Pets as gifts – the same old Christmas rot

December 7, 2016

"Shelters and rescue are busy at christmas. The whole ‘puppy farm’ thing – heartless people getting new puppies dumping their old dog at the shelter. People not being able to get holiday accommodation, not willing to miss their Christmas parties, selfishly dumping pets at the pound. Dogs going stray and not being collected because people don’t really love them. People travelling overseas not being organised enough to plan ahead for someone to care for their pets, simply discarding them. Not to mention, the overall ‘fullness’ of the shelter system during the holidays, making shelter staff stressed! Australians really need to think more carefully before getting an animal. Pets are a ten – twenty year commitment!"

I have to admit, that lot flew off my fingers pretty easily. Why? Because we’ve all heard it over and over again. I’ve bought into it. I’ve republished and spread these ideas. Pounds are busy and there is a christmas rush – this I know to be true.

The ‘inevitable Christmas rush’ – the caused by ‘irresponsible owners’ ‘dumping’ their pets at the pound – or just releasing their pets go into the street, abandoning them to whatever fate. Christmas makes us more infuriated than any other holiday. It’s by far the one we spend the most time dreading, reflecting on and lamenting. Why does this have to happen every year!

How overwhelmed are we? Well, if you talk about, the numbers aren’t 10% more, or even 30% more – we’re talking a PROPER XMAS RUSH. Pounds are SWAMPED YOU GUYS! *whew* No wonder rescue takes time out to educate the public about the evils of Christmas…

Christmas is a terrible time for pets, isn't it?

So what if I told you, it was all a Christmas story?

The overflowing pounds full of surrenders – the full to the brim rescues – the massive increase in pets languishing without any chance of finding a new family. All of it – a fabrication? How do we know? Because animals are something you can count.

If pounds were busier with ‘dumped’ pets at Christmas, shelters and rescue would be busier at Christmas. More pets would be up for adoption. If there were more pets available for adoption, more pets would be being placed in homes. Everything would be happening and there would be MORE of it. But there’s not.

Here are five years of PetRescue’s stats. I’ve highlighted the months of November through January, and added in a trend-line in orange.



You’ll notice – for dogs – there is no doubling, or tripling of adoptable pets becoming available for adoption. Just steady growth, along a modest trend-line, probably reflecting a growing human and pet population.

For cats you’ll notice a bump of a few hundred animals around the Christmas holiday seasons, which is no mistake – it’s science. Cats breed in the hotter months, so it makes sense there are more of them around then*.

Sooo…. that’s not to say pounds aren’t busy. There are a LOTS of ways pounds maintain over-reach and run themselves overcapacity – it’s how they make the most revenue. There are more pets in pounds over the holidays – but most are reclaimed by owners and don’t need homes. Others are the offspring of unowned cats.

But what is NOT happening, is that there aren’t three months of the year, where more pets are ‘dumped’ by ‘callous, irresponsible owners’ that any other month. Christmas isn’t an inescapable quandary; it’s just another date, another handful of weeks with the same challenges as any other.

Any increase in killing at this time is caused by bad management and disorganisation – it’s not a yearly requirement.

A dog is for life, not just for xmas

Great PR, just not an actual fact

To understand where this obsession with Christmas abandonment started, we need to look at our animal welfare history.

Over 30 years ago, Dogs Trust coined the phrase “A dog is for life not just for Christmas®”. The slogan came out in 1978. Or to put it another way, a full year before I was even born. Or to put it another, another way, the slogan came out when large-screen tvs looked like this;


This slogan is now a registered trademark belonging to the charity and despite being more than three decades old, still forms the basis for their xmas promotions (or lack of) each year;

To help discourage people from thoughtlessly buying dogs as Christmas presents, the charity’s 17 Rehoming Centres will stop rehoming dogs from 19th December to 2nd January. People will still be able to visit the centres and reserve a dog, but will not be able to take it home until the New Year.

But on what ‘scientific’ basis do they close over xmas? Thirty years on, they must have studied this by now, right?

New research carried out by Dogs Trust, the UK’s largest dog welfare charity, has revealed that 1 in 5 parents would still consider buying their child a dog for Christmas.

um. ok.

With the average Christmas present lasting just four weeks before being discarded by its bored recipient, the charity fears that puppies bought for Christmas will experience a similar fate and is urging people to ‘think life’ when taking on a dog.

I’m sorry, what? Because people still get pets as gifts, and kids get tired of toys, we’re making the leap to pet abandonment. Which would be fine; if it were true…

But it’s not. And we know this because people have done actual studies on the factors surrounding pet relinquishment:

The collection and analysis of data have confirmed some widely held impressions previously derived from anecdotal information, such as the finding of relinquishment studies that problem behaviors increase a pet’s risk of being surrendered to a shelter. At the same time, they have contradicted impressions long accepted as shelter dogma, such as the belief that animals given as gifts are at greater risk of relinquishment than those acquired in other ways.

