One of the hallmark scenes of Christmas is an adorable little puppy jumping out of a brightly wrapped box under the Christmas tree, sending a pajama-clad child into paroxysms of joy. Yet despite the warm veneer, this scene makes many animal lovers go cold.
Animal welfare organizations are, for the most part, adamant that animals should never be given as gifts (here, for example, is PETA's position on pets as gifts). This “rule” is based on several common sense observations: having a companion animal is a huge commitment and should be taken very seriously; only you—and not a friend or family member—can decide whether you are ready to take on the commitment; caring for an animal is a significant financial responsibility; you need to meet any particular animal you are considering adopting, to make sure you are compatible; you need to have the right kind of lifestyle, with enough time for proper care and companionship; you have to have the right kind of home environment, with enough space and with an openness to animal-related “damage” (are you willing to have fur on your couches? Scratches in the wood floor?); and finally, the holidays—generally a time of hustle-bustle, travel, visitors, parties—are not an ideal time for anyone to bring a new animal into the home. An unwanted animal gift can create a bad situation for the recipient of the gift, who may feel overwhelmed by the responsibility and then terribly guilty if they decide they can’t live with the animal. And, most importantly, an unwanted animal gift can end badly for the animal him or herself.
However, as with many aspects of animal welfare, common assumptions are not always backed by research, and sometimes new research contradicts popular wisdom. The ASPCA, for example, recently softened its position on pets as gifts. (You can find the ASPCA's Position Statement on Pets as Gifts here.) A study published in the journal Animals explored the question of whether receiving an animal as a gift was associated with increased or decreased love of or attachment to the pet. The results of the study show no significant relationship between receiving an animal as a gift and level of attachment to the animal. In fact, sometimes people feel an even greater attachment to an animal received as a gift precisely because the animal was given to them by a loved one. The study also noted that 75% of the people who received an animal as a surprise gift were okay with the surprise and were highly attached to the animal; some even reported that receiving the animal as a surprise increased their sense of attachment.
Several earlier studies have looked at the question of whether cats and dogs received as gifts have a greater chance of being relinquished to a shelter than “non-gift” animals. The problem of relinquishment is huge: the American Humane Associate estimates that about half of all dogs and cats taken in, one way or another, as pets wind up being relinquished to a shelter. But, again, contrary to popular wisdom, research suggests that animals given as gifts have significantly less risk of being relinquished than dogs and cats who were purchased or adopted. Relinquished dogs and cats most frequently come from friends, shelters, and breeders.
In summarizing their work, the authors argue that a rigid “no pets as gifts” rule may undercut the general aim of increasing adoptions and reducing the population of homeless animals in shelters.
The study did not look at the fate of animal species other than cats and dogs. We tend to pay less attention to the millions of smaller critters who are sold in pet stores each year. In my view, the “no pets as gifts” should perhaps still hold for these animal species, until we have some research to indicate whether or not the welfare of these creatures is put at risk if they are given as gifts. As a society, we tend to accord rodents, reptiles, and fish less value than dogs and cats, and it is quite likely that many of these critters given as gifts, particularly to children, wind up in less than ideal situations.
In my view, it all boils down to how we understand the concept of “gift.” If we think of gift-giving in consumerist terms, then animals should never be given as gifts. The buying and selling of animals reinforces the attitude that they are appropriate objects of commerce and that they are disposable, if we decide we don’t like them or don’t want them anymore. Too many people view the animal shelter as a kind of Goodwill store: you donate your unwanted items, assuming that someone else will buy them for cheap.
On the other hand, we can understand companion animals as “gifts” in a deeper sense. For those who establish a deep and abiding relationship of reciprocal love, animal companions are a gift that keeps on giving, in the very best way. They are gifts that can transform us, enrich us, and give us greater joy than any store-bought object.
If you are thinking about giving an animal to someone as a gift, use good judgment and consider a few simple questions.
1. Does the person have a sustained and serious interest in owning and caring for an animal companion?
2. Do they have the knowledge and resources to care for the animal properly?
3. Are you certain that the animal will not be felt as a personal or financial burden?
4. Is the choice of species and breed appropriate for the recipient?
Giving animals as gifts to children is tricky because children are generally not equipped to have responsibility for an animal’s welfare placed in their hands. Animals should never be given to a child with the expectation that the child will be fully responsible for care. The adult acquiring the animal should consider him or herself the primary caretaker. I’ve known parents who are trying to instill a sense of responsibility in their children who will let the dog go hungry, because it is little Johnny’s job to feed the dog and Johnny isn’t doing his chores. This is cruel to the dog and teaches Johnny the worst kind of lesson. The welfare of the animal should be first on everyone’s mind, placed well above the desire to “teach responsibility.”
Please think carefully about where you acquire an animal. If you decide you must have a purebred dog or cat, make sure to do your homework and choose a responsible breeder. But remember: If you adopt from a shelter or rescue organization, you give the animal himself or herself the gift of a second chance. And who wouldn’t want that?
Weiss, Emily; Dolan, Emily D.; Garrison, Laurie; Hong, Julie; Slater, Margaret. 2013. "Should Dogs and Cats be Given as Gifts?" Animals 3, no. 4: 995-1001.