“Can we have a pet for Christmas?” is something I hear a lot each December. The answer, much to my children’s disappointment, is always no.

In addition to the fact that we are often told that Christmas is not the best time to introduce a new animal into a household [e.g. see PetRescue.Com article: No Christmas Puppies, Please!], I can’t think of any pet that is both practical and fulfils the necessary fluffy/cute criteria that my kids are requesting. (Apparently the stick insects that we have are not ‘proper’ pets!). 

After listening to experts talk at CABI’s Human-Animal Bond Symposium last month, I can appreciate the benefits that introducing something cuddly into the family could bring. Professor Alan Beck, of Purdue University, described some of the ways that pets can benefit human health and welfare. For example, dog ownership generally results in increased exercise and greater social contact through talking with other dog owners; people with dogs or cats have been found to have lower blood pressure, heart rates and reduced cholesterol than those without; and even staring at a fish tank can provide enough of a distraction from our worries to induce a relaxation response. Animals can also help teach children about responsibility and compassion.

So what are the options? Cats have always been ruled out due to my allergic reaction to them. Although there are breeds that are supposedly ‘hypoallergenic’, the topic is controversial1. It would be unwise to commit to a cat without extensively testing my reaction to these ‘low allergen’ breeds first.

Then there are hamsters, gerbils and other small mammals kept in cages. My childhood memories of pet hamsters are of animals constantly gnawing at their bars – I guessed then that this was not a good sign, and know now that this can be an indication of stress, frustration or a lack of stimulation. While cage design has likely improved since I was a child due to a greater understanding about animal welfare2, I would still feel uncomfortable leaving an animal shut in a cage for much of its life.

Rabbits are the third most popular pet in the UK, but they can be much harder to keep than they look. Owners are often unaware of the specific needs of rabbits3. For example, rabbits are social animals and need company (ideally they should be kept in pairs or groups); they also need plenty of exercise (so not just a hutch is required but also a substantial run). The charity PDSA recently highlighted rabbit health and welfare concerns in its annual PDSA Animal Wellbeing (PAW) report. This included the fact that although rabbits should eat at least their own body size in hay or grass each day, 36% don’t.

The most ‘wished for’ pet in our house is undoubtedly a dog. Unfortunately, with nobody at home for a large part of the week, this is also the least practical option. As mentioned by Dr John Bradshaw at CABI’s symposium and in a previous blog, for most dogs the attachment they feel towards their owner is fundamental to their well-being. Separation anxiety is a common problem4.

Fellow speaker at the symposium, Professor Daniel Mills from the University of Lincoln, suggested that a ‘pet sharing’ initiative could be beneficial to families like ours where sole dog ownership is not practical. He highlighted the fact that many older people would like to own pets but are worried that if they become ill there will be nobody to take care of the animal. [This was also a finding of an RSPCA study recently reported in Veterinary Record5].

Professor Mills suggests that a pet share between working families and older people would bring benefits to both groups in terms of animal companionship and increased social contacts. How this arrangement would work in practice I am not sure (e.g. how easy would it be to agree on diet, veterinary treatments, who looks after the animal when etc.), but given the many health and welfare benefits of pet ownership it is certainly a scheme worthy of further consideration.

For now, I think ‘pet borrowing’ rather than ‘pet sharing’ could be the way forward for us. While my boys will not find a dog under the Christmas tree this year, they may find themselves taking one for a walk after Christmas lunch!

References and Further Reading from VetMed Resource:

  1. Do hypoallergenic cats and dogs exist? Butt, A.; Rashid, D.; Lockey, R. F. Annals of Allergy, Asthma, & Immunology, 2012, 108, 2, pp 74-76, 20 ref.
  2. Behaviour of golden hamsters (Mesocricetus auratus) kept in four different cage sizes. Fischer, K.; Gebhardt-Henrich, S. G.; Steiger, A. Animal Welfare, 2007, 16, 1, pp 85-93, 39 ref.
  3. Knowledge and attitudes of 52 UK pet rabbit owners at the point of sale. Edgar, J. L.; Mullan, S. M. Veterinary Record, 2011, 168, 13, pp 353
  4. Canine anxieties and phobias: an update on separation anxiety and noise aversions. Sherman, B. L.; Mills, D. S.; Landsberg, G. M.; Horwitz, D. F. Veterinary Clinics of North America, Small Animal Practice, 2008, 38, 5, pp 1081-1106, 65 ref.
  5. Survey shows declining pet ownership among older people. Veterinary Record, 2012, 171, pp. 518

Further Reading 

Factors associated with dog ownership and contact with dogs in a UK community. Westgarth, C.; Pinchbeck, G. L.; Bradshaw, J. W. S.; Dawson, S.; Gaskell, R. M.; Christley, R. M. BMC Veterinary Research, 2007, 3, 5, pp (3 April 2007), 33 ref.

Companion animals and human health: benefits, challenges, and the road ahead. O'Haire, M. Journal of Veterinary Behavior: Clinical Applications and Research, 2010, 5, 5, pp 226-234, many ref

The human-animal bond: health implications across the lifespan. Horowitz, S. Alternative and Complementary Therapies, 2008, 14, 5, pp 251-256, 57 ref.

The human-dog relationship: a tale of two species. Beck, A. M.; Macpherson, C. N. L.; Meslin, F. X.; Wandeler, A. I.; CABI, Wallingford, UK, Dogs, zoonoses and public health, 2000, pp 1-16, many ref.

Importance of animals to children, anthropomorphism, and the development of empathy. Turner, D. C.; European Union – Committee of the Regions, Brussels, Belgium, Proceedings of the International Conference on animal welfare education: everyone is responsible, Brussels, Belgium, 1-2 October 2010, pp 122-126, 21 ref.

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