“Hello, I was given a dog for Christmas and cannot get a leash on her. She is ruining my apartment because I can’t get her outside. Can you help me?”
This email came through my website (www.sunnyweber.com) two weeks after the holidays. I immediately responded and asked for the woman’s phone number. I knew the conversation would take time. There were two lives balancing on the upcoming communication.
In our first conversation I noticed the woman seemed to be hard-of-hearing. I asked her, “May I ask your age?” “Eighty.” “How old is your new dog?” “He’s two. I wanted an older cat, but my family thought a dog would make me move around more.” The woman lived in a one-bedroom apartment in a senior residence. Her desperation was palpable.
Besides the fact that the family had ignored the woman’s wish, gifting an eighty-year-old person with a two-year-old dog was selfish and irresponsible for many reasons including:
- Odds are the dog will outlive the person, and then what? Estate planning rarely includes pets (people do not think of it) although they are considered “property” in most states.
- A young untrained dog will take time to absorb basic obedience commands—time an elderly person doesn’t have and may not be physically or emotionally able to address.
- Any 2-year-old dog will be too high-energy for an elderly person.
- A dog with no basic manners training will be stressful and can place an elderly owner in physically dangerous and financially libelous situations, especially in group housing.
- Elders in group housing must take the dog outside regularly—regardless of weather. This puts a frail person in even more danger.
This woman wanted a ready companion. Her husband died and she was lonely. She needed an older, mellower companion, not a challenge. A mature cat would have been perfect. Now the poor woman has lost weeks feeling guilty (she could not keep the dog and she knew it), sad (she truly wanted company), frustrated (her apartment stank), embarrassed (she felt she had failed her family) and rejected (she was unable to build a relationship with the dog).
In addition, the unfortunate and powerless dog had lost time in an inappropriate home, possible trauma from a stressful situation, and no socialization due to the isolation of a small apartment. A two-year-old dog is the equivalent of an adolescent human—what teenager would choose to live with their great-grandmother? Dogs have no choice in their living environments, but in this case the human did not either.
Receiving a gift pet is like human speed-dating and then immediate marriage. Will there be emotional bonds throughout the animal’s life of ten years or more? Does the recipient of the pet even want such a commitment? Does the recipient have the financial ability to keep the commitment?
Rescues, Shelters & Conflicting Studies
The philosophy that dogs and cats should not be given as gifts are standard protocols at shelters, rescues, and sanctuaries. Reasons include: 1) pet ownership should not be an impulse decision–the recipient should consent to pet ownership and be involved in the selection of a pet that fits their lifestyle ability, energy level, and desires; 2) the pet/owner relationship is a long-term commitment; 3) pet ownership is costly; 4) the holidays and special events are a bad time to introduce a new animal into chaos. Rescue staffs are rightfully concerned that inappropriate homing will result in a returned pet. Rescues cite returns of pets from unhappy gift receivers occur frequently. However, data in some recent studies do not support these concerns. What is the truth?
Some studies show that receiving an animal as a gift results in no significant relationship difficulties or level of attachment to the animal. In one study, seventy-five percent of the people who received an animal as a surprise gift appreciated the gesture and some even reported that receiving the animal increased their sense of attachment. Other studies have examined whether gifted cats and dogs have a greater chance of being relinquished to a shelter than “non-gift” animals. The American Humane Association estimates that half of all dogs and cats wind up being relinquished to a shelter and the ASPCA says millions of dogs enter shelters each year. Obviously, the problem of relinquishment is a real concern, but some research suggests that animals given as gifts have less risk of being relinquished than dogs and cats who were purchased or adopted. How accurate are those studies as opposed to anecdotal experience of trained rescue staffs?
The authors of one study argued the goal of increasing adoptions and reducing the population of homeless animals was hindered by a rigid “no pets as gifts” rule. Increasing the “live release rate” statistics of shelters seems to be the goal, not necessarily appropriate placement of the animals. The higher the positive statistics, the more funding is obtainable. The study did not include information regarding skilled adoption counseling and efforts to place pets in truly well-matched homes—only numerical statistics of placements as gifts.
The study also did not look at the fate of animal species other than cats and dogs. However, in her essay, Giving Pets as Gifts, Jessica Pierce says, “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.” Opponents to pet-gifting argue that the buying and selling of animals reinforces the attitude that they are objects of commerce and that they are disposable when interest wanes. No statistics in the above study were given regarding relinquishments following initial placement.
Marc Becoff, PhD, a Colorado biologist, ethologist, behavioral ecologist and writer, suggests that potential pet givers “see Hugh Dorigo’s a short clip from his recent outstanding film, Dogs, Cats and Scapegoats.” He writes, “In one part of his film, the question of whether or not pets should be given as gifts is discussed. The clip, ‘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 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 justification of 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. 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.
