Would You Put a Pet Under the Tree?

Holidays are when dreams come true . . . a magical few days when wishes can be made real -- at least tangible wishes, like the latest Playstation -- or a new puppy.

Shih TzusA new puppy?

For years animal advocates have been toeing the rescue party line that giving a new pet as a holiday gift is not only a bad idea, but can lead to serious problems, such as the puppy or kitten getting lost in the eggnog shuffle, or the new owner stuck with the unwanted prospect of caring for a living being for the next  12 to  18 years.

Recently, the American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals, typically the paragon of good animal advice, issued a press release about  a 2013 survey indicating that pets are a good holiday gift. The ASPCA survey’s ostensible goal is to encourage other rescues to loosen their “no holiday pet adoptions” rule, which prevents people from adopting pets as gifts during the holiday season.

Many privately run rescues, mostly no-kill rescues and shelters, uphold this policy, having experienced a high post-holiday return rate. Municipal shelters run by cities and counties typically do not have such a rule – they are often high-kill facilities and work hard just to move pets out the door to anyone with the adoption fee.

The ASPCA’s survey culled answers from 1,006 total respondents 18 and older, asking about their experiences receiving the gift of a pet. The survey did not identify how long a cat or dog lived in the home to which it was gifted, but assumed that it was between one day and  10 years. Though most of the respondents did say that they were pleased with the gift, 15 percent said that they re-homed the animal. That’s a nice way of saying that they gave it away because, for whatever reason, they didn’t want it.

Re-gifting is a holiday tradition. That tacky Santa sweater that Aunt Frizzy knitted for you goes into another box and gets sent to your first cousin twice removed. Totally standard. But re-gifting – or re-homing – a pet isn’t the same. A pet is a living thing that grows to love a family, unlike a sweater. Have you noticed how long it takes a puppy to fall in love with a person? It’s like 2.5 seconds. But a sweater? Never.

Sad dogDumped pets get depressed. Anyone who works in rescue can vouch for that. Pets have feelings. Being shuffled from home to home is traumatic for a pet, especially for cats,  who are territorial and like being in their own space. Most dogs will pretty much love the person with the most meat in their hands, but love travels down both ends of the leash, and a dumped dog without a loving owner is a very sad dog indeed.

If you crunch the numbers on the ASPCA’s survey, you find that about 125 pets owned by people in the survey were re-homed – dumped – after being received as a gift. Maybe it happened five years after, but it still happened. True, 76.7 percent of people gifted a pet said that they kept it and loved it, but I wonder if that’s true of the pet-adopting population at large? In other words, if you give a pet-loving person a pet, are they more likely to keep it?

I’m a dog-person. I train dogs, I participate in hands-on dog rescue and transport, I work with dogs on TV, I write about dogs, and I run a charity to help feed rescue dogs. I’d be quite peeved with anyone who surprised me with a puppy (or dog) as a gift – and I love dogs, having three of my own. Acquiring a pet is a very personal choice.

So, what of the rescues who refuse to adopt animals for gift-giving before the holidays? Are they the scrooges of the rescue community, or have they been-there and done-that?

“I once got a purebred Siamese kitten given to me because the person that received it for Christmas didn’t want it,” says Kay Fuller of the Community Concern for Cats in Walnut Creek, Calif. “The ‘gifters’ thought their brother-in-law wanted a Siamese kitten. They paid $800 for it and drove from the Bay Area to L.A. to get this kitten. The brother-in-law said, ‘Yes, I want a Siamese cat when I’m out of college, married and have kids.’”

“We double screen at Christmas and do not adopt for non-family members without the consent of the head of household,” says Lynea Lattanzio, director of the Cat House on the Kings in Fresno, Calif. “No boyfriend buying a kitten or puppy for his girlfriend unless we speak with the girlfriend’s parents and they fill out the adoption forms. When I was young all I ever wanted for Christmas was a kitten. My mom wouldn’t let me have one. Now I have 1,000 cats! Guess it kind of backfired. Sometimes kids really do deserve a pet for Christmas.”

Elizabeth Oreck, National Manager of puppy mill initiatives for Best Friends Animal Society in Kanab, Utah, says that there are always exceptions to any general policy, and there are always going to be situations when it would make sense to adopt a pet as a gift.

“For instance, if it means getting an animal that is seriously in danger of being killed out of the shelter and into a home, obviously it is worth the risk,” says Oreck. “Or, if the gift giver’s alternative is to purchase a pet from a mill-supplied pet store or website. But I would always encourage including the recipient of the pet in the adoption process whenever possible just to add an extra layer of insurance that it will be the best match possible for all involved.”

