It's that time of year again, it's cold, it's dark, we all just want someone to snuggle on the sofa and honestly sometimes a human is just too much hard work. Combined with Christmas incoming, when children are begging for their first pet and couples are testing out their parenting abilities, we all rush to the nearest animal rescue centre (if we're being our best ethical selves) and treat ourselves to a fluffy companion.
Then comes to post-Christmas dumping, when people realise they just weren't cut out for the huge responsibility of looking after another life and shelters are overrun with new, lonely animals. In fact, thanks to the increase in designer dogs, the Christmas dumping actually begins in December as breeders over-compensate demand in the gifting season. It's not just a sad story we should be flicking past on January 1st, it's abhorrent, and it's why we should all be thinking hard and long about whether or not we can actually take on a pet.
It's with this in mind we asked pet-owners and experts for the questions we should be asking before purchasing a pet. From whether you can afford it to whether you can zone out howling during sex, these are the questions to consider...
1. Why do I want a pet?
‘This seems like an easy question but can lead to really deep discovery if you think about it carefully,’ says Dr Dan O’Neil, who was a vet for 22 years and now a senior lecturer at the Royal Veterinary College, ‘Reasons for a new pet may range from just to feel better, like retail therapy, to guilt, maybe not spending enough time with your child or to social status, all the rich mums have the latest French Bulldog craze.’
‘Reconsider and delay the purchase,’ he urges, ‘I will never forget my clients who went into a pet store to buy a gerbil for their child and then spent the next 10 years looking after an 80kg Harlequin Great Dane that was ‘just such a cute puppy’ that they had to buy it instead.’
2. Can you zone out howling at your bedroom door when you’re trying to have sex?
‘I invited my boyfriend over while I was home alone with my family dog once,’ says Lucy, 28, ‘Our daschund tends to sit outside your bedroom door and sniff loudly until you open it. You have to be completely silent for him to go away, and obviously I was in there with my boyfriend so we weren’t exactly being quiet. He got louder and louder until he was literally howling outside the door, so neither me or my boyfriend could really concentrate. It’s like having a baby, never a moments peace.’
3. Do you have enough time and space in your life for a pet?
‘Pets are generally sociable and dogs especially love company,’ says Hattie Thorpe-Gunner, spokesperson for the People's Dispensary for Sick Animals, ‘It's really important that they aren't left alone for longer than four hours, as dogs can become lonely, anxious and distressed. Walks, training, play time, feeding, cleaning their home and equipment and up after them, grooming and visits to the vet can start to add up and might take more time than you think.’
‘Loneliness is a form of invisible cruelty that we often ignore,’ says Dan, ‘Purchasing a fluffy baby bunny and putting it alone into a lavish hutch in the garden but spending little or no time with the rabbit is hugely cruel to a social species such as the rabbit.’
But it’s not just whether you can be there with your pet enough, it’s also whether you have a suitable environment for the pet you want.
‘All pets need space to run and play,’ continues Hattie, ‘but dogs in particular need regular access to a safe and secure outdoor space. Cats also enjoy being able to exercise freely outside and rabbits and guinea pigs need constant access to a large run or a garden to be happy and healthy.’
4. Do you have a backlog of expendable underwear?
‘You can’t leave anything lying around with a dog, they’ll literally eat everything’ says Jaya, 23, ‘My family dog ate five of my bras once, and not the shit Primark ones I’m talking expensive bras! Basically, keep you’re Victoria’s Secret Bombshell on the top shelf because nothing is safe.’
5. Can you afford a pet?
‘Depending on the species and breed that you choose, owning a pet can be very expensive,’ says Dan, ‘Apart from the regular monthly costs of food, insurance and bedding, you must also factor in one-of costs such as housing, vet bills, care during your holidays, and even dog-walking or pet-sitting during the day if you are out a lot.’
‘It all adds up over their lifetime,’ adds Hattie, ‘especially as they get older, so it's important to ask yourself if this is something you can afford to manage throughout a pet's life.’
6. What if they’re actually quite rude?
‘I bought my cat with this fantasy idea that I’d come home and she’d greet me at the door and we could cuddle on the couch all cosy,’ says Anna, 25, ‘it only took a few days to realise this cat was not a people person at all. To be honest, she’s kind of a bitch! Literally hisses at me whenever I try to stroke her and only comes up to me when she wants food, I might as well have got a boyfriend to be honest, at least you can dump them.’
7. What are the ethical issues around getting my preferred species or breed?
‘Pets need to be able to express their natural behaviours; to run, fly or swim, to socialize as appropriate, to have fun,’ says Dan, ‘It is questionable whether a highly intelligent parrot trapped in 2-foot by 3-foot cage for 50 years has been given a good quality of life. And similar questions are now being asked about flat-faced dog breeds such as Pugs and French Bulldogs that spent their lives trapped inside deformed heads that often prevent them from breathing or even sleeping properly. Ask yourself if your preferred pet is intrinsically likely to have a good life: if not, perhaps move to another species or breed.’
8. What if they’re more intelligent than you?
‘My mum’s dog was the most intelligent animal I’ve ever seen’, says Dyane, ‘she used to walk two miles to work every day and he would secretly follow her the entire day and then wait eight hours till she finished and walk home with her. He would hide behind walls on the way there, and when she caught him and sent him home he would pretend to turn around, then low and behold half a mile later she’d spot him behind her again.
‘Whenever she got the bus, he was always waiting for her at the bus stop at the end of the day. My dad sometimes used to pick her up with him so he obviously learnt the way, but it was the fact he always knew when that used to baffle me. It’s like he had an internal clock whenever her or my dad were on their way home, my mum always knew to put the kettle on when Brutus became restless because it meant my dad was around the corner.’
9. To rescue or not?
‘No matter what species you are interested in, there is likely to be a bona fide rescue centre near you where you can see and choose from beautiful animals that need new and loving homes,’ says Dan, ‘Taking on a rescue pet can give a second life to an animal that has had a poor start to life and can give you some hugely rewarding emotions.
‘As always, do your research to check that the rescue centre is genuine and not just a ruse to ‘sell’ animals in the guise of being a rescue.’
10. Are you prepared to become a animal grandmother very quickly?
‘Our vet wrongly identified the sex of one of our rabbits once, the whole time we thought we had two boys we had a boy and a girl and so obviously they ended up mating,’ says Dyane, ‘we went from reluctantly owning two rabbits – my daughters were begging me – to having ten at one time. We said that we would sell them but then when you see 10 little tiny bunnies all sleeping in a box together, it’s impossible to give them away.