Seven years ago, Snoopy, a Beagle puppy, was given to a little girl as a surprise gift by her grandparents during their holiday visit to Los Angeles. The grandparents bought Snoopy online from a breeder in the Midwest, and the girl’s family loved the tiny puppy. They carried Snoopy around in purses, adorned him in pet clothing, even took him along on family outings.
But when Snoopy got bigger and chewed the rug and brought home a few fleas from the park, he was banished to the back yard. There he howled, barked and dug holes out of fear and frustration. He was scolded and given barely enough kibble to survive. Eventually, Snoopy’s family decided to get rid of Snoopy, so they loaded him in the car and – just five months after receiving him as a gift – took him to the local animal shelter. A few days later, he was scheduled to be euthanized.
Fortunately, my nonprofit rescue organization, The Fuzzy Pet Foundation, intervened and rescued Snoopy. We nursed him back to health, provided him with nutritious food, and spent time and money to pair him with a professional trainer. After a year of nurturing Snoopy with love and attention, we were finally able to place him in a suitable home.
Each year around this time, The Fuzzy Pet Foundation receives a slew of emails and phone calls from people looking for kittens and puppies to give as holiday gifts. Our adoption process helps us screen out impulsive pet shoppers. But this is not enough to stop them from obtaining pets elsewhere, unaware that animals given as presents often end up unwanted and discarded at local animal shelters. In the months of December and January, our organization is inundated with pleas for help from recipients of these “gift” animals.
Pets are not fruitcakes or poinsettias. They should never be an impulse purchase.
When asked about the viability of giving pets as holiday gifts, Katie Ingram, community outreach supervisor at OC Animal Care Center in Orange, suggested a different idea: “We encourage folks to think outside the box by creating their own gift certificates that amount to what it would cost to adopt a dog or cat from our shelter. It’s a great gesture and you can let the recipient pick out his or her own pet. Adopting any animal is a lifetime commitment so you really need to bond with your new pet. If your gift recipient does not want your gift certificate, then he or she can ask for a cash refund and donate it to a local animal charity instead.”
Pets are living, breathing creatures representing a huge responsibility. People who want pets should research size, breed and temperament to find a good match. They are, after all, preparing for a new member of the family. Many people do not have the time, energy or financial means to care for a pet. During the chaos of holiday celebrations, people are especially busy, so they do not have the time it takes to fulfill a new puppy’s round-the-clock needs and demands. The average cost of basic food, supplies, medical care and training for a dog or cat is $600 to $900 annually, according to the ASPCA. While new owners may enjoy their pets for a few weeks, many later resent the gift once the novelty wears off, and the cute puppy grows into an active dog that needs attention, training, walking and feeding.
Most of these Christmas “gifts,” if not expected or prepared for, end up at the local animal shelter. What happens then? Already, our nation’s animal shelters accept between 6 million and 8 million dogs and cats each year; half of them are adopted, while the other half are euthanized due to lack of space and resources.
The decision to adopt a new family member must be a collective decision, not a holiday surprise. Every member of the family should have a chance to meet and spend time with the pet before making the decision to adopt. Not every gift pet that winds up abandoned is as lucky as Snoopy. Unless you are willing to spend the time to consult with the recipient family beforehand, resist the temptation and go with the fruitcakes and poinsettias – or a gift certificate.
Sheila Choi is the founder and CEO of The Fuzzy Pet Foundation, a nonprofit, no-kill animal rescue organization based in Southern California.