Replacing Myth with Math: Using Evidence-Based Programs to Eradicate Shelter Overpopulaton

Some proper you know, science, from the US in 2000 ‘Characteristics of Shelter-Relinquished Animals and Their Owners Compared With Animals and Their Owners in U.S. Pet-Owning Households’ showed that contrary to popular belief, “dogs who came from an animal shelter, friend, or pet shop or who had been a stray were at increased risk of relinquishment compared with dogs who entered households as gifts. I know, surprising huh? What were the other factors for risk of ending up in the shelter? “Dogs who soiled the house, damaged things, were overly active, or were reported as fearful.”

So the ‘gifting’ of the pet wasn’t so much of a problem as… well, actual problems. In fact, the being a gift offered the pet a protective effect, with pets more likely to stay in the home.

Given that the Dog’s Trust is located in the UK, we should probably look at a study there. The RSPCA UK put out a 75 page report on the issues surrounding companion animal welfare in 2007 ‘Measuring animal welfare in the UK (Pet animals)‘. Their take on biggest problems leading to dog relinquishment?

Many unwanted dogs are purchased as puppies and are signed over to the RSPCA when they are between two and four years old. This can happen for a number of reasons including owners becoming bored of the dog once it’s an adult, owners being unable to cope with behavioural problems caused by inadequate training, and owners failing to make long-term plans for the care of the dog. The number of healthy dogs put to sleep could be reduced with a combination of simple, practical actions. Microchipping would assist with locating pet owners and could reduce the number of strays. Neutering of dogs could prevent unwanted pregnancies and help control the size of the dog population. The provision of suitable information and guidance from pet sellers could also improve the welfare of the animal concerned.

Noticeably absent? An epidemic of ‘gifting’.

Now, I’m not actually promoting the idea that we encourage people to make animal gifts – I personally think something that poops and wees and needs lots of attention, should be a "joy" one inflicts on themselves. But we need to understand that the overwhelming majority of people who do give pets as gifts, aren’t just springing the pet on an unsuspecting relative; more often they’re getting the pet for the whole family, or that the person who is getting the pet is heavily involved (or is at least consulted) during the process.

What’s more, the idea that ‘gifting’ is a core factor leading to pets ending up in the shelter, rather than the quality and capability of the home, is completely ignoring the true causes of animal relinquishment – a lack of owner education, a lack of early training, the pet not being desexed, unrealistic expectations of pet ownership and the owner’s personal issues. We can be positively addressing many of those issues during our adoption processes.

The idea that animal shelters should close their doors in December in case parents OH NO! bring a pet home a pet for their families during the xmas holidays – when screening processes work throughout January to November as a way to protect pets from bad homes – is well, a bit backward really. And if the best junk science you can find for doing so, is crudely associating kids getting tired of Barbie and Lego with companion animal ownership, then maybe its time to let go of this catchphrase that’s keeping your shelters full to the ceilings throughout those xmas weeks and instead let pets go home.

Thankfully Dog’s Trust are one of the last to hold on to this unhelpful shelter mantra. 

When Christmas becomes a time of life-saving opportunity

While the idea of a ‘xmas rush, shelters at capacity and killing’ is accepted; the thought of a ‘rush of holiday adoptions’ sends us into a spin. Why are we so threatened by the concept of saving more lives?

Without a push for holiday adoptions, pets are certain to die. However many groups don’t push, they put the breaks on; actively dissuading people from adopting through December, for fear that the adoption will be jinxed.

But the community wants to adopt a pet during the holidays. But wanting a pet for xmas doesn’t automatically make them evil or bad owners – it just makes them normal. Most people get their pets when they’re on holidays, with Dec, Jan and Feb being the most popular time of the year. People have time over the holidays to spend and bond with their new pets. And yet we’re shutting up shop and sending people away!

Rather than reject owners we’ve never met on the chance they might be acting impulsively or emotionally, we could be helping them to make an informed decision and matching them with the pet that fits their lifestyle. As we will still be screening for suitability (the same screening procedure we use in April, May and June) we have no reason to believe pets adopted at this time are more likely to be surrendered. That’s simply a myth.

Today on Nathan’s Winograd’s blog he describes the phenomenon, but in relation to the launch nine years ago of one of America’s most successful adoption initiatives; the ‘Home for the Holidays‘ campaign, who this year are aiming for more than 1 million adoptions.

