Should you adopt pets out as gifts?

Posted by Jennifer on December 29th, 2010

Our friends over at Purina published this insightful article in their Rally to Rescue magazine. You can read the rest of this article below, or on their website:

Whether to allow the adoption of a dog or cat to a new home over the holidays presents a quandary for many rescue organizations. Fearful of the risk that a new owner is acting on a whim or planning to give the pet as a gift, some rescuers forbid all holiday adoptions. Others consider adoptions on a case-by-case basis, while yet others conduct business as usual and allow adoptions.

On the evening of December 21, 2004, the holiday season took a tragic turn for Loren and Debe Sevening of San Antonio. That was the night they lost their beloved Dalmatian, “Koa.”

“She suffered a string of seizures that did not end — more than seven in a three-hour period,” recalls Debe. “The veterinarian said there was nothing more they could do to help her beyond the medications she was already on, so we had to put her out of her misery. That evening was most difficult for us.”

Koa’s sudden death left such a void in the Sevenings’ lives that they decided to look for a new dog immediately. They logged onto the Web and studied the listings of adoptable dogs that were being fostered by Dalmatian rescue groups. The description of one Dalmatian stirred their hearts: “Saphire,” who was being fostered by Theresa Monnard of RockySpot Rescue in Newcastle, Okla. The Sevenings, not wanting to waste any time, contacted Monnard right away.

Normally, Monnard isn’t too keen on letting anyone adopt one of her foster dogs during the holiday season — and she’s not alone in her hesitation. Many experts and rescuers wrestle with whether to let rescued dogs go to new homes during the period between Thanksgiving and New Year’s Day.

Impulsive Adoptions
Although many people want to add a dog or cat to their lives or to someone else’s, fulfilling either desire during the holidays may not be a good idea. Adoptions at this time “are often impulsive adoptions,” points out Alice Moon-Fanelli, Ph.D., a certified applied animal behaviorist at Tufts University Cummings School of Veterinary Medicine in North Grafton, Mass. “And the holidays are often a hectic time when people don’t have the time or energy to focus on a newcomer.” The result all too often is a dog or cat that receives inadequate care at a crucial time in its life.

The holidays also offer potential hazards to pets’ safety that may not be present at other times of the year. “There may be extra food the pet can get into,” says H. Marie Suthers-McCabe, D.V.M., associate professor of human-companion animal interaction at the Virginia-Maryland Regional College of Veterinary Medicine in Blacksburg, Va. “There also may be gifts on the floor that are prime for chewing, people going in and out of the front door making easy escape routes, and holiday decorations and plants that can be toxic if ingested.”

Marcia Cowen, president of Doberman Rescue Group in Tulsa, Okla., believes that holiday requests for adoption should be postponed until the new year. “Our feeling is that if you place a dog during the holidays, you set him up for failure because it’s a high-stress situation,” she explains. “They don’t know who their real family is, and often the adopters get so caught up in the holidays they are unable to ease the transition of the dog into their new home by paying enough attention to him.” Cowen prefers that her organization not adopt out any dogs from mid-November through January 3.

Cat rescuers are just as vehement as dog rescuers in their opposition to holiday adoptions. For Jeanine Buckner, who heads Reuben’s Room Cat Rescue in Grand Rapids, Mich., the biggest problem with holiday adoptions is that the new owner may have received the animal as a gift and may be unable or unwilling to care for the animal. A prime example is a child who is given a dog or cat as a Christmas gift.

“Adopting a cat is a lifetime commitment,” says Buckner. “A cat should not be a present like a jump rope or a Barbie doll. For a loving cat to be adopted out as a novelty or gift, that just doesn’t sit well with me.”

Such adoptions don’t sit well with many rescue groups. “At the start of the holiday season we start getting calls from people wanting to give a fluffy white cat to their boyfriend or girlfriend as a gift,” says Laura Goodman, foster coordinator for the Feline Foundation of Greater Washington [D.C]. “But it’s never a good idea to give a gift to someone who hasn’t asked for it themselves.”

Rescue groups have still another reason for viewing holiday pets with disfavor: All too often owners surrender those pets to rescue a few months later. “People think puppies are cute,” Cowen says. “But as they get older, they start chewing. Our phone starts ringing in June. That’s when school gets out, and the excuse for surrendering the dog is that the family doesn’t have time for the dog.”

Monnard agrees. When it comes to returns, “spring is just horrible,” she says. “Usually they are not our animals but are from other shelters who do not follow up as closely as we do. We try to hold the hands of our adopters for the first few months to help get them established and work through all the adjustment periods. Since we are very careful about whom we adopt to and about matching dogs to lifestyles, we rarely have a return unless something unforeseen has occurred in the person’s life that keeps them from keeping the pet.”

Instead of putting an animal under the Christmas tree, Goodman suggests that gift givers create a kitty starter set that includes a carrier, care equipment and a book on basic care for the intended recipient. After the holidays pass and the recipient has a chance to consider whether he or she is really able to care for a cat, an adoption can proceed. Other rescue groups allow a prospective adopter to place a reservation for a particular dog or cat.

