We've all seen a movie or a TV show with a sweet fluffy kitten or puppy bedecked with ribbons, romping among the holiday gifts. Each holiday season, hundreds of well-meaning people throughout the world decide that a domestic animal would be a perfect holiday gift.

These pets can have a life span of 15 years or more. My plea to you is to give these decisions some serious thought before you head off to a local pet store to pick out that perfect present.

After the novelty wears off, these pets are often discarded like Christmas trees and wind up in our shelters -- facilities already straining to care for older pets given up by those who can no longer afford to feed them. I hope you may reconsider giving an animal as a gift.

While your intentions are good, animals are neither a way to teach a child responsibility nor the solution to brightening up the life of an elderly person. That cute kitten or puppy requires more than love; it needs to be trained, cared for constantly and watched for any signs of aggression toward other animals in the home of small children. Even a goldfish requires a commitment of time.

Too often, the recipient is ill equipped to care for a new pet. That fuzzy baby requires more than love; it needs to be trained, cared for constantly, and watched to be sure both the new animal and previous pets in the home adjust. Even a goldfish requires a commitment of time.

Before bringing a new pet into your home, sit down with your family and discuss who will be responsible for basics such as buying its food, feeding it, cleaning a litter box or walking the new pet. Does the family budget cover unexpected vet bills in addition to yearly check-ups? If you go on vacation or travel on business, is there someone who can check in on the pet during the day? Does your apartment complex allow pets?

Very often these animals are eventually discarded like Christmas trees and wind up in our shelters -- facilities already straining to care for older pets given up by those who can no longer afford to feed them.

Prepare your children for the responsibility of a new pet. Visit a local shelter several times a week and offer to take a dog for a walk. If your child loses interest within days, he or she may not be ready. And if you are thinking of buying your child a pony or horse, that can be a major financial undertaking. If he or she wants to learn to ride, first lease a horse at a local stable to make sure that this isn't a passing fad. You can't pack a horse away along with the Beanie Babies if your child loses interest.

If after these preparations you still want to give a pet as a holiday gift, stay away from pet stores and head out to a local shelter. Make it a family event. Consider adopting an older dog or cat that will already be housebroken. The workers at the shelter can also tell you about the animal's previous history and give you an insight into your future pet's personality. Be prepared to bring an animal home that may still be traumatized from spending days, sometimes weeks in a cage. The first few days may not be like something out of a Norman Rockwell holiday print.

A dog or cat from a shelter may try your patience at first, but in the long run it will be worth it. A shelter animal will have had a veterinary check-up and will be free of the many diseases that often plague animals from pet stores, particularly dogs obtained from puppy mills. These are often diseases that you that will not see symptoms of until it's too late to save your pet, or spare your family the heartache and expense of having a sick pet.

So, while I generally favor gifts like books, CDs, hats or scarves, I do realize that many people have their heart set on dogs or cats. Just be prepared to expend some energy and time. Your reward will be the unexplainable joy that a pet will bring to your life!

Merry Christmas!

New Canaan resident Cathy Kangas is a member of the Humane Society of the United States' National Council. As the owner of PRAI, an international cosmetic corporation, she started Beauty with a Cause, and commits a percentage of her company's profits to help animal welfare organizations around the world.