I know several people in the rescue community who are outraged at the ASPCA’s suggestion that pets are now holiday present-fodder. I’ve read all of the ASPCA’s material on their announcement, and I think I’ve found the weak branches on their Christmas tree. Here’s their position statement:

Busy lifeASPCA Position: The ASPCA recommends the giving of pets as gifts only to people who have expressed a sustained interest in owning one, and the ability to care for it responsibly. We also recommend that pets be obtained from animal shelters, rescue organizations, friends, family or responsible breeders — not from places where the source of the animal is unknown or untrusted.

If the recipient is under 12 years old, the child’s parents should be ready and eager to assume care for the animal. If the gift is a surprise, the gift-giver should be aware of the recipient’s lifestyle and schedule — enough to know that the recipient has the time and means be a responsible owner.

The recipient’s schedule should also be free enough to spend necessary time to help assure an easy transition into the home. This is especially important during the holidays and other busy times.

If the recipient is under 12 years old only then should the parents assume care for the animal? Come on, ASPCA. Have you met a 12-year-old lately? When will they scoop the litter box or bathe the dog? Between texting, video games, homework, and teen-age rebellion?

And how can anyone really judge another person’s lifestyle and ability to care for a pet? That’s challenging, at best, unless you live in the home with the gift recipient and know what’s in his bank account.

As an animal rescuer myself, I’m concerned that the ASPCA includes “responsible breeders” in their list of appropriate places to acquire a pet as a gift. It’s clear that the public at large does not really have a handle on what “responsible breeder” means (sorry, public-at-large), and the ASPCA does not include guidelines for discerning irresponsibility from responsibility. Isn’t the entire mission of the ASPCA to promote homeless pet adoption? This is no time for the ASPCA to become wishy-washy about their mission – we are in a national homeless pet crisis, with over 4 million animals killed each year for the lack of a home.

Since the ASPCA didn’t do it, I’ll lay down the guidelines on how to tell a responsible breeder from an irresponsible breeder:

See how easy that was?

I’m also concerned that the ASPCA didn’t take a little more time to map out a plan that a gift-giver can follow  to make the best gift-giving decision. I’ll fill in what I saw lacking:

See how easy that was?

But there’s one other pressing issue, a moral issue, really, with the ASPCA’s new survey: pets are not things.

“I think promoting the idea of giving a pet as a ‘gift’ does relegate dogs and cats and other pets to the status of a thing,” says Sara Alize Cross, Founder and President of Badass Brooklyn Animal Rescue in Brooklyn, N.Y. “One of the reasons so many pets are being killed in ‘shelters’ is because people do not value them as family members, but rather throw them out like unwanted things. We need more education and media designed to help promote pets as valued family members, not more media that promotes the idea that they are things, as gifts – that attitude is part of the problem, not part of the solution.”

Maria Dales, founder and executive director of the Association of German Shepherd Rescuers, Inc., in Orange County, Calif, says that, all too often, pets selected as holiday gifts are exciting in the instant, but not valued over the long term.

“When the reality of day-to-day care and ongoing expenses set in, will the thrill turn to remorse, or worse yet, resentment?”  Dales says. “Parents who think that surprising their children with a pet as a holiday gift are sending a bad message, putting living creatures on par with inanimate objects such as the latest toy or fashion. They are also depriving their children of enjoying the ‘specialness’ of adding a family member when adoption in and of itself is something to celebrate, regardless of what date it is.

“Companion animals, unlike the season’s popular toys or fashions, can’t be cast aside when the wonder and excitement fade,’’ Dales adds. “As rescuers, we cringe when we see the classified ads for holiday puppies, knowing from experience that come spring, we’ll be inundated with calls from families who ‘don’t have time for’ or ‘can’t train’ the puppies that arrived for Christmas.

“Every year, we brace ourselves for the onslaught of unwanted adolescent dogs that will be in need of new, much more suitable homes.”

I’m not here to bash the ASPCA or its survey. The organization does a lot of good for pets. Read about the ASPCA’s work creating a public understanding of “puppy mills.”>>

I volunteered at the ASPCA’s behavior center, where I learned a lot about training aggressive dogs, and I enjoyed my time there. But I think the ASPCA may have underestimated its muscle in capturing hearts and minds. The ASPCA definitely sways important decisions about where and when a new pet is acquired. In the future, the best interest of pets should be at the heart of every press release.

Pets are a joy, not a toy.

Article Categories: