Animals Are Good Christmas Presents, Right?

Dog (Canis lupus familiaris) dressed for Christmas
Want an Animal for Christmas?

People around the world are eagerly awaiting Christmas. Many have asked for a new pet.  Surely, if people want a new pet, giving them one for Christmas is fine, right?  Why don’t some pet stores sell pets just before Christmas?  We’re at home at Christmas, surely that’s the perfect time to spend with a new animal?

These are common questions.  Many people don’t understand why giving pets as Christmas presents not advised. People are told the best time to get a new animal is when they’ve got free time to spend with it; the majority of people in Christian countries have more of over the Christmas period.  They are also told not to leave new dogs/ cats alone at first; Christmas we’re all wrapped up inside away from the cold (or under the A/C trying to stay cool in Australia!) especially as few shops are open.  You’re recommended to socialise dogs/ cats and expose them to different situations; again, Christmas is full of new experiences and visiting relatives hoping to stroke the cute animal.  Your kid has wanted an animal for years; they’ve been responsible and begging for one, why not?

Screenshot of google search
Screenshot of Google search for dogs ready for Christmas
The Build Up to Christmas

Animal Breeders, sellers and pet shops are aware of people buying pets as Christmas gifts.  Just last week a pet shop worker told me they had animals reserved for Christmas.  Christmas is often a time when sales are higher.   There is both a higher demand and people will pay more.

Unlike toys, animals can’t just be produced at the touch of a button, they need to be bred.  Animals in the UK tend to come from two kinds of breeders;

  • Those who do it as a hobby; they care for their animals welfare
  • Those who are only in it for the money.

The first group tend to be accredited breeders associated with cat/ dog/ rabbit etc breeding groups and have the appropriate licences.  The animals were born in good conditions good conditions, visit the vet if ill, and are sold only after being microchipped (legally needs doing before puppies reach 8weeks old or leave the breeders) and often vaccinated.  The selling process is also more detailed; there may a waiting list for, often breeders quiz buyers about your house/ lifestyle as much as you ask them questions.  You’re usually expected to see the animals at least twice before taking one home.  Finally, responsible breeders often don’t sell pets around Christmas.

Money-orientated breeders often don’t seek veterinary guidance, get their animals vaccinated/ microchipped and advertise animals on gumtree/ similar hoping to sell the animals as soon as possible.  These breeders often aim to sell animals around Christmas.

Worryingly, over the last few years, growing numbers of puppies have been imported into the UK to be sold.  These dogs may or may not have a PETS passport with some of these being fake or inaccurate.  These puppies are then sold around the UK, often from nice looking suburban houses via internet-based ads.

Christmas Tree with Gifts

Gifts are Often a Novelty

How many times have you heard people, especially children, saying they want a gift for ages?  Mentioning it constantly day-in, day-out.  You buy them that gift and then a few days later they’re no longer interested in it, a very common scenario.

This scenario is also, sadly, commonly seen with animals.  Parents listen to their child go on and on about wanting a pet and the child agrees to look after it.  The parents give in. They buy the animal only to find, a couple of weeks later,  the child is no longer interested and the parents are lumbered with the responsibility for their child’s pet (of course, legally, all UK pets are owned by someone over 16 years with the  ultimate responsibility for that animal; Animal Welfare Act, 2006).  Whilst many adults continue to care for the pet, some won’t.

What happens when adults wanted an animal and either the novelty wears out or they realise pet ownership isn’t what they imagined?  The answer is an annual big surge in animals being taken to rescue centres or abandoned after Christmas.  Some of these spend years in shelters awaiting a new home, others sadly are put to sleep after a home isn’t found.  Is it fair for an animal to die as an unwanted Christmas present?

In 1978, Clarissa Baldwin of the National Canine Defence League (NCDL, since rebranded to the Dogs Trust), coined the phrase “A dog is for life, not just for Christmas”, a phrase most people will recognise.  Thirty-nine years later, it’s as true now as it was then.  The number of abandoned animals each year suggests people still aren’t acknowledging the message.  Feel free to also replace “dog” with any other animal you can think of, the phrase still rings true.

Before buying an animal, whatever the reason, research it to thoroughly to ensure you can care for it both now and in the future.  Remember, cats often live past 20 years and some breeds of tortoises over 100.  Ask yourself, are you prepared for that length of commitment?

 

Christmas Day= New Pet time?

Christmas day rolls around, a friend’s bought you a dog.  You think he’s fine.  You’ve got at least two days off work, you can use that to get him settled and start the training process.

The reality of Christmas; chaos.  Your children are excitedly running around as they not only have a new dog but also have new toys.  They are screaming and yelling.  Your dog becomes so overwhelmed he doesn’t settle.  He keeps trying to get away from everyone.  Your children won’t leave him alone and he can’t cope any longer.  He bites them, seeing no other way to leave the scary, unfamiliar situation.

Imagine you’ve got a new hamster.  Everyone in the neighbourhood is wanting to look at her because she’s cute and new.  She sees all the hands, feels people’s unfamiliar grasp and is scared; the taming process is put back days, if not weeks to get used to people’s not causing harm.

You and your spouse get a new kitten.  There’s time to settle it down when you’re off work, easy… you then realise the food you’re cooking hasn’t warmed up, you’ve got presents to sort and where are those AAA batteries?  Next thing you know you’ve forgotten about the kitten.  You’re messing up the house and moving the kitten out of the way whilst rushing to get everything ready in the thirty minutes before.  The kitten is ignored and you’ve accidentally given it the wrong signals.  It picks up on your stress and becomes more disorientated and unsettled.  Days pass before it’s calm enough once more to be gently handled.

