Pets for Life - Not Just for Christmas

Pets for Life - Not Just for Christmas

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It is that time of the year again - the time we are all getting ready for the Christmas and New Year celebrations. A big part of it is the presents - presents for family and friends, presents for our beloved and most importantly, presents for kids. 

A good friend of ours surprised us this year. Her present was a lovely kitten, who we named Fidel; a boisterous, playful and very loving furry delight.  As our older cat was not particularly keen on the new addition to our family we decided to adopt another kitten to be Fidel's playmate. While we were looking for appropriate friends for him we found out that reputable animal sanctuaries and breeders were reluctant, if not outright against, homing animals for Christmas. The reason is simple: a good number of animals adopted during the Christmas period are homeless by June the following year. A poem we found on the net explains why: 

 
Christmas Kitten - Christmas Morning

This life is so lovely - I'm warm and well fed.
With brother and sisters there's five in my bed!
My mothers here too and she's starting to purr,
'cos me and my siblings are nuzzling her fur.

Suddenly footsteps - mum's all alert,
the door is flung open, I'm grabbed. Oh, that hurt!
My only defence is to spit and to hiss,
but I'm shoved in a box - Oh mother whats this.

I'm being transported, (they call it a car),
but it must be to hell, Cos' the journey's so far.
Oh mum what you taught me (and I know that you cared),
didn't cover all this - Oh mum I'm so scared.

At last we arrive and I'm carried in,
the children all scream, it's a terrible din.
I want to be friendly but they're frightening me,
so I run off and hide under this big settee.

When things quieten down I dared to come out,
but then when I did they just mauled me about.
I really don't think that they meant to hurt me,
but young children squeeze hard and I bruise easily.

So I'm back in hiding, the hours drift by,
I'm hungry and thirsty and wanting to cry.
I'm just six weeks old and I must have a 'poo',
but I can't see my tray, so what shall I do?

The kids are all playing, Dad's asleep in his chair,
he's put down his paper - I'll do it on there.
I do the job quickly, the kids start to scream,
so I turn it all over so it can't be seen.

The father awakes, throws his slipper at me,
I have to escape, so I'll climb up this tree.
It starts to fall over, glass balls fly about,
the mother appears "Put that damned creature out!!!"

Was it only this morning I was warm and well fed,
with brothers and sisters, five in a bed?
Why have I been put in this damp, dark, cold shed?
THIS LIFE'S NOT WORTH LIVING - I WISH I WAS DEAD!

Author Unknown
 

With the help of our friends we ended up adopting two more animals from Windyway Trust; we named them Nefeli and Aris. Τwo beautiful, playful little kittens whose mothers, siblings and themselves found themselves homeless because somebody decided they were unwanted and who, if it was not for the sanctuary, would have joined the thousands of stray animals who suffer and die young in the streets.

 
       
 

Puppies, kittens, rabbits, hamsters, birds and fish are often given as presents during the festive season. Kids, deprived from the joys of growing up near nature and confined indoors most of the time want them. Baby animals are particularly sweet and cuddly so they seem like a good idea when it comes to choosing a present. Indeed they are, provided it is understood that they are not just another toy which can be discarded when the initial excitement of having them is over. They have needs that must be seen to - and that means a long term investment of time and money. They will be a perfect friend provided they are respected and treated well. If not, they will be a constant source of trouble and discontent - until they are kicked out of the house and become yet another suffering stray animal or a goldfish down the drain.

Good intentions are an excellent start. However, careful planning is also necessary to avoid cruelty to animals. Below we suggest a number of things to consider and plan prior to acquiring a new pet. We hope this will help aspiring pet owners to avoid unpleasant unforeseen situations and unintended cruelty to their future pets.

 
    
 

The welfare of the animal is of prime importance and should be thought of first and foremost. Consider your personal circumstances - can you offer an animal a permanent home? If you live in rented accommodation make sure you are allowed to keep pets. If there is a chance you will move in the not so distant future make sure you will be able to take your pet with you. Do not count on other people to look after your pet while you go on with your life as you may soon be disappointed. At the end of the day it is your pet - it is your responsibility.

Fact finding is the next step. Learn about the pet you want to buy, find out how big it grows (cute little puppies can grow into massive dogs), what its keeping/ feeding / health regime is, how much space it needs and how it behaves as a member of a family.  There is no much point getting an animal which does not like kids if you have kids in your family. Make sure the new pet will not pose a health risk for yourself or your family. Lots of people have allergies to animals and if that is the case with a member of your family then your new pet will soon find itself homeless, except if you have an alternative viable plan to keep it.

If you already have a pet, consider whether it is compatible with the new pet you plan to acquire or not and how it will react to it.  Some years ago, we overheard a discussion between a customer and a pet shop assistant. The customer wanted to buy a couple of firemouth cichlids which she planned to place in the tank of her very aggressive Oscar cichlid. When alerted to the fact that the Oscar could attack the firemouths she responded "Well if he tries to hurt them he is going down the toilet".  How does that sound for responsible pet keeping? Needless to say, this attitude is not reserved for fish. Animal rescue organisations and sanctuaries report considerable numbers of abandoned animals over the Christmas  period as people decide to get a new kitten or puppy (which will, in turn, become homeless the following Christmas for the same reason). This is sheer cruelty.

