An everlasting debate over gifting pets

December 2018

Alyssa Fine and her sister stopped at a gas station in Ohio to meet a breeder and pick up a border collie puppy as a gift for their parents several years ago.

The sisters knew their parents’ aging collie, Oreo, would benefit from having the puppy around, but they also knew the parents wouldn’t adopt another dog on their own. In the end, the new dog, Hydrox, ended up peeing all over the floor and eating their mother’s house plants.

“We brought him to my parents on Thanksgiving and my dad was so surprised,” Fine said. “They didn’t want another dog necessarily. They had kind of talked about it, but were not expecting it.”

This holiday season, the ASPCA has a recommendation that goes against conventional wisdom and even the group’s own past practices: Yes, go ahead and give a pet as a present. New research suggests that pets who find a home for the holidays tend to stay there afterward, even though shelters remind that it’s easier to give than receive – and care for – most pets.

Hydrox is around four years old now, and Fine said having the young pup around helped keep their older collie, Oreo, active for a few more years. It also made the transition a little easier for their family when he passed.

“I do think that having a new animal at that time helped so my dad’s routine wasn’t cut short,” Fine said. “Once Oreo had died, he was taking walks with him three or four times a day. They live in the country, and they would just run back and forth looking for trails and stuff. I think he would have been a lot more depressed than when he was, you know, because they’re man’s best friend.”

Hannah Ketterman, who has volunteered at Angel Ridge Animal Rescue in Washington County for over a decade, said they don’t recommend gifting pets because they want to make sure the owner will bond with the dog. But she does suggest another option for those who want to fund a furry friend.

“I do know that has a gift program where you can just print out a gift certificate and you give that to the person that you want to give an animal to, and then bring them into the shelter together to look at the dog,” Ketterman said.

Calling shelters and sponsoring future adoptions might also be a route to consider if your itching to help homeless animals around the holidays.

“We even have some dogs at our shelter right now that their adoptions already have been underwritten by our sponsors. That’s something that happens very often,” Ketterman said.  “Or you know if you knew of a friend that was coming, you could call and say, ‘Susan Smith is coming tomorrow at three I would like to underwrite her adoption,’ and that’s a great idea.”

Annette Sexton, an animal behaviorist and former assistant manager at the North Side Humane Society, said that adopting a pet shouldn’t be taken lightly and is a decision best made by the whole family.

“The biggest thing I see is just inappropriate placement where people will fall in love with the look of a dog but have no idea what the needs of that breed is,” Sexton said. “You turn around and buy a dalmatian for kids but dalmatians were actually bred to guard horses, which means there’s a respectable level of aggression there. The energy level requirements are off the charts and people forget that. You know, they see 101 Dalmatians and that’s it.”

She said that if someone is set on adopting a pet for a family, they should check first to make sure everyone is on board and understands the responsibilities.

“You also have to make sure they have the right equipment,” Sexton said. “Make sure they have a crate, make sure they have an appropriate leash, make sure their yard is secure or they have a decent cable runner setup.”

Training sessions can make new pet ownership much easier as well, Sexton said.

“Another thing I tell people to do is contact local trainers and get gift certificates for training sessions,” she said. “A lot of local trainers I  know, you can pre-pay in advance.”

Both Ketterman and Sexton said they have seen increases in shelter drop-offs in the months following the holidays.

“We do see a little bit higher in early spring with puppies that people get around the holidays and then realized that it was too much work,” Ketterman said.

“In those five years I was doing intakes and dealing with the insanity around the holidays, it was really disheartening,” Sexton said.

The ASPCA did report that “96 percent of people who received pets as gifts thought it either increased or had no impact on their love or attachment to that pet. Additionally, 86 percent of the pets referred to in the study are still in the home.”

It is essential that if one is determined to gift a pet, they are sure the owners have the resources to care for the fluffy bundle of joy, experts said. But it isn’t always the case.

JW Tabacchi, director of student development at Point Park, said he and his partner were gifted a kitten while living in a pet-free apartment in graduate school. It’s a memory they laugh about now, but it wasn’t so funny in the moment.

“Her mom and cousin were coming into town,” Tabacchi said. “I see them all huddled around the car, and my partner walked toward me with a little purse with a baby kitten. The first thing I thought was, ‘Oh, my gosh, they just gave us responsibility.’”

Tabbachi said they had no warning and weren’t prepared to care for this new member of the family.

“We still had a six-month lease and were super poor at the time,” he said. “We didn’t have money to get the shots or anything. Within a half an hour they left me with a newborn kitten, four to six weeks old. I’d never taken care of a cat. I didn’t know what to do. This little baby kitten just stared at me all weekend and just followed me around everywhere I went.”

Things turned out all right and the kitten stayed with them, but Tabbachi advises against gifting pets as a complete surprise.

“If you know that person really wants a pet, and they’re single, then go for it,” Tabacchi said. “If you’re a parent to a kid, or if you’re a partner giving a gift to your partner because they know. But I think if it’s in a situation like me, they’re living with someone and you’re not sure, you should check with that person. Just doing your homework about all the other situations that are involved will make sure that it’s a success as opposed to a shock.”

If you aren’t able to give a pet a home for the holidays, gift or otherwise, there are plenty of other ways shelters need help around the holiday season.

“During holidays any shelter would greatly appreciate blankets, towels and laundry detergent,” Sexton said. “You wouldn’t believe the amount of laundry shelters have. Actual name brand decent food or probiotics are needed too. It sounds funny but the high stress really upset their stomachs more than you realize; decent probiotics are a lifesaver and a life changer for some dogs, believe it or not.

Time is even more valuable than money in those irresistible puppy dog eyes.

“There’s so many ways that you can volunteer your time and effort,” Ketterman said. “We’re always looking for dog walkers. We have volunteers who who are handymen who can fix a broken shed door and we even have volunteers that bake for us whenever we have fundraiser events.”

Fostering an animal is another option for those looking for companions but not commitment.

“It’s a great way to have a companion for a little bit or if you’d like to travel you can foster for a couple months and then go do your own thing,” Ketterman said. “When you come back, get another foster dog or cat or bunny.”

Although shelters still aren’t suggesting gifting pets even with the ASPCA’s new study, volunteers say that it could be a great option for families who have weighed all the options.

“When you think of the holiday season and everyone spending it with their family, we obviously want the same for our dogs,” Ketterman said. “We’d love to see all of our dogs cozy up to a fireplace on Christmas morning and we do see adoptions often tend to rise around this time. However we want to make sure that families have really talked this through and it’s not a spur the moment decision.”

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