As you prepare your holiday shopping lists this year, here's one item you might want to put at the top: love -- oodles of unconditional love and boundless joy, all wrapped up in a sweet furry or feathery package.

I had always thought the holidays were the worst time to adopt a pet. I think I've even written a few stories in the past discouraging it.

But pet experts, shelter volunteers and animal advocates say there is nothing wrong with adopting a pet for the holidays, and a lot of folks do, making December and January busy months.

All of the Bay Area shelters are bursting at the seams these days. As a result, shelters have lowered adoption fees, are offering special deals, and there's no shortage of cute.

Puppies, available for adoption, adorn Macy’s holiday windows at Union Square. The animals are from the San Francisco SPCA and the windows are an
Puppies, available for adoption, adorn Macy's holiday windows at Union Square. The animals are from the San Francisco SPCA and the windows are an annual fund-raiser plus a way to get pets adopted. (Jennifer Jamison)

Only 25 percent of people adopt their pets from shelters, says Albert Escobar, program manager at Santa Clara County Animal Care and Control. If only an additional 5 percent did, thousands of animals would find new homes.

"Dogs and cats should not be in shelters," says Beth Ward, chief operating officer at Humane Society Silicon Valley. "They should be living in homes. Our shelters are beautiful, but they're not homes. Our volunteers and staff are warm and wonderful, but they're not the same as a permanent, loving family."

As much as I advocate adoption, it shouldn't be entered into lightly now or at any time of the year. Folks at Tri-Valley Animal Rescue recommend if you're getting a new pet, do it now so you'll both be settled in before the heart of the holidays.

Also, the volunteers say, think about the ramifications before giving a pet as a holiday gift. Pets should not be treated as toys. Children should be taught to respect the animal, and parents should be ready to accept the responsibility for caring for the pet, at least for a while.

Also, don't surprise someone with a pet, volunteers say. Make sure they are willing and able to care for an animal, then consider giving a gift certificate with the adoption fee already paid, allowing them to make their own choice of a new companion.

Elena Bicker with Tony LaRussa's Animal Rescue Foundation says there are various myths associated with shelter pets including the misbelief is that you can't find adoptable puppies or kittens -- they are there, in all sizes, breeds and ages, including some pure breeds. Also, she says, don't believe the myth that shelter animals have been given up because they're untrainable. "Many healthy, sweet, smart animals have been surrendered to shelters not due to their dispositions," she says, "but due to foreclosure, divorce or allergies."

I debated with myself for months about getting a dog. My mother was dying, my sister and I were caring for her in our house, and I wasn't sure it was fair to bring another responsibility into the mix.

I finally took the big step and the only regret I have about adopting Bailey is that I didn't do it sooner. Although my mom would eventually slip into the isolating world of Alzheimer's, I think Bailey brought some unexpected joy and love to her life, as he did -- and does -- to mine.

I may have rescued him from the shelter, but he rescued me, too. That's why I always say that when you adopt a shelter pet, the life you save may be your own.

So if you're ready, check with your local shelter and see what waits for you there. We've put together a list of shelters, rescue groups and animal advocates to help. You'll find it and lots of other things, at www.mercurynews.com/pets-animals.

Here's hoping you'll find the perfect match.

Contact Joan Morris at jmorris@bayareanewsgroup.com; or P.O. Box 8099, Walnut Creek, CA 94596.