Find out about the cost of keeping your intended pet. This includes vet bills, cattery / kennel boarding when you are on holidays, food, toys etc. Fish require a tank; keeping a tank will add to the water and electricity bills. Make sure, prior to getting an animal, that you can afford the bills and will willingly settle them.

Plan the care of your animal. Be clear about who will be looking after it (taking it for walks, cleaning its quarters, feeding it etc). Make sure this person has the time to do this and is happy to take over the responsibility. Although it is good practice to give a child this responsibility always have a back up plan. Children may soon lose interest and the usual parent threat "if you do not take care of this dog then the dog is going" will only turn another pet homeless. If you cannot trust a child to be responsible and you have not got the time to look after the pet yourself then better chose another present for Christmas.

Consider not just the pleasure but the commitment that a pet can be. Animals, like people, have needs. In addition they can be naughty, badly behaved or can get ill. Make sure you are willing, prepared and able to deal with all this. Responsible pet ownership means that a pet is a member of the family - can you, realistically, cope with one more individual in your household?

Think carefully about the kind of pet you can cope - and will be happy - with. Kittens and puppies are great but they need socialisation and training. If you have not got the time and patience to do this then maybe a smaller animal that can live in confined quarters (such as a hamster, a bird or a fish) is a better idea. Again, younger animals tend to be more playful and may damage your home while you are in the process of training them. An older animal - who is less playful and already trained - may be a better idea under the circumstances.

Time is essential. If you do not bond with your new pet (particularly kittens and puppies) and establish a playing routine with it, it will never learn how to behave properly.  Having a will soon become an additional chore or, worse, a nightmare: having to deal with an outright embarrassing or rebellious animal when you return home tired after a day's work is a recipe for disaster. Your pet will love you and show it in a number of wonderful ways provided it feels loved itself - and that involves you having quality time with it, over and above its cleaning and care routine. Add to this that there is no point getting a pet if you do not plan to spend time with it - so are you able and willing to do this?

If, having considered these issues, you are not 100% sure you can cope with a pet do not get one. There is plenty of time to get one later, if your circumstances change and you still wish to do so. You can always chose another present and explain to your kids or family why they cannot have a pet. This will educate them on responsible pet ownership (something for which they will thank you later), will save you a lot of hassle, trouble and expense and will save an animal pain, suffering and homelessness. If your family are still set on having a pet you may consider sponsoring one - as opposed to having one. A number of animal sanctuaries operate sponsoring schemes - you will be able to visit your 'adopted' animal and get the kids to see it but will not have to take it home with you. Donating even a small amount to an animal sanctuary is a considerable help toward keeping the animals comfortable and your family will share the joy of spreading the Christmas goodwill without taking on the responsibility of looking after a pet.

On the other hand, if the answers to the above are reassuring and you feel you are in a good position to take care of a pet in a responsible manner then consider where you will be getting your pet from. Getting your pet from responsible retailers, animal sanctuaries or breeders always pays in the long run. You are far more likely to get a healthy, well socialised animal due to the fact it has been kept properly and has not been ill-treated or abused.

 
          
 

The next thing to think about is the best time to introduce this pet to your family.  Christmas is not always a good idea. Indeed during the festive season most people have time off work. This means they can spent time with their new pet and get it used to its new house routine. In essence, however, Christmas can be busy, with a million and one things to do and lots of noise and visitors around, which is far from ideal for a new pet which needs peace and quiet to get used to its new environment and learn a routine. The last thing your new pet will need is an army of unknown people around it trying to pet it and play with it. It will naturally get scared and edgy. Loud music, fireworks and other such human ways of entertainment are also very likely to upset a new pet. It is better to wait till after the holiday season and get your new pet then, when you will have more time to devote to it.

This does not need to detract from the excitement and pleasure of getting a new pet. You can spend Christmas preparing for it, sorting its tank out (if it is a fish), getting its enclosure ready (for hamsters and bunny rabbits) or getting litter trays, bedding and toys for kittens and puppies (cats and dogs are also included here).  This way you will prolong the excitement of getting a new pet while you will also save yourself a lot of last minute dashing around to get ready prior to getting your pet at home. While you are getting ready for your pet be sensible with your shopping list. It is very easy to go over the top these days with pet accessories so make a list of what is necessary and what is an optional extra. A bill you cannot really afford is not a good start; remember that if things get out of hand your pet is not to blame for it. Include in your shopping list a good book about your intended pet; the more you learn about it the better equipped you will be to train and look after it properly. In turn, this means you and your pet can have hours of fun together as opposed to health and behaviour related problems.

