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Is Surprising a Loved One With a Dog or Cat Ever a Good Idea?

Yes, actually, but it helps to know that they at the very least like animals

We’ve all seen the viral videos: It’s Christmas morning. A couple kids crack open an enormous box. A puppy pops its head out. Everyone screams. Someone starts crying, overwhelmed by cuteness. The puppy’s all like, “Get me out of this fucking box.” The video ends, and as mere spectators, we can only hope the pooch just secured a lifetime of love and attention.

It’s certainly an endearing moment when captured on film, but once the immediate excitement wears off, those kids are now responsible for a living, breathing being, and taking good care of a pet is a lot of work, especially when you weren’t expecting one to pop out from under your Christmas tree all of a sudden. Knowing that, is surprising someone with a pet ever a good idea? 

There are a couple ways to look at this.

When it comes to impressionable children, one of the more obvious concerns is that surprising them with a pet in such a spontaneous way could diminish the vast amount of responsibility that comes with owning an animal. “The notion that an animal is something you buy and wrap up in a box to put under the tree runs the risk of commodifying animals, putting them in the same category as slippers or ugly ties,” says Jessica Pierce, bioethicist and author of numerous books about pets, including Unleashing Your Dog: A Field Guide to Giving Your Canine Companion the Best Possible Life. “You wouldn’t wrap a baby with a ribbon, and present the baby with a card saying, ‘Here. You now have full responsibility for this life for the next 18 years.’ In the same way, I don’t think you should thrust responsibility for an animal’s life onto someone who hasn’t asked for it and who hasn’t explicitly agreed to it.”

If you’ve been discussing adopting an animal — rather than buying one from a breeder, which is a whole other issue — and have plans for taking care of them, however, that’s a different story. “The process of adopting an animal will go more smoothly if the decision to bring an animal into the family is made as a family, and if there’s agreement from everyone in the household that this is a good idea,” Pierce says. “Ideally, these discussions should take place over weeks or months or longer, and shouldn’t be made on an impulse. Things will also go more smoothly if a family has done ample research, has agreed upon responsibilities for caregiving, understands the long-term financial commitment of bringing an animal into the home, and has done the necessary work to prepare the house for an animal — for example, putting in a fence for a dog, making sure there are no obvious hazards. It’s rather like preparing a house for the arrival of a baby.”

If you can manage all that, it may not feel like as much of a surprise, but at least everyone will be on the same page after the puppy is released from its temporary cardboard prison. “Once a family has made a decision to adopt an animal, it can be a wonderful Christmas experience to open your home and heart to a dog or cat,” Pierce says. “You give an animal a loving home, and you give yourselves years of joy.”

On the other hand, one could argue that this approach is too cautious. Each year, approximately 1.5 million shelter animals are euthanized because they can’t find homes, and while surprising someone with an animal is a big burden, it does often work out for the receiver and especially the animal — an animal that may otherwise have never found a place to call home. 

In fact, adoptions for holiday surprises are a big reason why the number of dogs and cats euthanized in U.S. shelters annually has declined in recent years. “In 1999, a small shelter in San Diego launched what it called ‘Home 4 the Holidays,’ a pet adoption drive to place animals in homes between Thanksgiving and New Year’s Day,” says Nathan Winograd, founder of the No Kill Advocacy Center. “A handful of other San Diego shelters joined the effort. By 2014, the campaign reported more than 4,000 participating shelters nationwide and over 750,000 animals adopted. Last year, 1.2 million found homes.”

“At about the same time as the campaign began, a national study showed that animals placed in homes as gifts were some of the most successful adoptions and the least likely to fail,” Winograd continues. “Home 4 the Holidays was launched, in part, in response to this traditional shelter dogma, led by the Humane Society of the United States (HSUS), that said shelters shouldn’t do adoptions during the holidays, arguing that ‘a dog adopted in December would be returned to the shelter in January.’ At the same time, HSUS was also tenaciously opposing other programs and services that would have provided those shelters with alternatives to killing, effectively consigning the animals who might otherwise have been adopted during December to death. As late as 2008, HSUS was still telling shelters not to do holiday adoptions and discouraging families from seeking to adopt. ‘Adoption is the best way to add a new pet to any family,’ they wrote on their website at the time. ‘Just wait until after the gifts have been opened and the New Year’s corks have been popped. Your decision to wait may be the best gift you give your family this holiday season.’ Of course, those animals needed some place to go, and without adoption, they were killed, upwards of 1,000,000 of them. Thanks to campaigns like Home 4 the Holidays, they’re not saying those things anymore.”

Again, none of this means you should go out and surprise everyone you know with a pet, but it’s worth considering that every surprise pet is a potential life saved. “Of course, someone has to want to live with a dog or cat,” says Winograd. “Animals are thinking, feeling beings capable of both joy and suffering, and the ideal home would provide a lifetime commitment and a lifetime of love. Gifting a dog or a cat shouldn’t be analogous to gifting a smartphone or other gadget that will become obsolete in a year or two, so it’s probably not a good idea to simply give someone a surprise gift of a dog or cat without a prior discussion or knowledge that they want to and can live with a dog or cat, and they can make the requisite commitment to that animal. But there’s nothing wrong with a parent surprising the kids with a cat, or if two adults have been thinking about it, one spouse surprising the other.”

So if you know someone’s ready for a pet, but you’re on the fence about surprising them with one, just think about the animal. “Shelter and rescue animals already face formidable obstacles to getting out alive,” Winograd explains. “When kind-hearted people come to help, shelter bureaucrats shouldn’t start out with a presumption that they can’t be trusted, regardless of whether it’s July or December. When people decide to adopt from a shelter — despite having more convenient options, such as buying from a pet store or responding to a newspaper ad — they should be rewarded. We’re a nation of animal lovers, and we should be treated with gratitude, not suspicion. More importantly, the animals facing death deserve the second chance that many well-intentioned Americans are eager to give them, and they shouldn’t be senselessly prevented from doing so.”

Now where the hell can I get my hands on one of those big boxes?