… shelters and national groups opposed innovation that obviated the perceived ‘need’ to kill and instead encouraged or promulgated policies to stop adopting out animals for reasons that were incomprehensible, irreconcilably contradictory, and nothing short of ludicrous.

A kitten or puppy under the tree in December would end up in the shelter in January, was the dogma of the times and many shelters across the country actually refused to adopt out animals during this time of year. Taken to its logical conclusion, the argument is nothing more than shelters should not do holiday adoptions because the animals may end up back at the shelter. This, the thinking goes, is bad because shelters are bad places where animals are killed. The problem should be immediately obvious: the animals are already in the shelter! Stopping adoptions which would get them out of the shelter because they might end up back in it was bad enough. But not adopting them out ensures that the harm they claim to fear is all but assured the animals will be killed, exacerbating shelter death rates.

And the common shelter mantra that a pets will be ‘stressed’ during the xmas period seems unreasonable when you ask;

But what is more stressful than sitting in a cage at a shelter? What is more stressful than facing death? What is more stressful than what is often the shelter animal’s experience of poor, neglectful and even hostile or abusive treatment from uncaring shelter bureaucrats?

If a new cat is ‘stressed out at home’ and that is a big IF the new cat can be locked in a bedroom to sleep it off on a warm, cozy bed (rather than a cold stainless steel cage in a shelter, or being ‘put to sleep’, the abominable HSUS euphemism for being killed). And many dogs (and kittens) would not only find the situation not stressful, they would thrive.

In the end, however, the campaign against holiday adoptions was and is nothing more than another manifestation of the sheltering community and HSUS distrust of the American public, a distrust that created the very paradigm of killing we live with today. The one that makes it very easy to surrender an animal, but very difficult to adopt one. The one which never worries about all the animals killed, but does worry about the ones which can be saved.

Read the full blog here.

The ‘Home 4 the Holidays‘ promotion this campaign has become the largest pet adoption campaign on record, saving over 12 million pets since its inception in 1999. While the ASPCA features case studies of multiple shelters doing clever things at Christmas to save lives, including promoting giving pets as gifts to family members who are involved in the process and arranging a pet delivery service on Christmas day. 

I’m pleased to report the ‘everyone who adopts at xmas is irresponsible’ mentality is rapidly being dispelled and replaced by the life saving idea that the xmas holidays are an opportunity. If people are going to buy a pet we’d should encourage them to come, speak to us and get good advice; instead of walking into a pet store. 

We should promote ourselves the loudest during the holidays!

The holidays are our biggest opportunity to go toe-to-toe with other sources of companion animals – we should want all the great owners to visit and adopt. Refusing adoptions during this time and instead sending them off to pet shops, while maybe feeling like a moral victory on our part, isn’t actually based on any proof of better outcomes for animals, or science that pets adopted during the holidays are any more likely to be relinquished than those acquired at other times of the year. It’s simply the same old xmas rot.

Rescue groups have policies and procedures that help people make good decisions. It’s an excellent place to get a pet at xmas.

A pet is for life, especially at Christmas when people are taking holidays and spending time with family. There is absolutely no evidence that shunning holiday and event opportunities in any way protects pets. There is absolutely no evidence that the ‘a pet is for life, not just for Christmas’ idea has ever kept anyone from buying a pet during the holidays. Nor should we want it to, as discouraging rescue pet adoption during the busy intake season is simply ludicrous.

Certainly, it was a snappy catchphrase once. But now we know better and the rationale behind it is just so goddamn outdated now, I actually can’t believe in 2016 we're still promoting the wisdom of a bumper sticker from 30 years ago. It’s time to ditch once and for all, that dated, dreary old platitude, ‘a pet is for life, not just for Christmas’.

The true problem of Christmas

That's not to say there isn't a problem at Christmas - there really is. It's just not what you think.

This christmas, the call on every kill shelters social media streams is for the public to avoid the terrible, awful puppy farm**.

. . . . .Don’t support puppy farms! Pets are for life, not just for xmas! Don’t give cute puppies as xmas gifts! Puppy farm puppies lead to impulse buys and ‘overpopulation’. . . . .

It’s a wonderful time of year for deflection. All the while we-the-public are clutching pearls over the evils of profit-motivated, bulk breeding, we’re not looking at pound’s kill rates for the year to date. Or for the months surrounding Christmas.

That is, kill pounds LOVE the Christmas overpopulation myth because it gets them off the hook for any surge in killing they choose to do.