 
       
 

Find a good vet. The sooner you get your new pet to the vet the better for both of you. Health is of prime importance for your pet and your family so make sure you treat your pet to a health check. Your vet will advise about the necessary health care programme - follow it. If you plan to get fish and you are not experienced ask a more experienced friend (hobbyist) to come and help you choosing a healthy fish. Becoming a member of a forum (aquatic or otherwise, depending on the pet you plan to get) will also help as you can ask other members for advice and information.

Female pets homed with male ones of the same species as well as these which spent time outdoors on their own can get pregnant.  Such a pregnancy carries additional care responsibilities and bills as well as an even bigger time investment on the pet owner's part; most people are not prepared to deal with this. Finding suitable homes for the young animals can be hard, if not impossible; aquarists, for a start, know well how many people will say that a fish looks great but how few will be prepared to give it a home. If your own pet(s) is all you want or can cope with discuss with your vet when it is best to neuter them.  Neutering should also be considered for male animals allowed to be on their own outdoors (i.e. not on a lead). Your well fed male is likely to sire a number of unwanted baby animals who will subsequently have a miserable life, suffer and die, often in cruel circumstances. If you plan to keep a pair of pedigree animals for breeding please make sure that not just the female, but the male too is kept in an appropriate enclosure where he will be comfortable but will have no access to female strays of the same species (e.g. cats).

Make the day you will get your new pet special - it can be the whole family's reward for waiting to get your pet till after Christmas. Have a meal ready and make sure you have as much free time as possible to make your new friend welcome. When your pet arrives home give it some time on its own to get used to its new surroundings. Check regularly that it is ok, pat it and talk to it for a while, then leave it again on its own.  Avoid loud noises and ensure the kids are not rough with it as they can sometime unwillingly be when they are excited. If you do have another pet make sure it is not and does not feel neglected due to the arrival of the new one.  Make sure your new pet has access to food and water and that it knows where its litter tray is (if it is supposed to use one). If you get a fish you need to follow a proper acclimatization process - do not forget to turn the lights of the aquarium off until next day. Do not try to "force" the animal to come to you - it will do so when it feels safe in its new environment. Watch the animal for signs of stress and make sure it eats properly and that it uses its litter tray. Although it is not unlikely for a new pet not to eat or behave normally during the introduction stage things should improve quite quickly. If you are concerned about an aspect of your new pet's behaviour contact the place you got it from or a vet.

While your pet gets itself comfortable in its new home check once more to ensure that the surroundings are appropriate for it. Puppies and kittens will run all over the place and are likely to cause damages -  and in the process may hurt themselves. Think ahead - it may be worth putting that vase in the cupboard for a while and tidying the messy cables behind your desk just in case. Rabbits will demolish flower beds and vegetable gardens if they can find a large enough opening to get out of their enclosure - make sure there isn't one. Finally, the family cat will thank you forever for that tasty little hamster if it can get its paws on it so, again, make sure it cannot reach it. Remember you are the responsible adult - there is no point blaming the animals if something goes wrong. It is our experience that even with the best planning some "accidents" will happen so be prepared. You will have all the time in the world to teach your new friend what is and is not acceptable in your household. Be sure to do this  methodically and calmly and avoid unnecessary and/or cruel punishment. Remember that a kitten or a puppy does not understand the difference between a trailing cable and the piece of wool you use to play with them.

 
 
 

If, despite all your careful planning, things do go wrong and you need to part with your pet do so responsibly. Do not abandon the animal in the streets, set it free or throw it down the drain. Try to re-home it. You can try placing an ad at your vet's or at a relevant Internet forum, or contact an animal sanctuary. Drains do not lead to the sea where fish can find new friends - a fish flushed down the toilet dies a horrid death. Rabbits, hamsters, cats and dogs who have been living in a home cannot fend for themselves when turned homeless. They feel scared in a strange and often hostile environment, they are cold and hungry, more often than not unable to protect themselves from feral animals and dangers on the streets such as moving cars. Most importantly, a home raised animal is likely to trust people and approach them begging for food and protection. This is a nuisance for some and dangerous for the animal itself as it may - regrettably - fall victim of cruelty. An animal thrown in the streets will also, eventually, contact diseases or get parasites - which is painful and dangerous not only for the animal itself but also for other animals and people. Remember that your pet did not force itself on you; you chose to have it. Hoping that another person will eventually offer a home to your unwanted homeless pet is just kidding yourself; the vast majority of the animals who are made homeless die on the streets. It is you who chose to have a pet - it is your responsibility to ensure it will be taken good care of if you can no longer provide for it.

Hopefully it will never come to this - not if you take pet ownership seriously and your planning is thorough. You will be able to enjoy the very rewarding experience of owning a pet as you and your new pet will bond. We will conclude by extending our best season greetings to all and emphasising the main point of this article:  Christmas is about love and care for people and animals alike. We all wish to see a smile on a child's or a beloved's face - but a short lasting smile is not worth the pain and suffering that an unwanted pet will eventually have to go through. Let us be responsible - keep our family happy without causing an animal to suffer.

 

Photos by the authors.