The Truth About Why Pets Get Returned

Nobody wants to see a pet come back to the shelter after an adoption, least of all animal advocates. Several groups have done their homework on this issue, with surprising results. David Porras/Shutterstock

Oh, the joy of the holidays, with the possibility of a squirming puppy or fluffy kitten waiting under the Christmas tree. But what happens when house training gets frustrating or an eager child gets bored with his new furry friend?

There's a long-standing belief that pets given as gifts often end up in shelters several weeks later. In fact, this belief is so prevalent that some rescue groups discourage such "gift" adoptions, especially around the holidays.

Some go so far as to dub the spike in rehoming requests after the holidays "the Christmas dumpathon."

It's a serious concern, but there's another side to the story.

What the Studies Say About Pet Gifting

Christmas kitten playing in a box
That kitten under the tree could turn out to be a long-time, happy member of the family, say studies. ANURAK PONGPATIMET/Shutterstock

The consensus in the animal welfare community is starting to change.

"Fortunately, nowadays we have a considerable amount of data that has been collected surrounding this issue, and we know now that's just not the case — in fact, studies show that animals given as gifts are actually more likely to be kept in their new homes," Inga Fricke, director of Pet Retention Programs for the Humane Society of the United States, tells MNN.

A study published in the Journal of the American Veterinary Medical Association looked at the risk factors that made a dog more likely to be relinquished to an animal shelter. It found that dogs received as gifts were much less likely to be relinquished than dogs purchased or adopted by the owner directly.

More recently, a study by the American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (ASPCA) found no connection between getting a dog or cat as a gift and an owner's relationship to the animal. The ASPCA found that 96% of people who received pets as gifts — whether it was a surprise or not — thought it either increased or had no impact on their love or attachment to that pet.

The study also found that about three-quarters of the people who received a pet as a gift were OK that it was a surprise and said receiving the animal as a gift increased their sense of attachment.

Dr. Emily Weiss, ASPCA vice president of research and development, was the lead author on the ASPCA study. She tells MNN that researchers tackled the post-Christmas pet return myth in part because of personal experiences.

"We were certain looking at our own lives that this didn't make much sense. We weren't very sure there was much fact based in that myth," she says.

They knew there was already some research available about why people give up their pets, but they wanted to collect more data in hopes that it would help shelters place more animals into permanent homes, Weiss says.

Earlier studies looked at why pets were relinquished to shelters and found that the majority of pets that were returned had come from shelters, breeders or friends. The odds of the pet being returned were much lower when it was a gift.

A study published in the Journal of Applied Animal Welfare Science pinpointed 71 different reasons dogs and cats were returned to shelters. They ranged from "aggression toward people" to "hyperactive." A mere .3% of dogs and .4% of cats were returned because they were an "unwanted gift."

"There's probably something inherent in receiving a pet as a gift that might increase the likelihood of the bond," Weiss says. "Just that very basic obtaining the pet from somebody who loves them increases the likelihood that somebody will be attached to the pet."

Should Pets Be Given As Gifts?

yellow cat in a cage
Some rescue groups won't allow any pet adoptions as gifts, except to family members. ngorkapong/Shutterstock

Most rescue groups and shelters still aren't fans of giving a pet as a surprise gift unless it's parents who want to surprise their kids. In that case, the parents typically understand that a family commitment will be necessary.

"Many people have a somewhat romantic view of what dog ownership is like. This romanticism can become exaggerated by the warmth and loving kindness associated with the Christmas season," writes Ruth Ginzberg at "People who have not had dogs before, or who have not had dogs since they were themselves children, or who have recently had a dog but one who was a canine senior citizen trained and socialized to the family's ways long ago, often are completely unaware of how much work it is to raise a puppy from infancy into a good adult canine companion."

At Austin Pets Alive, a large no-kill shelter with many rescue programs in Texas, people aren't allowed to adopt if the pet will be given as a gift outside their immediate family, says spokesperson Lisa Maxwell.

However, at FurKids, an Atlanta-based rescue group, the holidays have been a successful time for long-lasting pet adoptions, says founder and CEO Samantha Shelton.

"For our organization, we have seen great success for families adopting at the holidays," Shelton says. "Our adoption process helps to ensure they are prepared and have thought through the decision and that it's not an impulse decision. We also remain a resource to help them with training and any issues they may have."

However, the group also follows the family-only rule for surprise adoptions.

Keys to a Successful Adoption

couple holding a puppy
Instead of surprising someone with a pet, take them with you to help choose one. The gift will still be special. Mila Supinskaya Glashchenko/Shutterstock

Giving a pet as a gift may not be such a terrible idea after all, but for any animal adoption, there are still plenty of things to consider before you go find the perfect bow.

The ASPCA recommends giving pets as gifts only to people who have shown long-term interest in having one and who you believe have the ability to responsibly care for one.

Even better, give the recipient a collar and pet supplies and let them pick out the pet with you.

Some rescue groups are even making it easier for people to adopt over the holidays, offering pets delivered by one of Santa's elves on Christmas morning.

While some groups have embraced holiday pets, the animal welfare community is still divided, Weiss says.

"Sheltering organization and rescue groups work independently and all have their own opinions, so it takes a long time to change their behavior," she says.

Various studies estimate that somewhere between 6-13% of pets eventually end up leaving their homes.

"Sometimes, no matter where a pet is obtained, it doesn't work out. It could be mismatched expectations or something happens in a person's life," Weiss says. "That's the reality."