Pets as holiday presents: Naughty or nice?

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Each year, people flock to animal shelters ahead of the holidays, thinking a cuddly kitten or an adorable puppy will make the perfect gift. Many are in for a cold reception, given the long-standing belief that it’s not OK to give pets as presents.

“This time of the year, we get people asking for puppies and kittens for their kids as gifts. It’s really frustrating for us because we don’t want to be the bad guys,” said Rianna Ramirez, a kennel attendant at an East Providence shelter run by the Rhode Island Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (RISPCA). “We don’t allow people to do surprise presents.”

While implemented with the best of intentions, such policies are ill-informed, according to the Humane Society of the United States (HSUS). 

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In fact, research refutes the notion that animals given as gifts face increased risks of being returned or less cared for. A 2013 study by the American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (ASPCA) found the majority of those who were given pets kept them, and the vast majority said their pet being a gift either increased their affection for it or didn’t make a difference. 

“For a long time in the shelter world, people thought it was a bad idea, but the data shows that wasn’t the case,” said Vicki Stevens, HSUS’s senior marketing communications manager in companion animals. “For most people who receive a pet as a gift, that has no negative impact on how much they love that pet or keep that pet.”

Some shelters promote holiday pet giving, like one in Fairfax County, Virginia, that a week before Christmas gives adopters the option of having their animals delivered by staff dressed as elves on Christmas Eve or Christmas Day. 

Still, the long-held view, backed by anecdotal evidence of uncared for and returned animals, has shelters around the country turning away would-be dog-and-cat rescuers. The thinking goes that unlike a household appliance or a piece of jewelry, an animal is a living creature, and all efforts should be make to ensure the new home is a good fit all around.

“People have this idea that having this pet is going to be a storybook kind of thing,” not realizing the extent of the commitment, said Ramirez, whose shelter requires the entire family come in to ensure the prospective animal is suitable for all members. “A dog needs care, food and exercise. It’s like taking care of another child.”

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Parents make last-minute decisions to adopt a cat or a dog, saying “I didn’t get enough gifts for my children, and in a couple of weeks, the cat or dog comes back to us,” said Elaine Samman, president of Animal Life Savers, a rescue group in North Bergen, New Jersey. She cautioned against the impulse to select a dog or a cat from a shelter on behalf of someone else. 

People can instead bring in the person they want to give an animal to and make a donation on their behalf or pay for the adoption costs, said Samman. “It’s a very unbelievable feeling when you rescue, and that gets taken away when you get an animal as a gift.”

Unlike many shelters that have contracts to fill out and rules that would automatically prevent any attempts at adopting for others, Samman tries her best to convince people to alter their plan. “The bottom line is to make them understand that getting a cat or a dog for somebody is not a good idea,” she said. “A lot of times I am able to convince them. If you don’t, they just go and buy a pet.”

The option to purchase is unfortunate in light of the sheer number of dogs and cats euthanized in U.S. shelters each year -- over 3 million, of which about 2.4 million are healthy and adoptable, according to the HSUS.

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“With all the people looking for a pet, it’s a totally solvable problem” if those buying from a pet shop or online instead adopted from a shelter, said Stevens. She added: “Do not buy a dog online, as it’s almost without fail from a puppy mill.”

People should be aware that pet ownership comes with responsibilities, both financially and in terms of time, said Dr. Kewane Stewart, chief veterinary officer at American Humane in Los Angeles. 

“In general, we do see an increase in adoptions around the holidays. It’s a nice gift for your children, or maybe someone you know lost a pet, or maybe is elderly and lonely,” said Stewart, who oversees the group’s film and TV unit, and a certification program behind the “No Animals Were Harmed” tagline included in films and TV shows.

Stewart advises thinking through the type of pet that’s suitable for the new owner, recalling a young couple who loved a friend’s adult cat only to find the kitten they adopted to be active at inconvenient hours. “They were dismayed to find the new family member to be nocturnal, tearing up their bed and running across their faces at night.”

Make sure you know the person getting the pet actually wants one, and be sure about the type of pet that makes sense for that person, he said. “We all love surprises, and that’s what Christmas is about: ‘ta da, here you go.’ But if you know grandma wants a puppy, be specific. Grandma might want a small lapdog, or a poodle if possible.”

If you’re going to surprise mom with a new dog on Christmas Day, make sure the house is ready for it, Stewart advised. “There’s a lot of holiday foods that are dangerous to pets, or toxic.”

For those interesting in adopting an animal, whether for themselves or another, Stevens recommended going to theshelterproject.org, where you can type in your ZIP code and get a list of nearby shelters. You can then call to find out what the polices are. Said Stewart: More and more progressive shelters are looking for reasons to send a pet home with you.