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Adopting Pets as Gifts, Points to Consider

black cat with red bow
“I’m happy to see another Christmas!”

The holiday season is here! Time for the biggest gifts and the best surprises, eating and drinking merrily, countless visits to friends and family, and generally overdoing it.

This year, you’ve decided it’s time your child had a pet. Or perhaps you and your friend, spouse, partner or other family member have been discussing adopting a cat or a dog, bunny or bird. A holiday celebration seems like the most exciting time to present the new kitten under the Christmas tree, the best gift of all, a memory to last a lifetime.

The usual advice about this is just plain “NO!” and in many cases that would be justified. But if both sides of the adoption go through the same careful and thorough procedures with a holiday adoption as they do with any other adoption through the year it’s just as unlikely to result in an unwanted pet, and an ASPCA survey shows that adopting a pet for someone actually strengthens the bond with the pet because of the bond with the person.

Adopting pets as gifts

I’ve written about this subject in the past, even long before blogging, and the accepted position was always firmly that a pet should not ever be given as a gift. But our positions on many aspects of adopting pets to new homes have changed—free or low-cost adoptions, promoting black cats at Halloween, for instance, programs that shelters successfully use all the time today. The logic in both positions was that without making the choice one’s self and without putting money down and making a personal investment in the pet, the commitment to the pet was questionable and most often the adoption was unsuccessful because the animal would be abandoned. Leagues of animals would be returned to the shelters in the days after Christmas if people were permitted to adopt pets to be given as gifts. When I was growing up giving a child a kitten or puppy for Christmas was a very common gift and it did often end in disaster for the animals; later in my life I’ve rescued more than one unwanted cat tossed out who’d been given to a household as a Christmas gift as a free kitten.

According to the studies one thing that happens when an animal is given as a gift is the bond between two people because of the gift…and that actually deepened the bond with the animal.

But times have changed for animals and people, and more recent statistics have not borne that out. A recent ASPCA survey found that “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 fear that a person who had not actually chosen the pet and completed the adoption or had received it as a surprise would have less commitment or love for the pet was likewise unfounded as “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.”

We have examined our relationships with animals, and when adoptions are made, they are organized and finalized in many cases with much more care than in years past.

Our positions have changed because we have redefined many of the terms we used concerning animals, pets and adoption, clarified things and even come up with a new vocabulary—the human-animal bond, rehoming, cat colony rooms, socialization, fostering programs. And most important of all, we’ve made animals less of an accessory and made a huge effort to understand animals on their own terms, not necessarily related to our needs and expectations. We have examined our relationships with animals, and when adoptions are made, they are organized and finalized in many cases with much more care than in years past, with veterinarian checks and home visits, animals are often spayed or neutered and vaccinated already, much more is known about their personality and shelters offer more support before, during and after adoptions to help adopting families retain pets who may have issues.

And as a society we’ve also taken a good look at our gift-giving habits and the gifts we give. More and more often, options for gift-giving include making a donation in a person’s name to an organization they support or sponsoring an activity which does good in another part of the world, like adopting a goat so that a woman in Uganda can feed her children and be able to make goods to sell and become self-sufficient. Gifts are not necessarily always objects.

An animal is not a gift

What you’re giving is the chance for a human and an animal to develop a loving lifetime bond, which is the goal of every adoption, no matter when it happens.

An animal is not a gift. The kitten or cat or any other animal is a living being with physical and emotional needs as complex as yours. Her life does not begin when she enters your household but, like you, she is involved in her own cycle of existence, including past experiences and present needs which are as much a part of her as those stripes on her forehead that caused you to choose her over all the other cats at the shelter. The real gift is the lifetime of memories and love that grow through the years.

It may be that for some people, adopting a pet and giving it to someone else as a gift is just giving a thing, an object, an item the person said they might want, and that may, unfortunately, happen with some gift adoptions, but it also happens with direct adoptions.

