Giving animals as gifts a bad idea

by Melissa Rae Sanger

Earlier this year, we opened our hearts to a tiny black kitten with a white stripe down her back. She had been abandoned outside in the cold and was covered in fleas and fighting a nasty infection. After fostering her for a time, we decided to make her a permanent member of our family.

Little Rue is now about 3 months old, a glorious mixture of sweet and spicy with a touch of mischief. She gets into everything and seems to gravitate toward potential hazards — like our Christmas tree. It stands unadorned in the family room, waiting for lights and ornaments. We haven’t decorated it yet because Rue sees it as her personal jungle gym. I’m hopeful that she’ll soon grow bored of it.

I’m glad that Rue had some time to get used to her new home and that we had time to get used to caring for her before the busy holiday season. With all the enticements, excitement and expenses that the holidays bring, taking on the responsibility of caring for an animal can be overwhelming for families. For animals, being given as “gifts” or bought on a whim can be disastrous.

Among other things, Rue needed a new breakaway collar, food, vaccines and a spay surgery. Considering how costly Christmas is, I’m glad we didn’t have to pay for all of these during the holidays. According to Forbes, the average cost of caring for a cat in the U.S. is $900 annually. The cost for a dog averages $1,480 per year — and that’s just for basic, bare minimum care. An illness, a trip to the emergency veterinarian or another unexpected expense can quickly set guardians back thousands of dollars.

Holiday visitors, travel and packed schedules also make it harder for animals to adjust to a new home — and for their guardians to give them the attention and patient guidance they need. Although we’ll have more guests than usual over the next month, I’m confident that Rue is now comfortable enough in her surroundings to do just fine. And we’re familiar enough with her care routine — playing with her, feeding her, refilling her bowl with clean water, scooping the litter box, grooming her and cuddling her — that we’ll stick with it no matter how busy the holidays get.

Many animals given as gifts won’t be loved and cared for like Rue. They’ll be condemned to a miserable existence — imprisoned in a crate all day or chained outdoors. Or they’ll join the countless others who end up in animal shelters or abandoned on the side of the road to freeze or starve to death after an unprepared recipient discovers that caring for them is an unwanted responsibility.

Please, never give a living, feeling being to anyone as a “gift.” And if you’re emotionally and financially able to care for an animal family member for a lifetime (remember, many animals live well into their teens), make their introduction to your home a happy and successful one by waiting until after the hectic holidays are over.

You can still create a Christmas memory by gathering presents for your future family member, such as a soft bed, dishes, toys and treats galore, a collar, food and a litter box or leash. Wrap them up with a big red bow and leave them under the tree. You can even leave a note for the rest of the family explaining that you’ll be adopting an animal companion from the shelter after things quiet down.

As for us, Christmas will look a bit different this year: We won’t have any fragile ornaments on the tree (if we decorate it at all), we’ll be leaving ribbons off packages (too tempting and dangerous for a kitten) and we’ll need to be a bit more cautious with our spending. But these are all small sacrifices for having Rue spend Christmas (and every holiday to come) off the streets, safe and warm at home.

Melissa Rae Sanger is a staff writer for the PETA Foundation, 501 Front St., Norfolk, VA 23510; www.PETA.org.