Help animals in need this holiday season

Cold weather in many parts of the country plus an economy that's still kind of in the toilet could add up to a blue Christmas for a lot of pets (and/or their owners!) this December. A little bit of help from you could make a big difference to a feral cat, a shelter dog, or a senior or homeless pet owner who needs a bit of a boost. How can you help?

WebVet: Is a pet the right Christmas gift?

Let's get this out of the way first: do not help by getting a shelter pet as a holiday gift. It's a kookoo time of year, the recipient may not be prepared for a new roommate, and so on. TV commercials make it seem like a sweet idea, but please, save any actual adoptions until January, and do your homework first.

Vetstreet: Fostering a shelter pet for the holidays

Okay, to the positives! A straight donation is always welcome, of course, whether it's a national organization or a local outfit; Yahoo! Search the closest branch of the ASPCA, or find a breed-rescue league in your city or state. (To make sure your dollars go where you most want them to, check out these tips on donating to charities from

If you don't much cash to spare, consider donating an hour or two a week to one of these organizations instead. Even if you're not sure you're qualified, many organizations -- like NYC's KittyKind cat-rescue group -- will offer training. And non-profits need administrative help with clerical stuff, too, like making fundraising calls and coordinating mailings.

'Tis also the season for pet-food drives. Pets of the Homeless is one nationwide organization that provides food and vet care for homeless pets; check their site to find a collection spot near you. Better yet, look for local pet-food drives that put that Puppy Chow to work in the community. (And asking your vet if she'd donate her time to a similar organization is free!) When my cats had to switch to the fancy special-diet food, I had pounds and pounds of their former food left over; fortunately, a local foster organization took it -- and an old cat bed nobody deigned to sleep in, and a bunch of extra toys.

Local shelters don't just need cash for food and keeping the lights on; they need blankets and beds for cages, leashes, toys, food and water bowls, and everything else we provide for our own pets. Some shelters have Amazon wish lists; others post a shopping list on their websites, like the Kearney shelter in Nebraska, but if you're not sure what you can give that's most helpful, email or call to ask. (When I volunteered at a shelter, we always needed Band-Aids. Go figure.)

Pet-proofing your tree

Get creative! If you're a quilter or crafter, a cage blanket is an easy project that really improves a shelter cat's quality of life. If you see a holiday sale at your local pet store, load up on bowls and bones and drop them off for your favorite rescue organization. If you spot the trap-neuter-release team in your neighborhood on a cold morning, treat them to coffee and pastries, or just ask if they could use a hand.

And spend time with your pets. This time of year gets crazy; take an hour and put your feet up with/on the dog.