But really, what you’re giving is the chance for a human and an animal to develop a loving lifetime bond, which is the goal of every adoption, no matter when it happens. And according to the studies one thing that happens when an animal is given as a gift is the bond between two people because of the gift, tied with the relationship with the animal in the center, and that actually deepened the bond with the animal.

The responsibilities of both the adopter and the adoptee are still part of the situation

But that doesn’t mean you can just waltz in and choose a pet for someone else, especially during the holidays. Just as with any adoption, the needs, abilities and actual interest of the recipient need to be considered as well as the needs of the animal, and add in the complexities of the holidays.

Maybe not exactly on the holiday, but during the season.

Cats and dogs are different to bring home and introduce to your household, and because I know cats better I’m going to proceed from this point with cats as the adopted pet.

Considering that entire books have been written on the complexities of introducing a new kitten or cat into a household, you’d think most people would avoid, or be discouraged from, introducing a pet to the household at an overcrowded, overstressed time like a holiday. But determined gift-givers are not easily discouraged.

The holidays can be dangerous

If the recipient household isn’t accustomed to the presence of an animal companion, then dangers are multiplied.

We get so caught up in our excitement and honest goodwill that we forget about what can go wrong. The holidays actually hold potential dangers for our animal companions (see “Pet Proofing for the Holidays” and “Fire and Icicles: December Holiday Cautions for Pets“). For instance, mistletoe and holly are both toxic to cats but we may decide to go all natural with a centerpiece that contains both items, or swag garlands of them enticingly around the windows. Even tinsel and ribbon can cause serious harm to a cat who decides to eat it, getting tangled in the twists and turns of the digestive tract and sometimes requiring emergency surgery.

If the recipient household isn’t accustomed to the presence of an animal companion, then those dangers are multiplied. You may not adequately prepare your household for a curious or frightened feline, and an accident within the house or an escape is entirely possible. Even if the household already has a feline or two, all cats are not the same and the new kitty may have habits the resident kitties have never had. The last thing you want your gift to turn into is the tragedy of an injured or lost pet, or an injured human.

Veterinary care at the holiday

Whether the household is accustomed to cats or this is the first entry, finding emergency care during the holiday season is difficult. Most shelter kittens and cats today are healthy and have received all the veterinary care they need up to the time of their adoptions; indeed, many shelters won’t even let animals go until they are spayed and neutered, have all the recommended basic care and are healthy and socialized.

But a new kitty is more likely to develop an illness under the stress of changing living accommodations. It may be due to an underlying condition not evident at the shelter or it may be acquired after joining the household. An injury may occur if the cat is frightened by the changes, or the cat may totally embrace its new accommodations and end up climbing the tree, walking across the stove, eating holiday decorations, leaving you to find an emergency clinic open on Christmas Day.

What about the recipient?

As fun as surprises are, it’s the recipient who will be living with the kitty from this day forward. Even if the giver is in the same household and has furtively questioned the recipient to discover details of the recipient’s preferences, here are at least three quick reasons why the recipient should choose the kitty.

1. Maybe they want to choose the cat. 2. Maybe they’d like to choose a favorite shelter or rescue. 3. Make sure they really want a pet.

  • First, all cats are not the same, and forming a bond with an animal is just as complex as it is with another human. Of the billions of other humans on earth, or the hundreds we come to know in our lives, we only become real friends with a handful. What makes us think we can bond with any animal who comes along, or that a future pet owner shouldn’t have the chance to look for that little spark of love themselves?
  • Second, the recipient may have some preference as to where the kitty comes from. Every city and region has a list of shelters and rescue organizations which are generally bursting with cats who need good homes, and as difficult as it may be, you can narrow down the list somewhat using your own homemade criteria—the shelter that has the most cats at the moment, for instance, or one that has a clinic for which you can buy a membership for low-cost care in the future.
  • Third, you need to be absolutely certain the recipient really wants an animal companion. Yes, you’re sure that if you just get the cat into the house it will all work out, but it’s wrong for both the animal and the human to try to force the bond when neither of them actually wants it. Many people talk on end about adopting, play with other peoples’ animal companions and even visit or volunteer at shelters, but I know from fostering and adopting cats to others that when the opportunity presents itself they decide they really don’t want to live with an animal. Only they can decide when and even if they are ready for the commitment.

