Thursday, December 19, 2013

Should we review our thinking about pets as Christmas presents?

Imagine finding Bosca under your tree...
For as long as I have worked in and alongside shelters, there has been a working assumption that adopting animals out at Christmas is fraught with risk. The thinking is that dogs and cats purchased on impulse, and given often as a surprise - without the recipient having anything to do with selection - leads to greater risk of re-surrender. Those who recieve pets as gifts may be less invested, less attached, and more likely to just dump their pet. 

This is a powerful, intuitive story that permeates our society - and probably applies in some real-life scenarios. And there are philosophical objections. Giving an animal as a "gift" objectifies it, and could convince the recipient that it is a good that might be exchanged or refunded (or regifted) like the other presents.

But have we taken it a bit too far? All over the world, shelters have policies limiting adoption over Christmas, with some closing for adoptions that week to prevent gift adoptions that will become resurrender statistics. In my experience, potential adopters get quizzed that bit extra in the month or so leading up to Christmas.

But a study by the ASPCA, recently published in Animals, adds to a growing body of literature that torpedoes the "gifting-is-evil" hypothesis. The researchers interviewed 1006 respondents by telephone, and found that 222 had recieved a pet dog or cat as a gift in the past ten years (so obviously, in the US at least, giving pets as gifts is reasonably common).

They found no significant relationship between recieving a dog or cat as a gift (whether or not this was a surprise), and the owner's love or attachment to the pet. 

THIS DOES NOT MEAN THAT PETS GIVEN AS GIFTS ARE NEVER SURRENDERED. But, it does mean that many animals that are given as gifts are loved and cherished just as much as those that are purchased by the owner.

This and other studies found that the risk of relinquishment was higher in any animal obtained from a shelter. Another study found that "unwanted gift" was cited as the reason for surrendering 0.3% of dogs and 0.4% of cats, compared with "no time for pet" as the reason for 10% of canine surrenders and "allergies in family" as the reason for 18% of feline surrenders (antihistamines people!).

One study found that dogs given as gifts were less likely to be surrendered than those purchased or adopted by the owner. Perhaps this is because of the link to the gift giver?

Of course there were limitations to the study. It relied on respondents accurately self-disclosing that they had recieved an animal as a gift. In some circles (e.g. a lot of animal lover circles) that is taboo. The measurement of attachment to the pet was also self-disclosed, and we know in real life that what people say and what people do can be tricky to reconcile sometimes. And they didn't identify how long the gifted dog or cat lived in the home to which it was gifted. Finally, they didn't go into details about the gifting - was the dog or kitten presented under a Christmas tree, was the recipient taken to a shelter to choose, did someone "regift" an unwanted pet or just handover a fat wad of cash outside the pet shop and say "go knock yourself out"?

But it does raise important points.
  • If it is the case that gifting does not alter attachment or increase surrenders, shelters can lift Christmas adoption-freezes and take advantage of the additional homes.
  • We need to focus on other reasons for surrender, and work to manage owner expectations.
  • It frees us to consider some of the ADVANTAGES of adopting at Christmas - for example, owners are often home and have additional time to bond with their new pet.
  • Fewer animals in shelters at Christmas means less crowding and less stress on shelter staff.
  • Is there in fact evidence that shelters should be PROMOTING adoption at Christmas? [I'm not saying there is at all - but is this an uptapped marketing opportunity that could save more lives?].
We should also be careful not to pick on Christmas. Gifts are given year-round for various occasions, and the study didn't focus on animals as Christmas gifts. 

It seems to make sense, where possible, to involve the recipient in the choice of pet they will be living with for the next decade or two. Some shelters already sell gift vouchers, allowing givers to surprise people with the purchase of a pet but leaving them with the ultimate choice.

Its a complex issue, dealing with unwanted pets is complex and emotionally challenging, but it is always worth testing our assumptions in case they're acting as barriers to placing animals in worthy homes.

And maybe, just maybe, its okay for animal lovers to think about giving an animal the gift of a loving home, if you think about it thus: they're not the present - YOU are.

Weiss E, Dolan ED, Garrison L, Hong J, Slater M. Should Dogs and Cats be Given as Gifts? Animals. 2013; 3(4):995-1001.