it is less confusing if the final choice is made from four dogs rather than 40.
''If a dog comes up to the front of the cage and wags its tail, it's a people-oriented dog,'' says Dr. Sokolowski. Animals that stay toward the back of the cage may also make a good pet but might require more care and attention.
New pet owners should also be prepared for the animal's homecoming.
''People sometimes forget all the things they need when they get the dog home , such as puppy food, a bed, and a leash,'' Dr. Sokolowski says. A young puppy may need a portable dog run or a used playpen to constrain it at night. He also suggests putting a hot water bottle under the dog's blanket and a clock or radio next to its bed to comfort the puppy and make it feel more at home. Kittens will need food, a special place to sleep, a litter box, and a scratching post.
Parents with preschool children should expect to take primary responsibility for the pet but can involve their children in feeding, exercising, and training the dog, cat, or other animal.
''Parents should sit down with the child and go over the fact that the dog is a living being that cannot do some things for itself,'' Dr. Sokolowski says. Parents can begin to teach a child responsibility for the pet by getting the child into a routine of playing with it at least twice a day for exercise and making sure its water bowl is full. ''A young child can handle that quite easily ,'' he says.
An older child may be given primary responsibility for the pet, he continues, but ''eventually somewhere down the road Mom and Dad are going to have to take care of it when the child leaves home.''
Single people and older people can also benefit from pets, but it's best if the person has a chance to choose the pet himself or herself, according to Steve Wachman, education and information coordinator for the Animal Rescue League. Before deciding what type of pet they want, people should take into account the space they have available, whether they can afford to feed the animal, and whether they have the time to exercise it.
Although people in the market for a dog generally prefer puppies, an older dog can be a good choice for families with small children, says Mr. Wachman, since it may already be well trained, housebroken, and friendly.