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Should Pets Be Given As Gifts?

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Growing up, I thought ‘A Pet Is Not a Gift’ was just another Golden Rule. If you had pressed young, animal-loving Julie and asked: “Well, why, Julie? Why shouldn’t a pet be a gift?” I might have come up with something like, “Well, uhm maybe the person doesn’t really want that pet. A pet you pick out yourself could be more loved and cared for than one that is handed to you. And maybe pets given as gifts are more likely to end up at the shelter.”

Fast forward a few years, and while doing my Masters in the UK, I became familiar with Dogs Trust, a well-known animal rescue charity. Their tag line resonated with me: “A dog is for life, not just for Christmas.” They explain their reasoning: “Every year hundreds of thousands of children plead for the latest fad or top toy on the market, only to discard them a few weeks after Christmas when the novelty wears off. Unfortunately, the same perception is also apparent with dogs. We are continually seeking to change this.” While Dogs Trust is not exactly saying that dogs given as gifts are more likely relinquished than others, the sentiment persists that a dog given as a gift could just be a temporary thrill.

Dr. Andy Roark (Twitter: @DrAndyRoark) shares this sentiment in a humorous video for VetStreet titled ‘Think Twice Before Giving Pets as Gifts’ (with a side of other unwanted gifts like a speedo). The takeaway message: Friends Don’t Surprise Friends With Commitments. Pets = Commitments.

You can imagine my surprise when I heard the American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (ASPCA) singing an entirely different tune, “Pets As Gifts—Wrap ‘Em Up!” and “Give a Gift of a Dog or Cat This Holiday Season!

The results from a US-based, nation-wide phone survey conducted via Random Digit Dialing found that there was not an increased risk of relinquishment for dogs or cats who were received as gifts. The survey also suggested that “receiving a dog or cat as a gift, whether a surprise or not, did not affect the feelings of love or attachment to the pet.” These findings were in line with other studies that of the many reasons why pets are relinquished — such as “moving” “no time” and “allergies”— unwanted gift is rarely listed.

How to wrap my head around the possibility that pets can be viable gifts? After all, many pets do come into our lives as gifts and presumably some lead happy, successful lives. I listened to an enjoyable interview with Anne Reed (Twitter: @annereed), Executive Director of the Wisconsin Humane Society, and here are two of her suggestions on giving pets as gifts:

1) Don’t give grandma a puppy
“Think carefully about the gift recipient, what their life is like, and what they need. You’re not just thinking about the care needs of that specific animal, which is true for any adoption, but also thinking about what would be most satisfying to the gift recipient.” Yes, grandma’s dog might have just died, but that doesn’t mean grandma wants to wake up at 2:00 AM, 4:00 AM and 5:30 AM to take the puppy out to pee. Consider the life and lifestyle of the gift recipient.

2) Give an adoption kit first
Bring the gift recipient in on the adoption process! Let’s say you’re planning to give your daughter a cat. The present could be a cat bed, cat toys (paper bags for my guy!), cat food, a litter box, and all the necessary accouterments. Then, the final part is the group trip to the shelter. Reed reminds that “Things can be pretty hectic in the house over the holidays, and sometimes the best time to bring that animal into your home isn’t holiday morning itself but maybe a week or so later when things have calmed down. The kit is perfect for that. Also, an adoption kit allows the gift recipient to choose.”

I realize this is a huge topic, and what’s covered here is just the tip of the iceberg. I hope to see more pointed research that gets at the heart of what makes pets as gifts successful or unsuccessful in the home. What I appreciate about this conversation is it points out that there are many ways that companion animals come into our lives, and we are now considering how to help these various routes lead toward mutually beneficial relationships.

What’s your experience with pets as gifts?


If you’re considering a pet this holiday season, here are my reading recommendations:

Dr. Patricia McConnell. 2011. Love Has No Age Limit.

Dr. Ian Dunbar. BEFORE You Get Your Puppy. FREE Download

Dr. Ian Dunbar. AFTER You Get Your Puppy. FREE Download

Reference: Weiss et al. 2013. Should Dogs and Cats Be Given as Gifts? Animals 3, 995-1001. Open Access

Photo: Dressed for the season via ausigall Flickr Creative Commons.

Julie Hecht About the Author: Julie Hecht is a canine behavioral researcher and science writer in New York City. She would really like to meet your dog. Follow on Twitter @DogSpies.

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.

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  1. 1. Devonshire 6:51 am 12/24/2013

    As a lifelong Humane Society activist, simple common sense is needed here, folks.

    Would you adopt a baby or child and give it to someone as a GIFT? Ridiculous, and so is giving a Canine or Feline with constant needs demanding 24/7 commitment for life.

    Only people who have considered ALL the responsibilities included in ADOPTION should actually adopt.

    Thank you for using common sense; a LIFE depends on it.

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  2. 2. dutchiemom 2:32 pm 12/24/2013

    We see both sides: those who are excited and those who return the dog (as happened yesterday) because the wife for whom the dog was adopted didn’t really want a pet. At least the dog was adopted before she could spend more than a couple hours back on the adoption floor today. And all this after this dog endured an FHO surgery due to a possible hit by car injury! Her current family seems committed to making it work and did their research BEFORE they came in to adopt today.

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  3. 3. moongazingmargie 5:05 pm 12/25/2013

    Nice job on this emotional and many times “soap box” topic! From the stand point of a person in the training and behavior consulting field, my very biased “findings” are that people fight harder to keep a pet that was given as a gift. Additionally, from working in a shelter after the holidays, I agree it was not common for me to hear that the pet was being returned because of being an inappropriate gift. Rather, many people were proud they had owned “Scruffy” since Christmas 2010 and have come to adopt “FiFi” this holiday season…Lisa :)

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  4. 4. hkraznodar 1:36 pm 12/26/2013

    An increasing percentage of the pet owners I know have adopted rescue animals. Not sure if that says something good about people I know or something bad about society in general. One woman not only rescues dogs but she trains them as service animals for working with the disabled or emotionally traumatized.

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  5. 5. Mike from Ottawa 12:22 pm 12/27/2013

    I was given a Humane Society gift certificate for a cat, which included the cost of spaying/neutering and was able to pick out my own kitten. It was a great gift and he turned out to be a great cat. If someone wants to give a pet, I recommend this method.

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  6. 6. alawrence37 10:33 am 01/13/2014

    I think pets are great gifts, if you know they’ll be received with warmth and love. Personally, I would love a dog for my birthday or Christmas! Man, I really want a dog!

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