Pets might be returned to the shelter if the person really isn’t interested or wants to choose on their own. At worst a pet may be discarded, simply abandoned, to the outdoors, becoming one of the cats we rescue on a daily basis. Neither outcome is good for the pet. The adopter needs to be absolutely certain the recipient wants a pet.

You’ll find plenty on this topic on the internet. As I read about pet loss and studies of the human-animal bond I’ve read many articles by bioethicist and writer Jessica Pierce, Ph.D., and she has a comprehensive article about this, Giving Pets as Gifts, citing several studies on Psychology Today. Also, a CatChannel.com feature entitled “Giving Pets as Surprise Gifts…Here’s Why It’s a Bad Idea” by Pam Johnson-Bennett, CABC, IAABC-Certified Animal Behavior Consultant, and Amy Shojai CABC has an in-depth article entitled “How to Give Pets as Gifts”.

Pets as gifts for children

The recommendation is that for children under 12 an adult should monitor and help with the pet’s care, and for older children an adult should still supervise even as the child grows older.

Of course, when we think of pets as a surprise gift at the holidays we think of children and their first pet. I can speak to this from personal experience.

Indeed, I received my first kitten in a box under the Christmas tree the year I was eight. I will never forget that morning, the cardboard carrier with holes from the shelter under the tree and little scratching noises, following the energetic orange kitten around under chairs and tables on my hands and knees to watch it bat around a half of a walnut shell, and the joy of a warm and playful kitten deciding to curl up and purr and nap in my lap for the first time in my life. That morning there were bowls for cat food and water in the kitchen and a box of kitten food under the sink, and a tiny litterbox in the bathroom. Cat toys were all over the floor.

For as careless as my parents could often be, they and my sister covered all the bases in adopting a kitten as a surprise for me. Likely, the kitten had been with my sister, who had graduated high school and moved out. I remembered the questions they had asked about what animals I liked best, and they’d found out and purchased what the kitten needed and kept it safe until that morning. At my age they likely knew they’d be giving most of the care to the kitten. My first cat* was with me until her death at age 15, after I graduated from college…and look at me today.

When I was growing up giving children pets as Christmas gifts was very common, and often it did end in disaster for cats and dogs in those days—I remember friends who’d received pets as gifts at Christmas into their families and before school was out for summer the cat was a stray in the neighborhood or the dog was gone. This was the late 60s when few people spayed or neutered pets, legions of kittens and puppies were separated from their mothers and surrendered to shelters, held in cages until they were adopted or the shelter needed room for more. No animals were given vaccines or veterinary care and distemper was rampant, the shelters just did the best they could with the overpopulation.

*My first kitten had apparently been exposed to distemper at the shelter, grew ill and died two days after Christmas, though I did eventually choose another kitten myself after the holiday. The experience obviously didn’t dim my love for cats, and I wrote about this and how cats became an important part of my life in “The Unintended Gift”.

So let’s go shopping—for pet stuff!

If you can’t adopt and present a pet on the holiday morning, all is not lost! Most people are busy during the holidays—parties, shopping, guests, travel—and purchasing a gift certificate from a shelter may be a better choice so they can choose at leisure and bring the animal home at a less busy, less stressful time and allow that animal to explore its new environment and bond with its new family. You can see if your local shelter or rescue organization has a gift certificate policy where you can prepay for an adoption or alternatively, make a donation in the name of that person. If not, make up your own certificate and put the money aside. Give the certificate on the holiday.

You can surprise the recipient with gifts for the pet they have expressed an interest in: beds, toys, food, grooming supplies, and also the offer to go in search of their new best friend.

Best wishes on your new arrival!

