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A dog is for life, not just for Christmas

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Christina with Leo
Before you get consider getting the family a pet for Christmas, please think hard about what it entails one expert pet guardian tells Alix Norman


“The fact of the matter is that a dog really is for life, not just for Christmas,” says Christina Georgiou. “Too many people are too easily swayed by the idea of giving their kids the gift of a pet – without thinking through what this will entail. But the truth is that owning an animal is a lifelong responsibility.”

An ardent shelter volunteer, as well as the director of the recent award-winning documentary The Stray Story, Christina is passionate about animal welfare. The daughter of a vet, she’s been around pets her entire life, and knows only too well the commitment it takes… A commitment that’s often overlooked in the rush of excitement that comes with bringing a pet into your home.

“I’ve seen too many families take on an animal at Christmas and then, once the initial excitement wears off, neglect it terribly,” she reports. “Or even worse, abandon it by the side of the road – often in January or February when it’s far too cold for a domesticated animal to survive. And it’s not just dogs. I once found a guinea pig – not an animal you’ll find living wild in Cyprus! – hiding in the roots of a tree in January. I took him in, tried to warm him up and feed him as they’re very sensitive little creatures. But he didn’t make it; the damage had already been done. Don’t tell me that wasn’t some Christmas pet put out into the cold once the thrill had gone!”

At a time of year when present pressure can be immense, many parents or guardians often give in and get the pet they’re being pestered for. “We tend to think mainly of dogs and cats,” says Christina. “But you’ll also find a lot of people buy bunnies for their kids, and then just release them into the streets when they’re bored or tired of the responsibility. The thing is, domesticated animals can’t really survive on their own.”

leo and christina 5Christina, who has travelled the world reporting on the stray problem, cites Christmas and hunting season – “if a dog doesn’t work for the hunter, they’re often abandoned” – as the worst times of the year for animal shelters. “Also mating season,” she adds. “You’ll often find that people who haven’t bothered to spay or neuter their animals end up with unwanted litters, which are then abandoned in the nearest skip.”

The answer to all these problems is responsibility, she emphasises. “Once you get a pet, it’s your duty to feed it, teach it to behave, and educate yourself along with it. But before you get a pet, at the point where you’re thinking about bringing an animal into your home, there’s a great deal to be considered…”

New pet guardians fall roughly into two categories: those who adopt, and those who buy. “Okay, if you’re going to get a bunny or a turtle or a goldfish, you’ll be buying it from a pet store – you can’t really adopt those types of animals from a shelter. However, if you’re looking for a dog or a cat, adoption is the best option.”

But many people, she notes, eschew a shelter animal because of the effort or cost. “Most rescue centres require a detailed questionnaire, a home check and the money for the adoption package. If it’s a dog, the shelter will want to know you have the time to train with it and the wherewithal to feed it properly and make it a member of your family; that you won’t just tie it up outside or leave it on your verandah.

“Pets need proper care,” she adds. “And that’s something first-time adopters may not consider. Your animal will be dependent on you for its health, its food, when it sleeps, pees, eats, and goes outside, so you need to give it as much freedom of choice as you can. And you also need to provide interaction: dogs or cats that don’t get the right amount will poop or pee or chew your things. You’ll be the one to suffer in the end!”

The other option, of course, is to buy. And given Cyprus’ stray problem, purchasing a dog or cat is an awful idea, says Christina. “But it still happens. Often it’s because the prospective pet guardian doesn’t want to pay for the adoption package,” she explains. “But what they’re not realising is that they’ll then have to do all those things themselves: spaying or neutering, microchipping, vaccination and registration.”

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At the end of the day, says Christina, being a responsible pet guardian comes down to character. “If you’re going to treat a pet as a plaything or a toy, or if you can’t give it what it needs, then don’t get one. Please! Just don’t! Christmas is a prime time of the year for getting pets. But can you still be responsible, can you care and love your pet when the newness wears off?

“Many of the shelters see an influx of puppies and kittens in the first months of the new year,” she reiterates. “it takes a couple of months for people to realise they don’t want their pet anymore. Maybe its peed or pooped inside too many times because nobody has trained it, or perhaps it’s bitten a child who hasn’t been taught how to behave around animals. And so off it goes to the shelter. But that just traumatises – or, if it ended up at the shelter the first time because it was abandoned, retraumatises – the animal.

“If you think animals don’t have feelings or memories, I’ll tell you a story,” she says. “When I initially fostered my golden retriever mix, he was just a year old and on death row at the Nicosia Municipal Pound. I named him Eddy. Then, one day, a vet phoned me. ’I’m calling about Leo,’ he said. ‘Who’s Leo?’ I asked. And as I said that, my dog turned and looked straight at me as if to say ‘that’s me, I’m Leo! It’s me!’ He knew his name.

“I strongly believe the vet knew who had originally owned the dog,” Christina says. “But he wouldn’t say. And I know it was a family with young children: every time we passed a primary school, Leo would stop and put his front paws on the railings… He was looking for his child. There was a connection there that broke my heart. And it was breaking his too. So don’t tell me animals don’t have feelings and memories, that they can’t experience trauma.

“It’s up to us, as pet owners, to protect our animals from that sort of trauma,” she concludes. “To give them a good life, and ensure we’re taking care of them responsibly. If you’re going to get a pet this Christmas, please think ahead. Ask yourself the hard questions: will you still love your animal just as much next year? Will you be able to put in the care and costs that are required? Is this a pet for life? Or is it just for Christmas?”

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