A pet is not just for Christmas!

At this time of the year, animal shelters and vets emphasise that “a pet is for life, not just for Christmas”. This is because Christmas is a time when pets are offered as gifts, often without enough thought for the care they will need and the consequences of owning an animal. Furthermore, with all the excitement and altered daily routines, it is not a good time to try to settle a pet into their new environment. Statistics worldwide indicate that this is the worst time for impulsive pet purchases, evident from the number of animals subsequently abandoned during January and February.

There is no doubt that pets bring a lot of pleasure, but before buying or adopting, it is important to consider the consequences and expense of pet ownership and the suitability of the home the pet is being brought into.

Cute puppies and kittens soon grow up and may not be perfectly behaved! Puppies, especially, can be very demanding and drive owners mad with all their chewing. We have, over the years, had shoes, books, mobile phones, reading glasses and sofas chewed up. Raiding the recycling bags is a particular favourite pastime, which our dogs never grow out of, and I often get home to shredded rubbish all over the kitchen floor.

My first rescue dog was a Labrador cross Staffordshire Bull Terrier (or should I say terror) – a solid mass of muscle that never got tired and pulled strongly on the lead. Fluke was an extremely loving, intelligent and obedient dog, even learning to respond to hand signals and to tidy up his toys. However, he developed ‘selective hearing’ and was uncontrollable when he was swimming after ducks, chasing chickens or destroying the house during thunderstorms and fireworks. A top dog psychologist could not help him, but I adored Fluke and putting him to sleep when he was ill was the worst thing I have ever had to do.

I have been unwise, never refusing any kind of pet for my now grown-up children. Rabbits, guinea pigs, hamsters, rats, birds, goats, sheep, reptiles, cats, dogs and a donkey, they have had them all. Pets take time, money and commitment and, despite the children’s promises, parents should realise that it is often them who end up looking after the pets. Currently, my daughter has a large black pig who grunts ecstatically when her tummy is rubbed, a goat who likes bananas, geese that chase everyone away, cats and dogs who hate each other, noisy birds and creepy lizards. Now that she is at university, who looks after them? Actually my mum and husband, but I do feed the reptiles!

Pets give their owners unconditional love and companionship, but it is hard to imagine forming a relationship with a lizard – although some people do! When I first put my arm in our Chinese water dragon’s tank to clean it, the male lunged at me because he likes to sit on my daughter’s arm. I almost had a seizure and screamed my head off as I tried to shove him back in!

When choosing a pet, the animal’s life span must be considered. Can you care for it during its whole life? Dogs and cats live approximately 15 years, but a parrot lives up to 100 years. They bond with their carers and do not adjust to a new home, so parrot owners are likely to be outlived and should make a provision for their pet in their wills.

Parrots also get depressed and pull out their feathers if they are left alone, so they can be surprisingly demanding. Our Blue Crowned Conure only has one wing and so he is permanently free to climb all over his large roofless cage. He is an extremely noisy bird who will screech for hours if he is not given enough attention.

Despite all this, I like having all these animals. We definitely have too many, but did you know that there are psychological, physical and emotional benefits to owning a pet?

For my university thesis, I chose to study the effects that petting a dog can have on our blood pressure and heart rate. Friends volunteered to be my ‘guinea pigs’ and I monitored their blood pressure and heart rate whilst they either stroked a dog or just relaxed. The results were surprising, with their measurements being significantly lower whilst they interacted with the dog.

It is well documented that petting an animal releases feel-good hormones (serotonin, oxytocin, prolactin) and lowers the stress hormone cortisol, so, in effect, a pet can be a natural anti-depressant.

Depression is a very debilitating illness and sufferers can benefit from having a pet to care for as it encourages them to look after the animal at a time when perhaps they are unable to care for themselves.

For the elderly living alone, life expectancy is extended if they have a pet to care for. The commitment of caring for a pet gives the elderly a purpose and routine to their day. Even a budgie can be enough to provide the necessary daily interaction and companionship needed to reduce any loneliness. A cat provides a warm body to snuggle with and a dog encourages mobility and social connections as dog walkers tend to chat with each other.

In fact, many care homes for the elderly have their own pets or have volunteers bring in dogs to interact with the residents. This contact with pets has been shown to delay the residents’ aging process, to increase their cognitive functions and to make them more enthusiastic and sociable.

Animal-assisted therapy is also used with children and young adults to successfully raise their self-esteem, teach empathy, discipline and compassion. It is amazing that the animals can be so gentle and understanding of the humans’ needs.

So, a pet can improve its owner’s mental wellbeing and reduce blood pressure but, in my case, I am not sure this is true. With our dogs that want to fight each other, reptiles that lunge at me, birds that try to burst my ear drums and disappearing cats, our pets leave me stressed. But then the moments when these animals make me laugh, or the pleasure I see them give the rest of the family, make me remember that everything has its positives and negatives.

Our pets definitely make life more interesting and provide us with never-ending stories to amuse our friends and family.

But this Christmas, do not rush to give a pet as a gift. Think carefully. Do you or the family have the time, patience and money to care for one for its whole life? Instead, wait and give a home to one of the animals that will no doubt be abandoned after Christmas or, better still, contact one of the many animal charities that are looking for dog walkers and foster families to see first how you get on before you get your pet for life.

So now you know!

By Isobel Costa
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Isobel Costa works full time and lives on a farm with a variety of pet animals! In her spare time, she enjoys photography, researching and writing.