The Ottumwa Courier

Local News

December 22, 2012

Experts say surprise pets are a bad gift

OTTUMWA — A tiny little kitten with a barely audible squeaky meow or an adorable puppy barely able to stand upright but still bravely chasing your shoe laces as you walk. Who wouldn’t want to open a box under the Christmas tree and find a puppy?

It turns out that a lot of Iowans don’t like surprises.

“You do not make that decision for someone else,” said Heartland Humane Society Board President Jean Sporer. “It’s a lifetime commitment. You’re not going to keep the animal for a year. You have to know that dog or cat will be with you, whether you move or whatever, for the rest of its [life].”

She said some people may think they’re doing their lonely aunt a favor by surprising her with a dog. Baking someone a cake is a surprise. Giving them a 13-year commitment to care for a living thing is another matter entirely.  

“Don’t assume,” Sporer said.

Maybe Aunt Ida doesn’t want a 200-pound St. Bernard living with her in her one-bedroom retirement apartment. Maybe Aunt Ida’s building superintendent doesn’t want that, either.  

Cas Gott agrees. She has enjoyed running the office at the Stephen Memorial Animal Shelter in Oskaloosa for two years.

“A lot of times, they may not want to have the responsibility of an animal.  If somebody [buying a surprise gift] goes to a breeder or a pet store — I can’t tell you the percentages — many end up in the shelter because they’re unwanted. You have to take them outside to go to the bathroom, you need to give them attention and love, you have to take them to the vet when they’re sick or injured.”

Just like children, she said.

“They grow from being nurtured and loved.”

In addition to giving a pet attention, those trips to the vet can require juggling a work schedule around; one family member may have to make sure to get home every day during lunch to let the pet outside. Or the owner may discover giving medicine takes time not only to administer but to chase the animal around the house when the owner is getting the dreaded ear drops from the cupboard.

And now a spontaneous weekend away starts with a search for a bed and breakfast — and a dog sitter.

Both women said there are plenty of Americans who will accept those responsibilities in order to enjoy the companionship of a loving pet. Both women also said such an obligation should be the recipient’s choice.

“I know shelters in some areas won’t adopt out a few days before Christmas,” said Sporer.

Both advocates said they ask plenty of questions of those adopting a pet.

“We are really careful around this time of year,” added Gott.

Unwanted pets are sometimes abandoned or worse, with most getting dropped off at a shelter. Even if a dog comes from a shelter to begin with, returning them isn’t like returning a pair of slacks.

“It’s pretty hard for them to come back,” said Sporer. “It’s a pretty stressful situation to go from freedom and the TLC back to a [crate]. I’ve seen them. They look upset, like they might if they [were being reprimanded] for their behavior. Like they’re thinking, ‘Whoa, what happened, what have I done wrong?’”

So how can you make it work if you’d really like a friend to benefit from pet ownership?

“Talk to them,” said Sporer, adding that such a lifetime commitment is not suited for surprises. “You could certainly go with them and let them pick one out — and you pay for it. But only with the person who is going to fill out the papers and be responsible.”

She said with children under 18, a surprise by parents might be OK. But remember, if you’re getting an animal for the kids, you’ll be signing the paperwork. That means, ultimately, you are responsible for that cat or dog.

Gott said some people don’t get that.

“I have had a pet brought in because, the man told me, the kids were not taking care of it. I asked the man how old the kids were and he said 6 years old, 4 years old and 18 months.”

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