Pets As Gifts: Surprise! (Or Not)

We hate to see people suffer, especially during the holidays.

Perhaps they just got canned or dumped - or someone very close to them has passed. As concerned friends or loved ones, we want to do anything we can to ease their pain and pull them through the darkness.

A warm, cuddly being might scoop them out of their funk and help them rejoice in life again. Right?

Wanting to help fill someone else’s void is but one reason pets are given as gifts. With the holidays at our doorstep, the desire to make others happy is irresistible. And perhaps little Jimmy or Joanie is at that ripe age where a little bit of responsibility would do them good.

Conventional wisdom dictates that giving pets as gifts - especially on impulse - is potentially a disaster for all concerned. Do we know that the recipient of this living gift is ready for - or even wants it? Even if they do, are they able and willing to assume the responsibilities involved in caring for an animal companion for the next 10-15 years? What kind of pet - if any - is right for that person and his or her environment? And why should we assume that we know all of this better than the person to whom the gift is given?

Not everyone is sour on the idea of giving pets as gifts under certain conditions. The official position of the American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (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.” The ASPCA sites research (New, et al [1999], Scarlett, et al [1999]) suggesting that recipients of animals as gifts are the least likely to surrender them.

In 2013, the ASPCA conducted its own phone survey of pet owners to determine whether their level of involvement in choosing their pet had any influence on their level of attachment to the pet and the decision to keep the pet. Of the more than 1,000 people who participated, 220 said that they received their pet as a planned or surprise gift. Results showed “no significant relationship between receiving a dog or cat as a gift, whether a surprise or not, and the receiver’s self-perceived love or attachment toward the pet. Nor was there a significant relationship between receiving a dog or cat as a gift and whether the pet was still living in the home at the time of the survey.”

This research had limitations. Respondent’s “level of attachment” was not based on a validated scale but, rather, on subjective criteria. Moreover, respondents were not asked how long the pet had actually been in their home at the time of the survey (the range was assumed to be one day to 10 years). This fact, in addition to the limited sample size, challenges the generalization of the data to pet owners on a larger scale.

Renowned DVM, Dr. Karen Becker, is no fan of giving pets as holiday gifts because the act is generally not driven by thoughtfulness but by impulse. Becker observes that the frenetic pace and sensory overload of the holiday season is stressful enough for people, let alone a new and vulnerable pet trying to adjust to its new family.

Other factors Becker sites are equally practical and ethical. Colder, wetter weather reeks havoc on potty training. Unscrupulous breeders go into overdrive as demand for the dog d’jour spikes during the holidays. Most importantly, a pet is not like a bike or an X-Box; that blush of bouncy fluff will wear off quickly if the new pet parent (of any age)  is not fully committed to the pet’s daily care.

Champions of companion and wild animals, PAWS, suggest researching for desired traits among breeds and meeting and interacting with several animals before visiting a shelter and choosing a pet. An alternative to physically gifting a pet to someone is to present them with a gift certificate to use at a local shelter if and when that person is ready to adopt. Even if the person never chooses to do so, the gift-giver will have made an important contribution to companion animal welfare.

Rescue Legacy supports nothing less than a fully-conscious approach to welcoming a pet into the family home. This process does not necessarily preclude the involvement of people other than the prospective pet parent, but it should never be left to fleeting whims or to chance. “Sustained interest” and means alone do not qualify one to host a pet for its lifetime. Pet parenting can be a joyous, life-transforming experience for the person with the heart and the grit to go the distance - and for the pet fortunate enough to have a dedicated and loving mommy or daddy.