I’ve been researching a post about adoption barriers, and I have a whole huge situation–with footnotes!–coming on that in the new year. For now, though, one thing I’ve encountered over and over again in my research: Limiting adoptions for the holidays throws up yet another adoption barrier not founded in data.
I am fully aware that this isn’t a popular opinion, so stick with me, guys, because I’m going to break it down.
I’m sure you’ve seen the headlines:
- Pets Aren’t Presents
- 5 Reasons Not to Give Pets as Christmas Gifts
- Why You Should Avoid Giving Pets as Gifts
As so on. There’s even a massive online campaign from my least favorite, most hated animal group, PETA, that includes a social and blog push for “pets aren’t presents.”
Before we look at the numbers, let’s set three expectations:
First, we’re not talking about giving a puppy to, say, your mailman or your child’s classroom teacher. This isn’t a surprise for your Great Aunt Gladys (unless she explicitly told you all she wants is a kitten). This is a pet gift within your own household. And, honestly, the numbers bear this out anyways… people aren’t giving pets as presents to random people on your list anyways.
Second, every single one of the “don’t give pets as holiday gifts” articles I’ve read included the same theme: Giving a pet as a present brings an animal into an unprepared household. Since every article includes this same warning–the recipient won’t be prepared–I’m wondering who they think gives the pet. I’m not sure if this is a scenario that assumes you give the pet as the gift and then wash your hands of it, but if we’re talking pets adopted into the same household (see the point above), it’s an expectation on the giver’s part to, you know, give the pet’s supplies along with the pet. Since more often than not this pets-as-presents debate focuses on parents giving their kids a pet for Christmas, well, the parents buy the supplies anyway.
Third, I’m focused solely on dogs and cats. Unfortunately, as with just about every animal welfare topic, there’s little reliable data on small animals, and I’m striving to avoid assumptions or anecdotes in favor of data.
OK, so we’re talking about a dog or cat given as a gift within the household and a responsible adult is involved in the decision.
Seems simple enough, but somehow the popular opinion has decided people give pets willy-nilly to unsuspecting friends and family who know nothing about pets, who don’t have the budget for it, who haven’t pet-proofed their home. And then it turned into skyrocketing relinquishment numbers post-holiday (which the data shows that’s a far cry from the truth… more on that in a minute). Honestly, who’s giving dogs and cats out to everyone on their list?
All that aside, this happens so often in animal adoption: feelings seem to hold more weight than data. So, let’s look at the data.
My preference is always to find peer-reviewed literature, and there’s not a ton, but there’s this: “Should Dogs and Cats be Given as Gifts?” published in the open-access journal Animals in 2013. You can access the full study here, but here’s what the authors state in the intro (bold emphasis added by me):
Common arguments include statements such as: pet ownership shouldn’t be an impulse decision; the recipient should consent to pet ownership and be involved in the selection of a pet that fits his or her lifestyle; it’s a long-term commitment; pet ownership is costly; the holidays are a bad time to bring home a new animal. This message may be driven by concerns of inappropriate homing and return to the shelter. Often, organizations that support these arguments cite anecdotal evidence that returns of pets from unhappy gift receivers occurs frequently. However, the available data do not support these concerns.
They went on to clarify the purpose of their study:
While there is strong existing evidence to show that dogs and cats obtained as gifts are not at a higher risk of relinquishment than dogs and cats obtained in other ways, the myth that dogs and cats should not be given as gifts still persists.
The lack of associations between receiving a dog or cat as a gift and its impact on self-perceived love/attachment and whether or not respondents still had the dog or cat in the home is evidence supporting the notion that pets given as gifts are not at higher risk for abandonment. Further, denying potential adopters the right to obtain dogs and cats as gifts may unnecessarily impede the overarching goal of increasing the rate of live-releases of dogs and cats from our nations’ shelter system.
Ultimately, the outcomes for animals given as gifts are the same outcomes of the general pet population.
As far as anecdotal evidence, ASPCA Pro published a case study of a shelter in Charleston, SC, that launched a “Home for the Holidays” program. In that case, the president of the shelter reported that 40 pets have been given as gifts through their program and none have been returned.
In the ASPCA’s official position statement on pets as gifts, they write:
Recently, the ASPCA conducted a survey to learn more about people who acquire pets as gifts. In the survey, 96% of the people who received pets as gifts thought it either increased or had no impact on their love or attachment to that pet. The vast majority of these pets are still in the home (86%). The survey also revealed no difference in attachment based on the gift being a surprise or known in advance. Several studies conducted in the 1990’s and 2000 (Patronek, 1996, Scarlett, 1999 New, 1999, New 2000) found that pets acquired as gifts are less likely to be relinquished than pets acquired by the individual.
And, across the ocean, the conversation is changing on pet adoptions through the RSPCA. Here’s an article that examined data and conducted interviews and concluded, again, that pets can be wonderful gifts as long as it’s not a surprise to an unsuspecting friend or family member. Check out their relinquishment rates graph, too, which further shows that the data just doesn’t bear out on the supposed increase in post-holiday pet relinquishment in the UK.
Finally, in this piece from CBS News, the journalist juxtaposes a shelter’s reluctance to adopt pets during the holiday against the data and the HSUS’ position, as well, ultimately concluding that more progressive shelters are likely to allow or even encourage adoptions during the holidays.
BTW, one of the shelters quoted says they try to counsel against adopting pets as gifts but understand that the person can ultimately just leave and go buy a pet to gift… so, who wins in that scenario?
This myth seems to be simply another barrier to pet adoption. Common assumptions that aren’t backed by research prevent pets from finding their families throughout the entire year, but hopefully this myth can be dismantled so that more pups can spend Christmas morning in a home!
- Don’t give a pet to someone not in your household. Duh.
- Make sure an adult is involved in the decision. Also, duh.
- Pets make wonderful gifts and giving an adoptable dog or cat a home for the holidays is absolutely lovely–IF numbers 1 and 2 are strictly followed!