Shelters and pounds are busy. Often they’ve designed it that way. If your business is providing kennels to local council, keeping demand high means less infrastructure costs to you, while allowing you to charge the maximum amount for use of your facilities. Taking in multiple council tenders, means other new facilities aren’t built, new competitors are kept out of the industry, and councils are unable to ‘shop around’ because alternatives simply don’t exist. In short, the more pets you can cram into a single facility, the more money you make.

When pounds and shelters hold the tenders for multiple cities, they calculate capacity based on the day-to-day running of the shelter. However, by running at capacity for the rest of the year, the facility is then running at overcapacity through the busy holiday months.

Fireworks and other noisy events, pets being moved away from home for family holidays, people staying out uncharacteristically late for parties, ‘kitten season’ and a lack of pet-friendly holiday accommodation all come together for a perfect storm of christmas impoundment.

While at the same time more pets are coming in than any time a year, a full week is lost during the xmas/new year break and staff holidays. Many pounds who want to close simply cull pets until their facilities are empty on 24th December. Pets who lose their lives during this time are considered unavoidable collateral damage to a maximum revenue pound.

But of course, explaining away this mismanagement takes effort. For as long as pounds have existed, they’ve positioned themselves as simply ‘cleaning up’ after puppy farmers. Those greedy puppy farmers, making cash hand over fist on gift purchases, while the poor pound struggles with capacity.

Except – ‘pound capacity’ is a completely fluid number. A pound’s management know every year there is a spike around Christmas. They could bring in extra staff, extra transportable kennels, pull in a team of volunteers to foster care.

‘Pound intakes’ is another completely fluid number. Pound management could prepare for the busy season (which they know is coming, as it comes Every. Single. Freaking. Year.) by taking lost pets straight home rather than impounding them, coaching surrendering owners to delay handing over their pets by a few weeks, and by not seizing cats and lending traps during the busy months.

‘Demand’ for adoptable pets is also a figure that can be manipulated; working with rescue groups, extending opening hours, and offering a few ‘free’ pet adoption days between now and xmas can place all pets whom need rehoming.

But largely, the major strategy at Christmas will be… killing and placing the blame firmly on puppy farmers.

Over the Christmas period across the nation, council pounds are killing the dogs and cats in their care.
Not because they’re sick.
Not because they have behavioural problems.
Not because the community doesn’t want to adopt them.
But because it’s Christmas.

It’s not well known, but many council pounds close their doors from Christmas Eve, through to New Years Day. Pounds who close from Sunday 25th December through to Tuesday 3rd January do not want to have to pay holiday rates for staff to manage the pound and staff take up to eight days holiday, leaving no one to process impounded animals for adoption. Pound staff will have a ‘clean out’ in the days before the holidays, and all unclaimed dogs and cats remaining in the pound will be culled – until there are none. They kill the healthy, the adoptable, the young and the old. At a time when literally thousands of people are opening their hearts and homes to a new pet, they close their doors to adopters.

These pets aren’t ‘faulty’, they’re not ‘unwanted’ or ‘unadoptable’ – they’ve simply had the misfortune to have been impounded at the wrong time of year.

Then there are the pounds who throughout the year, make little to no effort to adopt pets, nor are even open to the public for adoptions. These are pounds who keep pets in run down, noisy, unhealthy kennels which scare off potential families.These are pounds who refuse to allow access by volunteers to help care for the animals. These are pounds who fail to promote lost or available pets online. These are pounds who burn out overworked rescuers by threatening to kill pets unless they’re collected under impossible deadlines. These are pounds who shoot the pets in their ‘care’ with a shotgun.

One by one. People’s lost companion animals are disposed of like garbage. Their furry bodies dumped in pits in landfill.

These pounds are using the community’s tax dollars to run pet slaughterhouses. Is this your local council pound?

If you believe killing is an unacceptable way for councils to manage companion animals, help change harmful policies like Christmas culls.

- Contact your local council to find out their christmas opening hours and whether they are operating extended adoption hours, or a promotion in the days leading up to the holidays.

- Ask them who will be staffing the pound in the Christmas break, whether there is reclaims and adoptions, or just a skeleton staff of cleaners. Or whether the pound is closed entirely. 

- Ask what adoption promotions they are doing in the lead up to the holidays to ensure all adoptable pets are placed into new homes.

Animal lovers must demand to know; what is your pound doing this Christmas?

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Blog first published on Saving Pets in 2008 Busting the holiday adoption myth

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*In 2013, there is also a larger bump, and this coincides with the rollout of the statewide cat laws in WA, which drove several thousand cats into pounds and rescue in just a couple of months (branded a ‘success’ by many).

**There are a LOT of good reasons to ban puppy farms. There are a LOT of good reasons why pet lovers should avoid supporting the retail model. But we neither need to ban, nor eliminate puppy farms to make pounds a safe place for pets.

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