“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. Good intentions aren’t good enough when gambling with another being’s life. ”
Giving Surprise Pets to Children
Giving animals as gifts to children is especially controversial. Children below adolescent age are not cognitively or emotionally equipped to take responsibility for an animal’s welfare. Animals should never be given to a child with the expectation that the child will be fully responsible for care. The parents acquiring the animal should consider themselves the primary caretakers. They need to make the commitment that their child is not yet capable of. Giving pets to very young children can lead to internal familial strife when the child is pressured by the parent to “be responsible.” The result of a conflict when a child that is held to a standard too high for their abilities will only end badly for the child’s self-esteem, comfort with the critical parent, and the animal’s life.
Pet gifts from people outside the immediate family unit are unconditionally unwise. Surprises from aunts, uncles, adult family friends, and particularly without the parents’ awareness, cooperation, or consent, will end in disaster all around. The parents will feel pressured to not disappoint their child or be seen as mean if they reject the gift, plus anger at the giver for placing them in such a position. The child will not be able to handle the conflict between the adults and will suffer guilt at being placed in the center of the storm. The potential pet will feel the full brunt of incomplete acceptance and possible neglect in care by and connection to its new family. Returning the pet will only end in the child’s heartbreak and loss of trust in adults, the animal’s trauma from being caught in the human-manufactured tension, fear due to the instability of its own environment, and the adults’ relationships damaged.
Alison M. Jimenez of the ASPCA also says, “We stress that pets should only be given as gifts to people with the ability, means and available time to care for them properly, and to children under twelve, only if parents are ready to take on full responsibility. To help with the transition, we recommend delivering a ‘starter kit’—bowls, food, toys, a collar, an ID tag, or litter—with the new pet, and encouraging new owners to get their pets licensed. Also, making sure only to get pets from shelters and responsible breeders, not from pet stores or internet sources is very important.” The parent must be willing to educate the child about the importance of “adopting”—a life-long commitment (like a brother or sister), rather than “buying” (like a couch or a car)–which fosters a consumer attitude that allows for disposability when bored or distracted. When parents “take back” unwanted pets, many children will internalize a parent’s lax attitude toward disposability/commitment and fear that they too will be disposed of if they do not meet the adults’ requirements for love. Teaching a child how to become responsible in commitment can be a double-edged sword, especially when inconsistent hypocritical adult standards are shown.
Often, giving a stuffed animal toy can satisfy both the very young child and the parent, without the conflicts of “responsibility” arguments, required time commitments, and the financial costs of a live animal. As the child matures, a parent can gauge their enthusiasm by encouraging the child to volunteer at rescues or shelters—although hands-on animal work is usually prohibited for liability reasons, the child can learn the less glamorous aspects of care by helping wash pet dishes and cleaning kennels. These activities will illustrate all the sides of pet ownership and show the parents if the child is truly willing to participate in the less fun aspects of the pet/owner life.
Pet sitting for neighbors, organizing fundraisers for local animal charities, and showing interest in learning through books and internet reading can show that the child is ready to take on the care level required for a live companion on their own. Each species that interests the child should be thoroughly researched with the parents. Not only are each species different in food, habitat, interactional needs, and needed veterinary care, the parent needs to be aware of the time commitment, the likely financial costs, and the potential for family sharing in the decision and care. A pet should increase inter-human communication and bonding, not drive families apart. Dogs, cats, and birds are especially sensitive to conflicts in those they are dependent on.
Pet ownership is a huge commitment and should be taken seriously. Bringing a new family member into any established mix (people and/or other pets) can be wonderful or disastrous. It is difficult if the pet is foisted upon a recipient who did not participate in the choice. Being open to the emotional bond that most pets need may not be desirable for the receiver. Caring for an animal is a significant financial responsibility which unfortunately, many gift givers do not take into consideration on behalf of the recipient. Some species take enormous amounts of time and attention (dogs, cats, birds, and horses) that busy people may not have. Needed environments require varying amounts of space and equipment and each animal needs physical as well as emotional and cognitive enrichment activities. A gift that precludes proper research and cooperative decision making will not provide the best home for that animal.
Before you give or accept a pet as a gift, research all aspects of that pet’s needs, your recipient’s or your or ability to fill those needs over its lifetime (up to 20 years?). How can the pet fit into its new life and enhance the development of a rewarding bond between pet and person? No one needs to own a pet. It is a choice. If there are hesitations or doubts, consider a gift certificate instead. If your recipient does not want to adopt, at least you have made a charitable donation to a worthy cause.