When the big day comes, we wish you a future full of love and good memories with your new kitty, or whatever pet you choose. Take your time and get to know your new pet because you’ll be spending many years together. And you can find plenty of cats for adoption right here, and at your local rescue or shelter there are plenty of pets waiting to go to their forever home. What a wonderful gift to them.

. . . . . . .

Resources in this article

Position Statement on Pets as Gifts (ASPCA)

Giving Pets as Gifts, Bioethicist and writer Jessica Pierce, Ph.D.

Keeping Pets (Dogs and Cats) in Homes, a three-phase retention study by American Humane’s Animal Welfare Research Institute and PetSmart Charities

Should Dogs and Cats be Given as Gifts?, Animals, vol. 3, issue 4

Giving Pets as Gifts: 4 Rules to Follow, Wendy C. Fries, WebMD

Giving Pets as Surprise Gifts…Here’s Why It’s a Bad Idea” Pam Johnson-Bennett, CABC, IAABC-Certified Animal Behavior Consultant

How to Give Pets as Gifts”, Amy Shojai CABC

Gifts featuring cats you know! Visit Portraits of Animals


Fine ArtPhotographyGiftsGreeting CardsBooksCommissioned Portraits & Artwork

Great Rescues Day Book:
Portraits, Rescue Stories, Holidays and Events, Essential Feline Information, All in One Book

day book with cat portraits
Great Rescues Day Book

Each month features one of my commissioned portraits of a feline or felines and their rescue story along with a kitty quote on the left page, and on the right page the month name with enough lines for all possible dates, with standard holidays and animal-themed observances and events. Great Rescues also includes a mini cat-care book illustrated with my drawings including information on finding strays or orphaned kittens, adopting for the first time or caring for a geriatric cat, a list of household toxins and toxic plants, or helping stray and feral cats and beginning with TNR.

Each book includes also 10 sheets of my “22 Cats” decorative notepaper with a collage of all the portraits in black and white so you can make your own notes or write special notes to friends.

The portraits in this book, collected as a series, won both a Certificate of Excellence and a Muse Medallion in the 2011 Cat Writers’ Association Annual Communication Contest, as well as the 22 Cats Notepaper mentioned below.

Read more and order.


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7 thoughts on “Adopting Pets as Gifts, Points to Consider

  • Pingback: Some Seasonal Reading to Rest and Relax ~ The Creative Cat

  • It is a difficult issue, good and important recommendations you have here.
    I have always been against giving pets as gifts because I have seen disasters… but it can be done carefully and have different results.
    I loved looking at Emmie in the picture!!!!

    • Emmie was such a gift, Maru! It definitely applies to experienced adopters, and I’ve discouraged more than a few people knowing it would be a disaster in that case.

  • I have to believe that gifting a kitten or cat would be better served, if the person received a voucher as their Christmas Day gift, then parent and child can go to the local rescue and interview all of the cats. That way, there is excitement on the day, then more anticipation when they can go pick out the best kitty for that person!

    • I think that’s true for children too, but that’s not always the case. I’ve seen a few sweet holiday adoptions among couples where they’ve been “cat shopping”, had materials on hand for the potential cat and both agreed on a particular cat , who then became a gift. It really has to be people who you know are knowledgeable about cats for sure.

  • You’ve presented some really interesting ideas. I’m one who would prefer a gift certificate for adoption later if I were to gift an animal. As for myself, I would hate it if someone gave me a cat as a gift even if I had no other cats. I prefer to make the decision myself. I guess that’s the point. You need to keep the intended recipient and their wishes in mind. Great article Bernadette!

    • I have people trying to give me cats all the time! I would always suggest the certificate, or a big box of toys and beds and treats for the future pet, and I especially don’t like a kitten entering the house at the holidays. But if all the usual bases of considering adoption are covered, which includes the interests of the recipient and everyone else in the house in the choice, and the adopters are aware of the needs of the particular pet they are adopting, I think it’s fine.


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