The adopter can bring the animal home after the holidays. Suthers-McCabe suggests giving the recipient a gift certificate to cover the costs of adopting a dog or cat, enrolling in obedience training, or taking the animal to the veterinarian for its first examination.

Making Exceptions
But although experts and rescuers say that holiday adoptions generally aren’t a good idea, they acknowledge that there can be exceptions to a no-holiday adoption policy, under certain conditions.

Chief among these conditions is a willingness by the adopting family to suspend holiday travel. “If a family can agree to ‘skip’ the holiday and be home quietly with the pet due to time off from work, then perhaps it could be a good time,” says Suthers-McCabe. “I think that would be hard to pull off though.

For example, Goodman feels that a childless or empty-nest couple who is celebrating a low-key holiday at home might be a good candidate for a holiday adoption. Monnard approves holiday adoptions to families who plan to stay home for the holidays and who do not plan to give the adopted dog as a gift.

Some rescue groups do not change their adoption policies over the holidays because they are confident that their rigorous screening policies will eliminate the possibility of impulsive adoptions or adoption of animals as gifts. The Siamese Rescue Center of Locust Dale, Va., “makes it clear to adopters that ‘on the spot’ or ‘spur of the moment’ adoptions are just not feasible or encouraged,” says Siri Zwemke, head of the center. “We don’t do cats as gifts, and we always talk to the primary caretaker during the interview. So all that having been said, we have no restrictions on our adoptions at any time of the year. The bottom line is if you do your applicant screening and acceptance thoroughly, when you adopt shouldn’t matter.”
Linda Isbell of Northern Chesapeake Sheltie Rescue in Abingdon, Md., agrees. “An adoption in December can be just as good as in July,” she says. “A good home is a good home.” Isbell credits her rescue group’s rigorous adoption procedures, which include an extensive applicant questionnaire and home check, with preventing holiday adoption disasters or returned dogs.

The Best Holiday Ever
Although Monnard normally isn’t keen on holiday adoptions, she was willing to make an exception for the Sevenings. As she listened to their story, she realized that they didn’t want a dog for anyone but themselves, and they were experienced with the breed and were planning to spend a low-key holiday at home. And she knew that Saphire needed a forever home.

With Monnard’s approval, the Sevenings drove on Christmas Eve from San Antonio to meet her in Dallas to adopt Saphire. The next day, Christmas Day, the Sevenings decided to double their Dalmatian pleasure by adopting a second rescue dog, “Paka,” who was being fostered in Houston by a rescue group based there. They later renamed Saphire “Layla.”

Debe Sevening reports that both rescued dogs have adjusted beautifully to life in their new domicile. “They are total members of our family, having filled a very deep hole left by our darling Koa. The fact that we got the two of them in our home for Christmas made the holiday the best ever.”

For her part, Monnard couldn’t be happier. “Many folks really do just want a dog whether it is Christmas or Easter,” she says. “We don’t keep them from taking one at that time. We just are very careful on who leaves at this time of year.”

Screening Holiday Adopters

Although many rescue groups don’t allow any of their dogs and cats to be adopted over the holidays, other groups have found that with extra care and attention holiday adoptions can succeed. Here are some of their recommendations for ensuring that holiday adoptions don’t lead to holiday returns:

Check out applicants thoroughly. Make sure that your group’s adoption process includes an extensive questionnaire and that applicants agree to provide references and allow a home visit. Not only will a thorough application process assure you that your animals go to good homes, it will also help discourage the impulsive adoptions that are common during the holiday season.

Front-load the process. Keep a list of approved applicants on file so that you can feel confident about approving a holiday adoption. “Our applicants are checked out extensively before a cat is available, which makes a good match more likely,” says Laura Goodman, foster coordinator for the Feline Foundation of Greater Washington.

Ask about holiday plans. Before you allow a dog or cat to be adopted over the holidays, ask about the adoptive family’s plans. Ideally, the family should be spending several quiet days at home to help the adoptee adjust to its new residence. A family that plans to have lots of company or go out of town over the holiday should wait until after the New Year to bring a new pet home.

Read between the lines. An applicant who shows undue enthusiasm for how someone else will react to the new dog or cat or for bringing the animal home at holiday time should raise a red flag for a responsible rescue group. For example, “if a potential adopter is making a big fuss over it being a Christmas dog, then I might think twice,” says Linda Isbell of Northern Chesapeake Sheltie Rescue in Abingdon, Md.

Trust your gut. Sometimes, a rescue group encounters a holiday adoption applicant who clearly is ready to provide a high-quality life to a dog or cat, as Theresa Monnard of RockySpot Rescue found with Debe and Loren Sevening. In such cases, have the confidence to trust your instincts, make an exception to a no-holiday adoption policy if your group has one, and give the dog or cat the best holiday gift it could possibly receive: a loving forever home.

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