 

Animals feel more relaxed with a routine.  Around Christmas, the routine often goes out the window.  You get dinner at different times, you sit on the floor opening presents (around a tree?  A tree that your dog/ cat/ rabbit doesn’t understand and you keep telling them off for weeing up it up), and have excited guests around.  Your pet doesn’t have the chance to get used to how things would normally be.  It’s first couple of days with you at home are so chaotic that when you go back to work on the 27th the animal doesn’t know what time its usually fed, it’s not used to being alone and then you’re becoming angry when you get home to an animal that’s “behaved badly” by weeing on the floor.  It, however, doesn’t understand what it did wrong or maybe it was a reaction to being stressed after being left alone for eight hours.

 

Christmas is chaos in any household and can affect all animals to varying degrees but will cause more stress over newly bought “gift” animals than any other.  They need to be bought at a time where not only can they get used to routines but also be left at home for gradually longer periods of time to reduce the risk of separation anxiety.

Kitten as Christmas Present

Pet Stores

Most reputable pet stores stop selling pets several before Christmas.  This helps prevent people buying pets for Christmas as they’d have to look after them for longer.  Also, spreading the message that pets can’t be sold in the days leading up to Christmas makes people stop and think; reducing impulse buys and educating people.

This isn’t the case with all stores though.  Those selling pets right up to Christmas often aren’t quite bothered about where the pets end up and the implications of them being Christmas gifts.  The owner often focuses more on profits than the welfare of the animals.  Often, in this situation, the animals in the store are not looked after as well and the breeders may not have been as interested in their welfare.  Poor breeding and living conditions can lead to animals be more prone to disease, often they appear fine on leaving the store but deteriorate over the next few days.

Leads circling stethoscopre
2 leads, with collars, connected to create a heard. Stethoscope curled around in the centre.
Are the Vets Open?

Like most businesses, the majority of vet practices are shut over the Christmas period.  The vets that are open are usually just running an emergency clinic which may be further away, have less staff and more expensive.  As well as this they’re likely to be very busy with other ill animals.

If you buy a pet over Christmas and it becomes unwell you will struggle to both register it with a vet and book an appointment, adding to the stress of pet.  On top of this, the breeder is likely to be celebrating Christmas too and therefore may not have the chance to discuss with you how your animal has been since birth compared to if you contacted them at another time.  The lack of information given may also make it harder for a vet to find out what is wrong with your animal and treat them, thus longer and potentially requiring more tests.

Pets homed over Christmas will also more stressed than those bought at quieter times.  Firstly, as gifts, they may be passed on a number of times before landing in their permanent home.  There is also less of a routine for them to get used to, more noise and likely some chaotic surroundings;  all of which lead to an animal becoming more stressed.  Stress in itself reduces the response from the bodies immune system (a system whose job is to fight off diseases).  If the immune response is reduced (for instance due to stress) the animal is more likely to develop an infection, become unwell and need to see a vet.

The chances of an illness developing are also increased with animals from a poor background, something more common in those sold shortly before Christmas (as explained earlier)).  This infection could be something as mild as the odd sneeze right up Parvovirus (a virus causing severe bloody vomiting and diarrhoea which adult dogs and puppies over eight to ten weeks should be vaccinated against) which can be fatal.  Stressed small mammals such as Guinea pigs, Hamsters or Rabbits (amongst others) may develop Ringworm.  Ringworm is a fungal infection usually showing up as a circular area of hair loss with a visible red ring seen in the skin and scurfy hair though it can sometimes be seen as a scabby or scurfy area which may be reddened but this doesn’t mean it’s any better or worse.  Ringworm can be caught by people.  If you suspect an animal to have it then ideally wear gloves when handling that animal, otherwise clean your hands thoroughly before and after handling them.

Christmas Pets for Sale
These are potentially aimed at the Christmas market
Recap

“Dogs Are for Life, Not Just For Christmas”; Clarissa Baldwin, NCDL, 1978.  A quote that needs to be remembered.  Potentially replace the word dog with any other species and keep it in your mind.

Breeders producing animals for Christmas are often the less reputable.  Dogs are increasingly smuggled from abroad to meet the Christmas demand leading to increased numbers of health and behavioural problems developing.

The novelty of Christmas Presents wears off; this can still occur with pets leading to them being given up for adoption.

The lack of routine and chaos of Christmas means pets are either ignored or given no time to relax.  Throughout Christmas, they just settle but not fully. Poor settling increases the chance of developing separation anxiety and long-term behavioural problems later left alone.  Gradually increase the time you’re away from your pet.

Owning a puppy is hard and requires a large amount of time, never mind it being Christmas.

Pet stores stop selling pets prior to Christmas to protect animals.  Do not pressurise staff to sell any.  Store selling pets at Christmas may focus on profits over welfare; is that where your money should go?  The welfare these pet stores may be poor leaving animals bought from there more prone to health problems.

Vets deserve holidays.  Most practices are shut over Christmas with on-call/ emergency vets are often more expensive, further away and with less staff.  It’s difficult to contact breeders at Christmas so you may have little information about your pet so getting a diagnosis/ treatment plan may be harder.

 

Contact me if you want to discuss anything written here.

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Author: Kim Halford

I'm a qualified vet and animal behaviour and welfare advisor. I am dedicated to improving the welfare of animals. I also want to work with organisations to improve the education of animal welfare and behaviour as well as improve the bond between animal and owner.

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