Snow is falling, the tree is trimmed, presents are under the tree, holiday baking is in full swing…. and a longstanding rescue debate has come out swinging for another year. Ok, it may be that the holidays at your house are not as magazine ready as all that, and perhaps you are like me – scrambling at the last minute for the gifts I was in charge of… but in rescue, there is no question that one of the biggest questions of the year has come to the forefront again.
To adopt or not to adopt pets out at Christmas?
If you’re like most of the well meaning people out there, you might be baffled that there even is a question of adopting pets around Christmastime. The mission of rescues and shelters is to house homeless animals until a good home can be found, and with all the goodwill and generosity floating around during the holiday season, wouldn’t it be a match made in heaven? On the one hand, you have homeless animals languishing in foster homes and shelter kennels and on the other hand you have countless people looking for a great gift to gift to that special someone… it’s perfect! Well, before you grab your keys and head out to your local shelter or pick up the phone to tell Aunt Edith she needs to clear a spot in the living room oh, about the size of a rabbit cage, let me just say this: this is one time it may not be in anyone’s interest to adopt a pet.
I can hear you swearing from here. “Would these people just make up their *@#! minds what they want? All year they tell me to adopt a pet, all year I have no time for it – and now that I want to, you’re telling me it’s not a good idea?” Just hang on and let me explain… it may be that it is right for you. Some questions need to be answered and some serious thinking needs to happen first, however.
First off, let me just tell you that there are rescues out there that will happily give you a pet for Christmas, regardless of whether you’ve thought it through or not. These rescues act as nothing more than independent pet stores (who will also give you a pet, no questions asked, but that time bomb is almost always a bad idea) whose goal is just to shuffle animals through as quickly as possible with little and less care given to them. Any rescue or shelter that doesn’t want to know at least the basics about you and your motivations for adding a pet to your life is not behaving in an ethical manner and should be avoided at all costs. The costs of taking a pet into your family should not be taken lightly, ever, but the hidden costs of taking in an animal that has not been screened behaviorally and physically can be enormous. If a rescue or shelter doesn’t want to know anything about you when ask about adopting, steer clear. Of course, if you are a seasoned pet owner and are committed to dealing with whatever comes up with a pet from an irresponsible rescue/shelter… then I say go for it. A life saved is a life saved. But for the purposes of this discussion, I am going to assume that you are hoping for some sort of predictability and support when you adopt a pet, in which case, it is in your best interest to stick to rescues and shelters who show at least a modicum of interest in you and in their furry charges.
Secondly, there are rescues who will flat out refuse to adopt out animals anywhere near the holiday season. They are certain that anyone coming to their door in December or even November is blinded by the pretty twinkly lights of the festive season and will not hesitate to dump their new pet at the door of the local shelter once they have come down off of their sugar cookie high sometime early in the New Year…. leaving poor little Fido in a box to watch their taillights disappear down the road. These rescues preach long and hard about the irresponsibility of people who even think of adding a pet to their family at Christmas. It may be presumptive of me to say, but I think most of these rescues would be the type to jump through all kinds of hoops at any time of the year. In my opinion, they are behaving in a reactionary way by putting a blanket moratorium on adoptions near the end of the year – and reaction without careful thought doesn’t benefit either people or the animals in their care. One of the most serious consequences of closing down adoption for a period of time is that these rescues will be unable to have any admissions during this time, so they are risking the lives of animals that may need them during November/December. Of course, for some family run rescues, the actual holiday week or two might be a good time for them to shut down all rescue work and take a break for themselves – a very commendable decision on their part to take care of themselves. A responsible rescue of any kind will communicate with potential adopters about what the expectations and responsibilities are on both sides and will be ready to explain any and all decisions about whether they are adopting animals out at any given time. In my experience, responsible rescues and shelters also don’t paint the public in a disparaging light; they take each case individually and recognize that many, if not most people want to do the right thing by their pets.
