Nothing’s more fun than surprising someone with just the right holiday gift. But when the gift is an animal, the story doesn’t always have a happy ending.
I’ve been a volunteer at my local animal shelter for almost nine years. I always read the little cards on the front of each cage to see why a dog or cat has come to us. “Moving out of state.” “Not enough time to spend with dog.” “Can’t afford to keep.” Or simply “Doesn’t want cat anymore.” I look at the friendly, anxious faces in each cage and my heart breaks knowing that many of these unwanted dogs and cats got their start under the Christmas tree.
When people receive animals as gifts, they’re less likely to make a commitment for the animal’s lifetime care. Is the new pet owner ready to provide daily care and affection for 12 to 16 years or even longer? Does this particular animal fit the person’s lifestyle and financial means? Costs can add up quickly not only for food but also for vet visits and emergency care when the dog steps on a thorn or the cat eats a toxic houseplant. Dogs need outdoor exercise every single day, and it’s a huge time investment to train and housebreak a puppy. For many people, a well-mannered adult dog or a middle-aged lap cat is a better fit than a high-energy puppy or kitten.
Problems might not surface right away with a “gift pet.” That adorable puppy or kitten wearing a Christmas ribbon will be the center of attention for a while. Then the family gets busy with jobs and soccer games, or perhaps a new baby is born, and Rusty or Ginger gets ignored. Small behavior problems quickly become big problems and finally the family delivers their pet to the animal shelter, assuming that he or she will be placed in a new, loving home. But Rusty’s not a cute puppy anymore, and he barks a lot because he’s lonely and bored. Ginger is a big cat now and she claws the furniture because she wasn’t given a scratching post. These animals don’t have much hope of catching anyone’s interest, and after a few days or weeks they will be euthanized to make room for more dogs and cats.
If you know someone who really wants a companion animal, how about giving a gift certificate for the adoption fee at the local animal shelter? Wrap up a food dish, some toys and the gift certificate and put them under the tree. Or buy a dog bed or cat carrier and wrap it with a stuffed animal and the gift certificate. After the holidays, you can all go down to the shelter together and pick out just the right animal.
One of the most important lessons we can teach our children is respect for other living beings. Dogs and cats aren’t disposable, and they don’t belong under the tree with the other gifts. To show the kids what the holiday season is really all about, take them to the animal shelter after the new year begins and give an unwanted dog or cat the precious gift of a “forever home” with your family.
Lisa Towell is a writer and animal shelter volunteer in California. She wrote this for People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA), 501 Front St., Norfolk, VA 23510; www.HelpingAnimals.com.