A Pet is for Life - Not Just for Christmas

12/14/2015 07:50 pm ET Updated Dec 14, 2016

For many, a little puppy with a big red bow tops their list of gifts to find under the Christmas tree. But a lot more should go into the decision to add four new legs to the family than just the kids pleading pretty please. While "pets as presents" remains a hot debate every holiday season, this year, the importance of planning for a new pet has particularly hit home -- because 2015 was the year we added Hermes to our pack.

Our wiggly Weimaraner came home with us in August and immediately captured our hearts....and our wallet. Hardly a week has gone by without a visit to the ER. During his first week, Hermes developed bloody diarrhea, which required a number of tests and a course of antibiotics to treat. Three weeks later, Hermes was rushed back to the ER with seizures, where he spent a week undergoing every test known to man, from an MRI to a spinal tap to a myriad of blood tests. Everything came back clear so he was sent home on phenobarbital and all was well. For a few weeks.

Then one balmy Saturday morning he got up only to promptly collapse on the floor, unable to walk. We rushed him back down to the emergency vet, where he spent the next week after being diagnosed with a severe form of Hypertrophic Osteodystrophy (HOD), a joint disease common in large, fast-growing breeds. As (bad) luck would have it, HOD can present in a severe form in Weimaraners, so Hermes began a course of prednisone, which caused a nasty UTI, so he was back on antibiotics for another 10 days.

Most recently, Hermes was visiting the vet after a night of vomiting and is now on a prescription-based hydrolyzed protein diet for food allergies. To date, "our little lemon," as we jokingly call him, has racked up more than $19,000 in pet insurance claims.

My point in all of this is that even though we are experienced dog owners, even though we went through a reputable breeder, even though we know more than the average Joe when it comes to pet care, we couldn't possibly anticipate the health problems that would plague Hermes. And when it comes to bringing home a new pet, neither can you.

And so I say what so many veterinarians, shelter staff and pet experts have said before me: please remember this holiday season that a pet is for life, not just for Christmas. Be sure you are prepared to provide for all of a pet's needs before you bring him home. Here's how to get started:

Profile your pack
Choose a pet compatible with the family's lifestyle; consider the size of your space, how often someone is home and whether a plucky playmate or calm cuddle buddy will be a natural fit. Also think about how much grooming a potential pet needs, what to do with the pet when you travel and how much training the family can provide before picking a winner.

Pet-proof your home
If there's one thing new pets have a knack for, it's sniffing out every square inch of your home. Pet-proof areas like the kitchen, garage, laundry room and garden, where common household toxins can lie within paws' reach. Invest in locking-lid trash cans to keep roving noses out of trouble and use baby gates to barricade rooms that are off-limits.

Do your homework
Learn about the feeding, grooming and exercise your chosen breed requires, and tackle a few training manuals to make sure to get off on the right foot (or paw). Even if you've had pets in the past, it's a good idea to do some research; veterinarian recommendations for standards of care may have changed in the meantime.

Invest in a financial safety net

Perhaps the most important thing to do to ensure a long life together is to provide for a pet's essential health needs. Find a veterinarian and go for a checkup right away, then get a pet insurance policy that will pay for illnesses and injuries (trust me!). There are few things more heartbreaking than having to give up a precious kitty or pup because of unexpected vet expenses.

A new home with loving people is one of the most wonderful gifts to give a pet - just be sure you're ready to give it your all. Pets like Hermes may aptly be described as health "train wrecks," but when you plan for the unpredictable, you can be sure that the whole family will be able to love your "lemon" for a lifetime.