We all have friends or family members who dream of having a pet of their own. You might even have a child who begs for a puppy or kitten for Christmas. The idea of presenting someone with a fluffy little gift is certainly an appealing one, so what’s so wrong with giving pets as presents?
As I’ve mentioned before, we got my dog, Buffy, at Christmas so you could be forgiven for thinking I’m not the person best qualified to argue against giving a pet as a present. The fact of the matter is that my family had wanted a dog for a long time. The adults had sat down to discuss it at length and spent months choosing and visiting breeders. They had decided who would take up the responsibility of training the puppy, whether they would have it microchipped, whether they wanted a boy or a girl, where the nearest vet was, which insurance policy to choose and whether he or she would be allowed upstairs and on the furniture. The reason we got my dog as a family Christmas present is that we chose a reputable, Kennel Club registered breeder who raised her puppies in a home environment, which meant that Buffy cost £500. That’s before you consider all of the other costs of owning a pet. It was more a question of allocation of money; we couldn’t afford a puppy and a karaoke machine.
We put a great deal of thought into getting our pet and, really, she was a gift from all of us to each other. Making the decision over the course of several months as a collaborative choice meant that we knew completely what we were getting ourselves into; we knew the kind of commitment we were making.
One of the problems with the idea of a pet as a present is the commodification of life. Giving a living thing to another person as a gift can add to the idea that animals are possessions rather than living, breathing creatures with feelings. This in turn can lead to poor treatment of animals.
A pet is an animal whose life is in your hands and even small animals like hamsters and fish can live for about five years. Taking on a pet is a commitment and takes time, money and years of love and attention. If you can’t be absolutely sure that the future owner of a pet is willing and able to dedicate themselves wholeheartedly to pet care then you shouldn’t even consider giving them one.
You may think that it’s a sweet idea to get a child a pet for Christmas, but even the most enthusiastic and responsible child is still a child. Their interests and commitments may change as they get older so, if you give your child a pet, you have to be prepared to take a supervisory role and potentially take on full-time care of the pet if the child loses interest or is for any reason unable or unwilling to continue caring for it. You simply cannot guarantee that your child will still be as keen to care for a pet throughout the animal’s lifespan.
One example is the humble rabbit. For some reason people think that rabbits are great presents for children. They are cute and cuddly, they live in the garden so they’re pretty low maintenance, and they eat grass and vegetables so they must be pretty cheap to keep, right? Wrong. I adopted my boy rabbit, Thomas, from a lady I met in a supermarket. She told me that she’d bought him as a present for her children who had lost interest after a month and no longer fed him or cleaned his hutch out. In the two months since I’ve taken him on he’s cost me in the region of £400 for food, bedding, equipment, vaccinations, a new hutch and vet visits. So even a free rabbit isn’t a cheap one. In fact, owning an animal as small as a gerbil can cost around £300 a year just for food and bedding. However you look at it, keeping and providing for an animal is a big financial commitment, whether it’s a mouse or a Mastiff.
It’s not just money you need to apportion to the new addition. To use myself as a case study, between my two rabbits, a Labrador and seven fish I spend roughly 17 hours in an average week on animal care. This includes all cleaning, feeding, walking, socialising and routine maintenance. It has been a huge commitment and, I’ll freely admit, I have had to make sacrifices in my social life to accommodate my animals. I wouldn’t have it any other way, but you would need to be certain that the recipient of the animal is willing and able to prioritise animal care.
Ultimately, there are a lot of points to consider when making the decision as to whether someone is a suitable pet owner. Simply registering an interest or saying that they would love to have a pet is not enough of a reason to buy someone a pet as a gift; how often have you seen someone clamouring for a particular item for Christmas, only to see them lose interest in it months later? In the end I don’t think you should buy a pet for another person as a Christmas present because it’s not a choice that you can make on someone else’s behalf; they have to make it for themselves.