When John Van Zante saw the small, gray-haired woman being pulled along the sidewalk by her powerful bulldog puppy, he ran from his office to help.
"I can still picture this poor woman as she was literally dragged up the sidewalk by the bulldog. Tears in her eyes. Stumbling," says Van Zante, spokesman for the Helen Woodward Animal Center, a nonprofit pet adoption organization in San Diego. "When I took the leash, she just stood there to catch her breath."
Finally, Van Zante says, the woman told him that her grandkids thought she was lonely so they bought her the dog for Christmas. The only problem was, the kids hadn't asked her if she wanted a pet.
The woman insisted that the dog was nice. But she lamented that her new puppy chewed sofa cushions, pooped in the house, dug up the yard, and yanked her arm so badly during walks that she'd gone to the doctor.
Though she was sad to surrender her dog to the center, she felt she had no choice. "I wanted a little kitten," Van Zante says she told him, "but nobody asked me."
Giving Pets as Gifts: 4 Tips
For the holidays or a birthday, it can be tempting to give a cute, cuddly pet as a gift. Yet along with the precious purr that won't quit or the fluffy tail that never stops wagging, there comes a commitment to another life for the next 10, 15, even 20 years.
No one wants to give an unwanted gift -- especially a vulnerable one that lives and breathes. If you're thinking about giving a pet as a gift, the experts offer these tips to help you make sure that that gift is actually a good idea.
1. Give friends and family a pet as a gift -- but never as a surprise. Pets are a wonderful addition to life, yet not everyone has the time, energy, money, or interest in having a pet, says Peggy Post, director of the Emily Post Institute, and author of the 17th edition of Emily Post's Etiquette.
That's why Post suggests always asking the receiver if they want a pet. "Some people will ask relatives or friends, but often no one asks the recipient," Post says. A surprise may feel more festive, but in the long run everyone -- whether they have two legs or four -- will be happier if you ask up front.
2. Pay the pet's adoption fees. Once you know your recipient wants a pet, tell them you'll pay the shelter's adoption fees for them in advance. If ultimately they decide against adopting a pet, you'll have made a much-needed donation to a shelter in their name.
And remember that shelters are a great resource, even if your recipient is keen on a pedigreed pet. "A lot of facilities do have purebreds," says Mike Arms, president of the Helen Woodward Animal Center.
3. Give pet as gift to immediate family only. Sometimes a friend might accept a pet as a gift because they just don't know how to say no. That's one reason Arms suggests giving pets as gifts only to your immediate family -- husband, wife, or kids.
And even then, it's important to make sure it's a family decision, says Atlanta veterinarian Jean Sonnenfield, DVM, because "when you get a pet, it is like having a child. There are a lot of financial, emotional, and time concerns."
Sonnenfield says the unconditional love you get from a pet is amazing, but it does come with work. And vet bills. And walks. And flea medication. And unintended messes. So be sure.
4. Avoid impulse. Whether you want to give a pet to the kids or to a friend, don't do it on impulse, Arms says. If you're going to the store for a quart of milk and you see a child out front with a box of cute kittens or puppies, resist. "You weren't going there for a pet."
Acting on impulse also doesn't give you (or the recipient) the chance to select a pet by size, activity level, and temperament, all important factors when choosing a pet, Sonnenfield says.
When You Don't Want a Pet as a Gift
After you waxed lyrical about your childhood pet, your neighbor surprised you with the gift of a puppy or kitten. Unfortunately, you don't want a pet. What do you do?
- Thank the giver. Even if a pet is the last thing you were hoping for, remember that the giver meant well, says Post, so "be gracious. It goes back to the basics of etiquette; be honest, respectful, and considerate."
- Decline the gift. After you've thanked the giver, decline their gift gracefully -- and quickly. Most purchased pets do have a return policy within a certain timeframe, Sonnenfield says.
- Or, accept the gift and find the pet a good home. Unfortunately, not every gifted pet can be returned. In that instance, Arms suggests accepting the pet, then taking out an ad, screening potential owners, and finding a good home for the pet. "It's the kindest thing you can do." Although relinquishing the pet to a shelter would make it easy on you, that puts "all the onus on a facility that's overcrowded to begin with," Arms says.
As for the grandmother with the bulldog puppy, that story could have gone very badly, Van Zante says. "She felt horrible when she surrendered her gift to us." Fortunately the tale had a happy ending. The boisterous young dog "went home with a great young family that wanted a puppy and had lots of time to spend with it," Van Zante says.
And fortunately, it's in your power to make sure any pet you give as a gift has the same happy ending.