Earlier this week, as part of a wider piece offering practical advice for new dog owners, The Times printed a first-person account of impulse animal adoption entitled, We just couldn’t do it anymore. In it, the writer explained how he and his family had decided to get a puppy because “it seemed a good way to get out more” and “get the teenagers away from their screens.”
After minimal research, the family settled on a smart, working breed entirely unsuitable for inexperienced owners, and then bought an eight-week-old puppy on the spot because they felt awkward about the fact they had to use the farmer’s toilet. Spoiler – it wasn’t what they were expecting and they returned said puppy to the farmer a short while later.
The article has since stoked real anger on social media, and rightly so. This is about more than just one person’s misguided actions, but accounts like his serve to normalise the view that animals are just another string to consumerism’s ever-expanding bow; something to be bought for convenience and given back, passed on or sold for profit when they have outlived their novelty.
The pet pandemic
The thoughtless buying and selling of animals is not new. What is new is the sheer volume at which it is happening, fuelled by skyrocketing demand among pandemic-weary households.
Online searches for puppies soared during March of last year, and while some may have seen this as a good time to settle a much longed-for addition, for others it was a spur-of-the-moment decision, triggered by the relentlessness of lockdown. Indeed, revealed one in four respondents admitted to impulse-buying a pandemic puppy.
Now, with the COVID-19 vaccination programme under way and hopes high that society may be able to finally reopen this spring, how many of that one in four will return to ‘normality’ and regret their decision?
Eve Moore is Head of Adoptions at Underdog International, a charity that runs animal-assisted therapy projects and helps to find homes for dogs from around the world. She is hugely concerned that an already desperate situation has been multiplied many times over by the pandemic puppy rush.
“Amid the chaos of COVID-19 the company of a dog has kept many of us afloat, but unfortunately, backyard breeders and illegal puppy farmers have sensed the demand for dogs and facilitated a ‘click-and-collect’ type system, encouraging impulse buying,” she told me.
A nation used to one-click ordering and next-day delivery, we are addicted to quick fixes – and unscrupulous breeders know this. “Puppies from such places are bred for nothing but money,” Moore adds, sadly.
She is a firm advocate of the ‘adopt don’t shop’ mantra. “Choosing to adopt a dog is more important now than ever,” she tells me. “Dogs are not disposable. Bringing one home is a lifelong commitment and should never be done impulsively. We should be focusing on rescuing dogs that are already here rather than adding fuel to an ever-blazing fire.”
Pets for profit
The grim reality of the situation is that, as puppy farms continue to do a roaring trade, a conveyer belt of unwanted and abandoned animals is today filling shelters, already at capacity and struggling after a year of reduced fundraising opportunities.
But while puppies may be the ones making headlines, cats are sadly just as likely to end up without a home. Even before the pandemic, , every day. A search for cats on Gumtree throws up page after page of results, many very vague on the ‘unfortunate’ reasoning behind rehoming their pet. Most are asking upward of £500.
Journalist Holly Brockwell runs the gloriously-named , “creating a forever loving lap for needy cats.” She looks after unwanted cats in her own home, and has seen first-hand the sad effect of neglect on these wonderful animals. Smol Paul, a kitten with cerebellar hypoplasia who has become a bona fide internet celebrity since joining Holly’s gang, came to her stinking of cigarette smoke and “crawling with fleas.” Her vet estimated that he was just six weeks old, and had been taken from his mother too early.
As for me, my house is currently home to three rescue animals, and I can’t recommend it enough. Our first additions were Pickles and Cleo, two cats abandoned in a box outside a vet’s practice. They brought chaos, scratches, some trashed furniture, a reduced social life and acres of love and fun.
Anyone who thinks cats are heartless is insane. Cleo, the most independent adventurer there is, suddenly changed her ways and sat with me constantly for months after my mum died, sleeping on my pillow at night. These days she sits purring and listening intently while my four-year-old talks nonsense to her.
Four years ago we were joined by Pepper, a Labrador cross rescued from a pound in Cyprus by the charity Wild at Heart Foundation. Dogs aren’t easy, particularly at the start. They are chaotic and demanding. They don’t care if its freezing or raining, they still need a walk. They will eat awful things in the park and then guiltily throw them up in the corner of your living room. They will repeatedly get onto the sofa, however many times you tell them that the sofa is not for dogs.
But the joy comes when you embrace the chaos. Dogs are endlessly silly, loyal and giving. You realise that they’re running around the house because they are just so excited to see you, despite the fact you only left ten minutes ago to pop to Tesco. You become someone who enjoys those long walks in the park. You let them sit on the sofa, because actually, having a big furry head on your lap when you’re watching TV makes everything better.
Author and broadcaster Harriet Minter says it best: “You become a dog owner because it looks like fun, and you stay a dog owner because there is a little life depending on you and letting it down feels like the worst thing you could ever do. It is not for the fainthearted, but it does strengthen your heart like nothing else will.”
Minter adopted her dog Blue three years ago when her previous family could no longer look after her. “What nobody had told me about owning a dog is that for the first 48 hours it is perfectly normal to think you’ve made a mistake,” she says, admitting that Blue was ‘terrified’ when she first arrived. “I couldn’t even go to the loo without her big eyes staring up at me.”
Then, on day three, “something amazing happened.”
“I felt the panic of being so responsible for this little, needy animal rising in me,” Minter admits. “But then I thought, maybe I should just give in and give her as much love as she gives me. And from that point on she’s been the best decision I ever made.”
So, my advice for those considering adding a pet to their household? Change your expectations. Animals do not come to us perfectly moulded to our quirks and our lifestyles. They have to learn, adapt and grow. It is a constant, ever-evolving relationship, and one where the responsibility lies squarely with you.
I often think the biggest mistake you can make with animals is to expect them to either be unrealistically human – instinctively understanding our social cues and how we want them to behave – or the total opposite, a thing that can be ignored and put to one side when its presence is not convenient.
But these little pieces of wild in our homes are neither of these things – they are living creatures. They feel fear, pain and loneliness. They are unquestionably loyal, loving and vulnerable to upheaval and uncertainty. They are not ‘something to do’, they are someone to love.
If we want them to fit into our lives and become part of our families, we must teach them how. Because if they don’t know or understand what is expected of them, that is our failing, not theirs.
The Blue Cross provides advice and guidance on a number of issues for new dog owners, from to
can help with cat adoption and has a great selection of advice available online to help you to prepare for the arrival of a new cat and give them the best chance of settling quickly.