So, you have put aside the rescues who won’t adopt to you during the holiday season and those who would in a heartbeat. How do you know, how do rescues know if adopting at this time of the year is a good thing or not? In a nutshell, it’s the same way you determine whether to get a pet during the rest of the year. Is the pet for the kids or for the family? Have you been considering a new pet for a while, or is this an impulse decision? What is the plan when the novelty wears off and no one wants to walk the dog or clean the litter box? What will you do if there are behavioral problems? What kind of pet would fit best into your lifestyle and/or are you willing to make changes to your lifestyle to accommodate your new pet? Are you willing to commit the next number of years to having your pet, caring for it, vetting it, etc.?
If you are able to thoughtfully answer each of these questions, you will be led to your preliminary answer. It’s one thing to buy the latest technical gadget for your kids only to have it discarded in a few months, but to undertake the care of a living being only to have it discarded is an entirely other matter. No child, no matter how old or responsible, is able or willing to always care for a pet…. which means the job will fall to the adults in the family. Having an idea of what role you expect the pet to play in the life of your family and examining your expectations around how the pet will behave are vital pieces of information before you decide.
If your answer is still coming up “Yes, we are ready!” , there are still a few things to consider specific to this time of year. What are your holiday plans? For some families, the holiday season can be incredibly chaotic, with extended family in and out, parties to attend – even travel. How will you care for a new pet during this time? Is it best to bring a timid rabbit into your home during the time when the noise level in your house may raise the neighbor’s roof? Is it the best thing for your new kitten to picked up and dropped countless times by your sweet little 2 yr old nephew? In the event that this is what your house feels and looks like at Christmas, it may be best to postpone picking up your “Christmas present” until after the festivities. This sort of thinking should impress even the most jaded of rescues and seal your gold star status as an adoptive family.
Conversely, if your preliminary answer came up “Yes!” and you have a fairly calm holiday season ahead with a good period of home time… this may in fact be an ideal time for your family to get a new pet. Involving everyone in the decision will make for the best outcome – letting every member of the family weigh in on the specifics will stack the cards in favor of all going well. Go shopping together for supplies and food. This can be a prime time for family discussions around responsibilities and expectations and lead to a more responsible and involved family for the new pet. Remember, if you are rescuing, that means that the animal you will bring into your home will have been let down once by humans, so it is a responsible thing to ensure as best as possible that you don’t become another human who lets them down.
I realize that much of my discussion here centers around families with kids because often well meaning parents want to give their kids a pet for Christmas. Many of the same considerations apply when the potential adoptive family consists of adults only, with a few differences. If your wife/girlfriend/partner has been pining for a kitten all year, or your husband/boyfriend/partner has been hinting that he would love to have a four-legged buddy to go jogging with.. the rescues are in luck! Getting a hold of a responsible rescue and discussing the best fit for your loved one is your next move. If however, your relationship is not in the best place right now, getting a new pet is akin to having a baby to keep the relationship together; it doesn’t work. Realize that you may be the one caring for the pet if your relationship dissolves and plan accordingly.
Finally, what if your preliminary answer came up as “No, we are not ready for a pet at this time.” ? First of all, let me congratulate you on being a responsible person/family and realizing your limitations before you are staring at a puddle of pee in the living room for the 10th time. Then, let me say that this doesn’t mean that you can’t have animals in your life this holiday season! Consider signing up to volunteer at a local shelter. Offer to walk a friend’s dog, or pet-sit for a family going on holidays. Go shopping for the supplies you would have used for your new pet and donate them to a rescue for a pet they are caring for. Talk to a rescue that you admire about being a foster home for a pet waiting to be adopted. Sponsor an animal at an ethical sanctuary or one who is in long-term foster at a rescue. There are so many ways to have animals in your life without committing long term, and you will be doing your children and yourselves a big favor – teaching responsibility, giving without expectation of return, encouraging empathy… all such important things in our society today.
Whatever you decide, pat yourself on the back for taking the time to think through your pet-owning decisions this holiday season. So many won’t this year and rescues will be dealing with those bad decisions come spring. Above all, if you already have pets, give them an extra pet or a treat and thank whatever powers that be that they are safe, with you and not in a shelter this season.