Growing up, I assumed that ‘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 responded, “Well, uhm maybe the person doesn't really want that pet. Maybe a pet that is selected is more loved and cared for than one that is just given to you. And maybe pets given as gifts are more likely to end up at the animal shelter.” (Cue young, animal-loving Julie bursting into tears).

Fast forward a few years, and while doing my Masters in the UK, I became familiar with Dogs Trust (@DogsTrust), a well-known animal rescue charity. Their tag line resonated with me: “A dog is for life, not just for Christmas.” Dogs Trust explains 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.

Veterinarian Dr. Andy Roark (@DrAndyRoark) shares this opinion in a humorous video for VetStreet, ‘Think Twice Before Giving Pets as Gifts.’ The video displays a number of potentially unwanted gifts, from a Speedo to an inquisitive kitten who saunters off at the end of the video, obviously on its way to bringing curiosity and chaos into someone's life. The message is clear -- and written at the bottom of the screen for added emphasis -- "Friends Don’t Surprise Friends With Commitments. Pets = Commitments."

You can imagine my surprise when I saw the American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (@ASPCA) singing an entirely different tune in two blog posts, “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. Additionally, 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.” Although this is not what I had expected, these findings are actually in line with other studies: of the many reasons why people relinquish pets — 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, some pets come into peoples' lives as gifts, and presumably many lead happy, successful lives. How does this happen? Anne Reed (@annereed), Executive Director of the Wisconsin Humane Society (@WiscHumane) took on the pets-as-gifts topic in an NPR interview. Here are two of Reed's suggestions for 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

Do not give a pet... exactly. Instead, bring the gift recipient in on the adoption process! Let’s say you are planning to give your daughter a cat. How nice! The gift could be a cat bed, cat toys (paper bags for my guy!), cat food, a litter box, and all the necessary accouterments. The final part of the adoption kit gift is a trip to the animal shelter. Reed reminds that the trip to the shelter can be done at any time. “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 [the animal].”

I realize this is a relatively complex topic, and what is 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 successful (or unsuccessful) gifts. What I appreciate about this conversation is that it highlights the many different ways companion animals come into our lives. Researchers, particularly in the field of Anthrozoology and Applied Animal Behavior Science, are increasingly investigating what leads to mutually beneficial, longstanding relationships between companion animals and their people.

What about you? What's your experience with pets as gifts?


Considering a pet this holiday season? Here are my *mandatory* 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.

Note: Minor text updates on December 19, 2014