Giving pets as gifts: Why we think it’s (surprise!) a good idea

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christmas dog.jpg

Photo by Tc7 on Flickr

Pets as gifts. This used to be one of the big shelter and
rescue no-nos. Even the mere suspicion that someone was “shopping” for a gift
pet was enough to send a shamed would-be adopter back out the door.

shelters used to go so far as to shut down adoption programs during the
holidays. The rationale was that a pet not adequately prepared for was a pet unlikely to stay
in the home fur-ever.

Now, as the animal welfare industry matures, more emphasis
is given to studies and statistics — and boy have we all been surprised. We’ve
learned that in some cases, people may in fact keep pets they got as surprise gifts the

It turns out that cats, especially, may benefit from less planning and fewer
expectations. (There is much to be said about that another day.)

So “pets as gifts” has come into its own. As an exercise, I, lover of all animals, founder of Petfinder,
the consummate pet advocate, close my eyes and imagine the quintessential
holiday experience — and what do I see? I see bright packages piled under a
sparkling tree and overflowing stockings, and smell hot cocoa. But that
isn’t all. I’m surprised to find that my Technicolor Christmas includes
gift pets. Not just any gift pets, but a fuzzy kitten and a Labrador (can substitute
Golden) Retriever puppy.

Wait just a minute here! How did the purebred puppy and fuzzball kitten sneak into my perfect Christmas morning vision? What kind of a
terrible animal welfar-ian am I? The red street dog — the mutt of mutts — tops my
preferred pet list, and a PUPPY? Please! Everyone knows I have a thing for senior
pets. Notwithstanding the comical Far Side-esque images that come to mind when
I picture my animal-welfare-endorsed, decrepit red senior under the tree, I
think if we take a serious second look at pets as gifts, we’ll find some
inspiring truths.

christmas cat.jpg

Photo by wakingmagenta on Flickr

For years, Petfinder has endorsed the concept of pets as
gifts. We do this primarily through our Pet Promise Certificate.

certificate that can be paired with pet supplies and toys and humanely wrapped
in a box and placed under the tree. No need for breathing holes. The idea is
that after the holidays, the family can go together to a shelter or rescue group and pick out a pet.

But if
our image of the perfect gift is a fluffy puppy with a big red bow (as in my
Christmas fantasy), then we’ll get a reality check the day after Christmas when
we arrive at our shelter to find that less than 10% of the pets there are
babies. Adolescents and adults make up the majority of the pets needing a home
for the holidays.

Can our emotional, advertising-influenced image of the perfect
Christmas kitten reconcile with our intellectual need to adopt a rangy stray?
I think it can. In fact, the transition from Technicolor Christmas fantasy to real-life
new family member happens seamlessly thousands of times every year.

Most Pet Promise
pets (and I credit this happy news to this awesome generation of super-conscientious
kids) aren’t fluffy purebred puppies and kittens. They are, instead,
non-descript middle-agers who are average in every way until that special
moment when a love-connection is made.

So if you’re thinking of getting or giving pet as a
holiday gift, I encourage and applaud you!

Kids: “Can I get a dog?” should be integrated right at the
end (as punctuation) of all your child-to-parent interactions. Upon waking:
“Morning, Honey. How did you sleep?” “Fine, Mom. Can I have a dog?”

Parents: This Christmas,
THINK PET. And if you are really serious about the pet-under-the-tree thing, puppies
and kittens should NOT be your focus. I strongly encourage you to consider one
of our very special seniors — who will be much easier to keep a bow on.

The technique would be easy: 1. Place new dog bed
under tree. 2. Allow time for new old dog to amble over to bed and plop down.
3. Pile gifts around new old dog. 4. Turn up holiday music to mask snoring. 5. After
the festivities, remember to wake dog. (I am
inspired by my own oldster, Jim.)

Happy Holidays!

— Betsy

PS: According to a paper published by the National Council on Pet Population Study & Policy,
which compiled the results of five research papers on why people give
up their pets: “dogs received as gifts were much less likely to be
relinquished to an animal shelter than those who were acquired directly
from an animal shelter, a friend, a pet shop, or as a stray.”

in a recent survey of adoptable Petfinder pets nationwide, 99.9% said
they would rather spend the holidays in a home than at the shelter 🙂

One of the first national voices advocating that
shelters and rescue groups get off their high horses and start thinking of the
holidays as a great time to (thoughtfully) market pet adoption was Mike Arms, a
charismatic and thought-pushing character who now runs the Helen Woodward Animal Center
in Rancho Santa Fe, CA. In the old days, Petfinder partnered with HWAC and PETCO to celebrate
his program, Home for the Holidays. This year, IAMS has brought the effort to
national TV in an incredible ad campaign, and we’re proud to power their online
pet search

A few years ago, our friends at BISSELL inspired us to
create the Pet Promise Certificate. It has resulted in hundreds of success stories, with parents and kids
joining together in a pledge to be responsible pet parents and a promise to pick out a
pet as a gift.

PPS: Okay, I must confess — I made up the part about the
smell of hot cocoa wafting through the air on my perfect Christmas morning. In
truth, it is some combination of bacon and coffee. But I’m a struggling vegan
and I don’t drink coffee, so I rationalized my fantasy to arrive at cocoa.