Animal Rights

Pets as Gifts: Please Don't Surprise Me With a Life Sentence

"All I don't want for Christmas is an animal I don't want."

Photo Credit: WilleeCole Photography/Shutterstock

Around holiday time, people begin to ask me if it's okay to give a pet as a gift. Just as I was pondering what to write this time around, Hugh Dorigo sent me a short clip from his recent film "Dogs, Cats and Scapegoats.

In one part of his film, the question of whether or not pets should be given as gifts is discussed. The clip from "Dogs, Cats and Scapegoats" is called "ASPCA: The Virtue of Promoting Pets as Gifts?" and is a must-see. I urge people to watch this short video—it's only 2 minutes and 24 seconds long—and the entire film very carefully and pay close attention to the criteria and data that are presented about studies concerned with the fate of gifted dogs and cats.

Here are some examples. If a person kept the pet for more than 24 hours, the gift was considered to have been "retained" for purposes of the survey. This is a pretty low bar for claiming that gifting worked out well. In addition, specific survey questions were not released and respondents were free to stop answering survey questions at any time. (Surveys that ask people about their behavior but allow them to opt out tend to skew the results toward more positive outcomes.) The four studies cited that supposedly supported the "successes" were not focused directly on the question of giving pets as gifts, appeared to be based on the same data, and were done by many of the same authors.

Don't let big tech control what news you see. Get more stories like this in your inbox, every day.

An aspect of another study addressed pets given as gifts, but focused on only one shelter, only dogs, and only considered the fate of 14 dogs returned as gifts. There also was no overall evidence that increased returns of pets to shelters after holidays were simply the result of an overall increase in adoption rather than pets who were given as gifts. It also is suggested that "loosely interpreting data" might also justify giving more pets as gifts. In the end, it was claimed that the outcomes for gifting were the same as the outcomes for the general pet population, but Emily Weiss of the ASPCA never constructed a reference group for the general pet population that was needed for a proper scientific comparison of outcomes.  

Problems with the study

It's clear that oversimplifying the science does not help the animals. In an interview with Ed Sayres, former CEO of the ASPCA who approved the research, when pressed to answer questions about the details of the study, Sayres said, "If you get into the specifics you'll realize I'm a generalist." In the clip we're told, "The ASPCA stopped responding to emails after we expressed interest in the work of their research division." 

It became clear that there were many problems with the study, so the conclusion that gifting pets is a good idea is highly debatable.

I wanted to find out firsthand what people thought about the idea of giving pets as gifts, so I asked 20 friends and some others what they thought about this. Here are some responses.

  • "It's not fair or appropriate to impose a 15-year life sentence on someone as a surprise."  
  • "If I'd like to share my life with a dog let me make that choice." 
  • "All I don't want for Christmas is an animal I don't want." 
  • "Never."

Of course, the animal also receives a life sentence when being gifted.

Not a single person said anything like, "Yes, that's a good idea." A number commented that choosing to share your home with a pet is a cradle-to-grave commitment, with the cradle beginning when that individual enters your life. It's a huge commitment to take on the responsibility for another individual's life, and no one I know would like to be "told" they now have to do just this. I agree that pets can be "a wonderful addition to one's life, yet not everyone has the time, energy, money, or interest in having a pet."

Are dogs and other animals really getting a 'forever' home?

In a previous essay titled "Giving Puppies as Gifts: What if They're 'The Wrong Dog?'" I discussed an essay by Oliver Noble and a video produced by the Huffington Post called "Watch This Definitive Proof That Puppies Are The World's Best Gifts." I thought it had been produced by the ASPCA, but I was told by the ASPCA's Alison Jimenez that it was not. She also noted that the video simply used their data, but as indicated in the short film clip and above, there are significant problems with the study. 

I concluded my previous essay by begging everyone who is thinking of giving a puppy or another animal to someone as any sort of gift to really think it through and to not do it. Perhaps they could put a note under the Christmas tree about what they want to do or otherwise be 100% sure that the people really want to add a new "family member" who they've already met and are ready to do all it takes to make sure that the animal won't be returned. I know that the surprise will be lost, but at least there should be more certainty that the animal really will be welcomed. Having said this, I'm against giving pets as gifts unless the person or family to whom the gift is to be presented accompanies you to see who the animal is and that they really and truly want that particular individual. If it works, it's a win-win for all. 

Going beyond dogs and cats

In her essay "Giving Pets as Gifts," Jessica Pierce expands the discussion of giving animals as pets beyond dogs and cats. She writes, "We tend to pay less attention to the millions of smaller critters who are sold in pet stores each year. ... As a society, we tend to accord rodents, reptiles, and fish less value than dogs and cats, and it is quite likely that many of these critters given as gifts, particularly to children, wind up in less than ideal situations." Bunnies, it turns out, do not do well as gifts. It's estimated that about 80% are abandoned

Dr. Pierce also writes, "Too many people view the animal shelter as a kind of Goodwill store: you donate your unwanted items, assuming that someone else will buy them for cheap."   

Pop the question before picking up a pet as a gift for someone else 

Animals, like us, require love and proper care to flourish. Although people who give animals as gifts invariably have good intentions, it is unfair to give an animal to anyone unless you are absolutely certain that the person wants that particular animal as a companion and is willing and able to give a lifetime of proper care.

I fully realize that giving pets as gifts can increase adoptions and reduce the population of homeless animals in shelters. However, I also worry that if the animal is "the wrong animal," he or she will pay a huge price for the well-intentioned move that turns into a grievous mistake. Moving dogs or other animals from one home to another—playing "musical animals"—can be extremely perilous, and it's the animal who pays the price. I know that many people also will grieve when giving up the animal, but it's highly likely the animal will suffer more as they go from home to home or spend their lives in a shelter. The answer to questions about whether or not to give a pet as a gift is not to do it, especially as a surprise. Of course, parents or other adults may choose to give a child a companion animal, but that's another matter. 

The 2 minutes and 24 seconds it takes to watch "ASPCA: The Virtue of Promoting Pets as Gifts?" could save another animal's life and also yours. Little is lost and a lot is gained by popping the question before you choose to give another person a pet. Good intentions aren't good enough when gambling with another being's life. 

This article was originally published by Psychology Today. Reprinted with permission.

Marc Bekoff, Ph.D., is professor emeritus of Ecology and Evolutionary Biology at the University of Colorado, Boulder, and co-founder with Jane Goodall of Ethologists for the Ethical Treatment of Animals. He is the author of Canine Confidential: Why Dogs Do What They Do and The Animals’ Agenda: Freedom, Compassion, and Coexistence in the Human Age (with Jessica Pierce). Find him online at marcbekoff.com.