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Animal Behavior

Pets As Gifts: Please Don't Surprise Me With a Life Sentence

"All I don't want for Christmas is an animal I don't want."

Roman Stetsyk/Shutterstock
Source: Roman Stetsyk/Shutterstock

It's holiday time, and people are beginning to ask me if it's okay to give a pet as a gift. Just as I was pondering what to write this time around, Hugh Dorigo sent me a short clip from his recent outstanding film, Dogs, Cats and Scapegoats. (For an interview with Dorigo about the film please see Dogs, Cats and Scapegoats: Messes We Make With Companions.)

In one part of his film, the question of whether or not pets should be given as gifts is discussed. The clip, "ASPCA: The Virtue of Promoting Pets as Gifts?" is a must-see. I urge people to watch this short video — it's only 2 minutes, 24 seconds long — and the entire film very carefully, and pay close attention to the criteria and data presented about studies concerned with the fate of gifted dogs and cats.

Here are some examples: If a person kept a pet for more than 24 hours, the gift was considered to have been "retained" for purposes of the survey. This is a pretty low bar for claiming that gifting worked out. In addition, the specific survey questions were not released, and respondents were free to stop answering the survey at any time. (Surveys that ask people about their behavior, but allow them to opt out, tend to skew the results toward more positive outcomes.) The four studies cited that supposedly supported the "successes" were not focused directly on the question of giving pets as gifts, appeared to be based on the same data, and were done by many of the same authors.

An aspect of another study addressed pets given as gifts, but focused on only one shelter, only on dogs, and only on the fate of 14 dogs returned as gifts. There also was no overall evidence that increased returns of pets to shelters after holidays were simply the result of an overall increase in adoption, rather than pets who were given as gifts. It is also suggested that "loosely interpreting data" might justify giving more pets as gifts. In the end, it was claimed that the outcomes for gifting were the same as the outcomes for the general pet population, but Emily Weiss of the ASPCA never constructed a reference group for the general pet population that was needed for a proper scientific comparison of outcomes.

Oversimplifying the science doesn't help the animals.

In an interview, when pressed to answer questions about the details of the study, Ed Sayres, the former CEO of the ASPCA who approved the research, said, "If you get into the specifics, you'll realize I'm a generalist." In the clip we're told, "The ASPCA stopped responding to emails after we expressed interest in the work of their research division."

It became clear that there were many problems with the study, and so its conclusion — that gifting pets is a good idea — is highly debatable.

I wanted to find out firsthand what people thought about the idea of giving pets as gifts, so I asked 20 friends and some others what they thought about this. Here are some responses:

  • "It's not fair or appropriate to impose a 15-year life sentence on someone as a surprise."
  • "If I'd like to share my life with a dog, let me make that choice."
  • "All I don't want for Christmas is an animal I don't want."
  • "Never."

Of course, the animal also receives a life sentence when being gifted.

Not a single person said anything like, "That's a good idea." And a number commented that choosing to share your home with a pet is a cradle-to-grave commitment, the "cradle" being whenever that individual enters your life. It's a huge commitment to take on the responsibility for another individual's life, and no one I know would like to be "told" that they now have to do just this. I agree that pets can be "a wonderful addition to one's life, yet not everyone has the time, energy, money, or interest in having a pet."

Are dogs and other animals really getting a "forever home"?

In a previous post ("Giving Puppies as Gifts: What if They're 'The Wrong Dog'?") I discussed an essay by Oliver Noble and a video produced by the Huffington Post called "Watch This Definitive Proof That Puppies Are The World's Best Gifts." I thought it had been produced by the ASPCA, but it was not. It did use ASPCA data used their data, but, as indicated above, there are significant problems with the study.

Courtesy of Hugh Dorigo
Source: Courtesy of Hugh Dorigo

I concluded my previous post by begging everyone thinking of giving a puppy or another animal to someone as any sort of gift to think it through, and to not do it. Perhaps they could put a note under the Christmas tree about what they want to do or otherwise be 100-percent sure that the people really want to add a new "family member," who they've already met, and are ready to do all it takes to make sure that the animal won't be returned. I know that the surprise will be lost, but at least there should be more certainty that the animal really will be welcomed. Having said this, I'm still against giving pets as gifts, unless the person or family to whom the gift is to be presented accompanies you to see the animal is and make sure they truly want that particular individual. If it works, it's a win-win for all.

Going beyond dogs and cats

In her essay, "Giving Pets as Gifts," Jessica Pierce expands the discussion of giving animals as pets beyond dogs and cats. She writes, "We tend to pay less attention to the millions of smaller critters who are sold in pet stores each year....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." Bunnies, it turns out, do not do well as gifts; it's estimated that about 80 percent are abandoned.

As Pierce writes, "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."

Pop the question before gifting a pet

Animals, like us, require love and proper care to flourish. Although people who give animals as gifts invariably have good intentions, it is unfair to give an animal to anyone, unless you are absolutely certain that the person wants that particular animal as a companion and is willing and able to give it a lifetime of proper care.

I fully realize that giving pets as gifts can increase adoptions and reduce the population of homeless animals in shelters. However, I also worry that if the animal is "the wrong animal," he or she will pay a huge price for the well-intentioned move that turns into a grievous mistake. Moving dogs or other animals from one home to another — playing "musical animals" — can be extremely perilous, and the animal pays the price. I know that many people also will grieve when giving up the animal, but it's highly likely the animal will suffer more as they go from home to home or spend their lives in a shelter. The answer to questions about whether or not to give a pet as a gift is not to do it, especially as a surprise. (Of course, parents may choose to give a child a companion animal, but that's an entirely different matter.)

The 2 minutes and 24 seconds it takes to watch "ASPCA: The Virtue of Promoting Pets as Gifts?" could save an animal's life. Little is lost, and a lot is gained, by popping the question before you choose to give another person a pet. Good intentions aren't good enough when gambling with another being's life. Please don't make a well-intentioned move a grievous mistake. Ask first, and share the joyous experience of gifting with the potential recipients.

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