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. A holiday celebration seems like the most exciting time to present the new kitten, the best gift of all, a memory to last a lifetime.
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 adoptions, or for very little cost, 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.
But 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.”
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 been making 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.
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. 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.
Lots of things to consider before you adopt an animal as a gift
But that doesn’t mean you can just waltz in and choose a pet for someone else, especially at 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.
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.
An animal is not a gift
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.
The holidays can be dangerous
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 “Holiday Pet Safety“). 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.
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.
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 only they can decide when and even if they are ready for the commitment.
Pets can 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 “Carefully Consider Kittens as Gifts” by Pam Johnson-Bennett, CABC, IAABC-Certified Animal Behavior Consultant, and Amy Shojai CABC has an in-depth article on cats.about.com entitled “Pets as Gifts: How to Give Cats as Gifts”.
Pets as gifts for children
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 a number of the warnings in these articles. Indeed, I received my first kitten in a box under the Christmas tree the year I was nine and I will never forget that morning, but the kitten had an illness, my parents were inexperienced, emergency care was hard to find and I lost him the day after Christmas. 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”.
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.
So let’s go shopping—for pet stuff!
If you can’t adopt and present a kitten 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 at 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. Take your time and get to know her—you’ll be glad you did. And you can find plenty of cats for adoption right here. Don’t forget that Smokie and Bella are looking for their forever homes!
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Resources in this article
Giving Pets as Gifts, Bioethicist and writer Jessica Pierce, Ph.D.
Keeping Pets in Homes, brochure published by American Humane Association 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
“Carefully Consider Kittens as Gifts” Pam Johnson-Bennett, CABC, IAABC-Certified Animal Behavior Consultant
“Pets as Gifts: How to Give Cats as Gifts”, Amy Shojai CABC
Read more Essays on The Creative Cat.
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