Shelter kittens in crate

It takes a special kind of person to work with homeless or sick animals. And while there’s never a wrong time of year to show your appreciation for all they do, the holiday season is an excellent opportunity to give your favorite animal rescue or vet clinic a little something special.

But what exactly should you give? And what gifts should you avoid? If you want to make this holiday season sparkle for a shelter or vet clinic near and dear to your heart, we have tips to help you do just that.

For Your Favorite Animal Rescue

Monetary donations: "A lot of shelters really look forward to the holiday time because not only do we find loving homes for so many homeless animals, but it’s also a time when people give," says Sylvia Ottaka, senior director of operations for North Shore Animal League America (NSALA). And when it comes to giving, the most helpful gift might also be the most obvious. "Honestly, the number-one thing is monetary donations," Ottaka says, "because shelters can’t do what they do without those types of donations." 

Shopping and wish lists: Many shelters and rescues also have ways for you to put your money to work in specific ways. For example, NSALA has a whole page dedicated to outlets through which you can shop and have a portion of proceeds benefit their organization. You might want to contact your local shelter and ask if they have something similar or if perhaps they have a shopping wish list of items they need at or another retailer. (And hey, if they don’t, maybe you could offer to help create one for them!)

Sponsored pets: Another way to put your money directly to work is by sponsoring a pet. Some organizations make it easy to sponsor individual animals. NSALA has a list of animals with lifelong medical conditions who can be sponsored, as well as a "Help Me Heal" program that allows your donation to help rescue an animal requiring urgent medical care. If the shelter or rescue you’d like to help doesn’t have this information available online, ask them if they have a sponsorship program or if there’s a specific animal whose life you could improve with your donation. You could also consider keeping the gift going as a monthly donation.

Blankets, bedding and toys: Prefer the idea of delivering a gift to the shelter yourself? There are plenty of items that most shelters could always use. "There’s always a need for towels, for blankets, for different-sized bedding — you’d be surprised how much bedding we go through, from rambunctious puppies chewing on it to senior dogs having accidents — and of course, toys," Ottaka says. Quality toys can help enrich shelter animals’ lives, she adds. It’s preferable to donate new items, but clean, gently used bedding and toys are OK.

Gifts to avoid: "Many times people want to do something special and they’ll bake homemade goods for the animals," says Ottaka. While this is incredibly thoughtful, it’s not a great option as giving the animals a rich, unusual treat can cause stomach upset and some animals might be on special diets. Some shelters may also have policies against taking baked goods for pets because they don’t know what’s in them.

For Your Favorite Veterinary Clinic

Individual or group gift: When you think of your vet’s office, you might just picture your veterinarian’s smiling face, but remember that there are also vet techs and office staff who work hard every day to give your pet high-quality care. Gifts that can be shared among the group are greatly appreciated, says Dr. Katie Hogan, a cardiology resident at MSPCA-Angell Medical Center in Boston. 

Support a stray: Many Good Samaritans will drop off stray animals who need care at clinics, but there’s often no one to pay for that care. Consider asking if you can help with one of those cases, or if there’s a fund you can contribute to that supports injured, stray pets who come in.

Food for thought: Consumables can be a wonderful gift, but there are a few things to keep in mind. "We tend to get a lot of sweets and baked goods, especially during the holidays," says Dr. Hogan, "and while that is very thoughtful and often delicious, we end up with a lot of baked goods and it can do a number on the waistline! So we always appreciate any sort of healthier snacks." Many of the vets we talked to echoed this sentiment, citing Edible Arrangements (which are fresh fruit bouquets) as a favorite treat. It’s worth noting that a gift comprised of fruits or veggies is less likely to be in conflict with anyone’s dietary restrictions, so those who are vegetarian, gluten-free, diabetic and more can all enjoy the kind gesture.

In terms of food gifts, you’ll also want to consider ease of eating, according to Dr. Sarah Boston, a surgical oncologist at the University of Florida. In her book, Lucky Dog, she writes, "On more than one occasion, I have been presented with a Crock-Pot full of stew. It is a challenging gift to eat on-the-fly in a busy animal hospital. We just don’t have the facilities to accommodate a sit-down stew meal in the middle of our day… You are so generous, and I appreciate the effort and the thought, but I just can’t eat the stew."

Gift cards: You know what many veterinarians and their staff run on? Coffee! Gift cards to a nearby coffee shop are truly treasured, says Dr. Hogan. You could also pick up a gift certificate to a nearby cafe or sandwich shop so the office could order lunch on you for a day.

And the No. 1 Gift Is…

While monetary donations and fruit bouquets ranked high, the one gift that every single person we asked — rescue worker and veterinarian alike — mentioned was the simplest of all: a heartfelt thank you. 

"These are animals we’re working with — it’s not a 9-to-5 job. It’s 24/7," says Ottaka. "So when Thanksgiving comes, Christmas comes, there’s still the staff who’s here with the animals — walking them, feeding them, playing with them. Just the acknowledgement of a thank you goes a really long way."

Dr. Hogan dittoed that statement, saying, "I think my favorite gifts are often cards and updates on clients and their pets and how everyone is doing!"

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