Should pets be given as gifts?

Should pets be given as gifts? This is a controversial subject sure to spark lively conversation. Most people will say no, it’s a bad idea, but is this true?

For many years those of us in animal welfare have preached the word that pets given as gifts will soon be abandoned, given away or taken to the nearest shelter. It seemed logical, so we believed it and never questioned it. Thank goodness, many long held beliefs and practices are coming into question and being altered to reflect what is really going on in the community.

Times are changing

Times are changing, and in the 2000’s the face of animal welfare started to turn around thanks to the innovative work of organizations like Maddie’s Fund, UC Davis, and Humane Society of the United States. Finally we started taking a critical look at long-standing beliefs not based in science or empirical evidence of any kind.

In 2008 I got involved with Mission Reunite and started learning about lost pets and how they make up a large percentage of shelter populations, rather than abandoned pets as previously thought. This opened my eyes to the reality of why most dogs and cats end up in shelters, because they are lost or otherwise separated from their families, not because they are abandoned.

An ASPCA study in 2013 showed that 86% of pets given as gifts were kept long-term, no less than those obtained under any other circumstances. Individuals polled stated that, in some cases, they felt more attached to the pet because it has a connection to the giver, usually a close friend or family member. This is a far cry from what we believed to be true previously, before actually asking people about their experience.

Why do people give up pets?

People give up pets for any number of reasons. They may have financial difficulty, housing challenges, or health issues. The pet may not fit into the household. They may not get along with other pets in the home or not be good around children. The reasons pets are given up has little or nothing to do with how they were obtained. There is no shame in giving up a pet when you don’t find a better option. This shouldn’t be considered a bad outcome.

Use common sense

When thinking of giving a pet as a gift, use common sense. If you are gifting the pet to your child, you know that you will really be the primary caregiver. Getting a pet is a good way to teach children responsibility and empathy, but know that you will be overseeing the process. Be realistic, especially based on your child’s age and personality.

When gifting to a spouse, you will both be caregivers, although sometimes a pet will bond more with one person than the other. Consider whether this pet will really fit into your lifestyle and not cause stress on your marriage!

When gifting to someone outside your home like a friend or other family member, make sure as best you can that they really want this pet and that they are prepared to care for it. Can they afford it? Are they renting, and can they have pets in the home? Are they physically able to provide care, or do they have help? Discuss it with them or with their spouse or family member before making the decision. People can talk a lot about wanting something, but it might be just talk, they are really not ready.

Years ago I cared for a dog named Wizard, owned by a man named Frank. Frank was an elderly man who had recently lost his wife. The two of them were avid dog folks and had kept German Shepherds all their life together. After the death of Frank’s wife, his kids thought it would be a good idea to get him a new dog … so they bought an Australian Shepherd puppy! Australian Shepherd, German Shepherd … not exactly the same dog, and a small puppy for an eldery man? Frank did the best he could, caring for Wizard and playing ball with him in the yard every day, but the dog developed some behavior issue due to lack of exercise and stimulation. He hired me for help with training and I ended up just doing walks several times a week which helped a lot.

Which kind of pet?

Consider the kind of pet. Dogs and cats live at least 15 years. They will need food, health care, exercise, and attention. When the owner travels or works long hours they will need a pet sitter. If they are busy or not in good health, like Frank, they will need a dog walker, an additional expense. Does the perspective owner rent? Are pets, especially dogs, allowed in the home? Does s/he have housemates who may have an issue with a pet? There are many questions to answer when considering the type of pet that will fit into the recipient’s lifestyle.

Horses are quite expensive, especially if the owner keeps them at a boarding stable. They are wonderful companions who enrich our lives, but they come with a high price tag both financially and in terms of time and energy. I love my horses, but they take up all my disposable income and then some. They are my number one hobby and pastime, so it’s worth it for me.

Also, the relationship between rider and horse is very personal, so there is a much higher level of consideration in choosing one than, say, a cat. I think the only time a horse would make a good gift is from parent to child or between spouses when riding is already an established activity and the recipient has a horse in mind, perhaps one they already know through lessons or leasing.

Smaller “pocket pets” like rats and hamsters are less costly and don’t live as long as dogs and cats, but they do still require proper care. They usually live in a cage of some kind which should be comfortable and kept clean, they need fresh food and water, and their needs must be considered. For example, hamsters are cute as the dickens but are nocturnal and can be grumpy and inclined to bite during the day when picked up. Iguanas are often sold cheaply as pets for children but they actually have very complex needs including climate controlled housing, bathing, and fresh foods daily. Do your research to make sure that this kind of pet is a good match for the recipient.

In leiu of actually gifting a pet, you can also give a gift basket with a leash, toys, treats, and other items along with a “gift certificate” for the purchase or adoption of the pet. This way you have something fun to put under the Christmas tree or in the birthday package, and the recipient can choose which one they want or opt out if you misjudged and they really don’t want a pet at this time. After all, if your gift is not well received, you could find yourself the proud owner of a new pet!