Puppies are not the new anti-depressant: Why you should never gift a puppy
It’s a joyful gesture at first glance — a family member gifting a brand new puppy, all fluff and big clear eyes, a whiff of that irresistible puppy breath and you can feel your brain releasing a surge of oxytoxin.
There’s excitement over this new addition to your life that had become dull and strained since the COVID-19 pandemic. It seems like a perfect Hallmark moment.
A puppy as a gift to somebody struggling mentally and emotionally may seem like a positive gesture, given the many established benefits of the human-animal bond, and study after study has shown evidence that having a pet leads to better moods and improved physical and mental health.
In fact, we as a society have been doing this for decades, even before the pandemic started.
As vets, we have traditionally seen increases in first-time puppy exams during the holiday season. The perfect gift that’s sure to bring endless joy and love into our lives. Or so it seems… until you realize that that fluffy, perfect little bundle of joy is another living, breathing, yapping, pooping, peeing, furniture-destroying creature. It’s basically a new born baby. With fangs.
And it becomes your job to raise them, discipline them, feed them, and take them to us when they get sick and pay the bills for our services.
Puppy gifting is not a cure-all
Recently, I came across a client who was struggling with exactly this. To be more precise, I had unintentionally woken her up from a dreamy puppy state with a harsh dose of reality of what it means and what it takes to raise a puppy.
When the client first walked in with the puppy, she was elated. This puppy, she proudly proclaimed, was a gift from her grandson to help battle her depression. I was depressed, she said, and my grandson gave me this puppy as a gift to help me.
The puppy was an adorable little white fluff Shih-Tzu mix of about 8 weeks old. Never been to the vet before, never been dewormed, never had any vaccines or tests done. A typical case we have been seeing since the pandemic hit. Here in front of me, is another “pandemic puppy,” bred intentionally or not, in someone’s backyard.
Caring for your puppy is work
After a physical exam which was unremarkable, I started with my normal puppy spiel, quite similar to Dr. Shapiro’s recent puppy care guide.
The owner had never had a dog before, so I talked about all the important puppy vaccine series. I talked about the puppy diet he needs to be on, deworming medications he should start, and the stool test that should be submitted. I talked about preventatives, the importance of socialization, with both humans and dogs, and tooth brushing particularly for small breeds like him.
I talked about annual physical and blood work exams when he is a little older, and I recommended neutering him before the age of one. I also recommended considering pet insurance, which I do for all new pet owners to set them up for success and help off-set vet bills they will likely struggle with in the future when their pet gets sick.
Basically, all the usual 101 puppy how-to’s that we all go through with every new puppy owners. Standard stuff.
The client, however, became overwhelmed about three minutes in and cut me off. I had no idea this was so much work, she exclaimed. I could see that she was on the verge of an emotional melt down. I just came in for vaccines, she huffed in frustration.
She glared at me with accusation, as if somehow it was my fault that she now had this creature she needs to raise.
And herein lies my conundrum as a small animal veterinarian working in general practice.
A puppy is not an alternative to anti-depressants.
As an advocate of animal welfare, I could not help but become frustrated and angry with this client. How did you not think that this would be work? How do you not see that this is not a cute little toy, but an actual sentient being just like us?
My anger then swiftly shifted towards her grandson. What was he thinking? I thought to myself. Why did he think it was a good idea to give a puppy to somebody struggling with depression? A puppy is not an alternative to anti-depressants.
Yes, it is true that the existence of a pet can improve your mood, relieve anxiety, help with stress, and ease loneliness that has increased particularly since the pandemic, and even improve your physical health. I can attest to this personally; my dog and cat have been my emotional rock when I was homesick, stuck in New York City in 2020 and the early part of 2021, unable to see my family.
But they are not a solution to our mental health problems. That is what a mental health professional is for.
After seeing the client leave with her new puppy, mumbling under her breath that she is going to speak to her grandson about what he has done to her, I started to wonder: how many more people are acquiring and gifting new pets as a solution to mental health issues?
According to a CDC report generated last August, about 40% of US adults stated that their struggles with mental health or substance use has been associated with “increased mental health challenges related to the morbidity and mortality caused by the disease and to mitigation activities, including the impact of physical distancing and stay-at-home orders.”
In our field, we have all recognized a surge in new puppy exams – so much so that we have dubbed this new trend “pandemic puppies.”
Anecdotally, my experience pre-pandemic with new puppy owners has been mostly positive. Clients have done their research prior, taken their time to prepare and have questions all ready for me to answer so they can start their journey raising a puppy with all the right information and preparation.
Since the pandemic, however, I have noticed a definite shift in client perception and knowledge of bringing home a new puppy.
While well-informed clients still exist, more and more I have had to speak candidly to clients who seem absolutely clueless when it comes to the work it takes to raise a puppy, and the vet bills that come with having a new life to take care of.
I have also noticed an increase in questions about how to register for an emotional support animal. I can’t help but wonder: who am I really helping here? The puppy, who is my priority and my patient, or this owner, who should probably be seeking help from a mental health professional and not myself or the puppy?
The effects of human stress on animals
According to a recent study published in November 2020 in Nature, decreased wellbeing and stress of owners has negatively affected the well-being of their companion animals.
Citing the concept of One Welfare, the idea that human, animal and environmental welfare are all inter-linked, it makes sense to pose that decreased mental health and wellbeing amongst us can also affect our companion animals similarly.
The pandemic has indeed caused a spike in puppy purchases and adoptions. This trend in acquiring new puppies was noted all over the world and not limited to the United States. It seemed like a great trend in the beginning, when we read stories of adoption centers clearing out of dogs (and cats!) in need of homes.
But what soon followed were increased sales in puppies online and pet stores who came directly from puppy mills that are unequivocally inhumane, and backyard breeding by people wanting to make some extra cash without having any basic knowledge of what it means to breed and the genetic complications that arise when you mate two already in-bred dogs.
According to an article from the New Yorker, “Petco’s sales rose by 11%, Chewy’s by 47% and Morgan Stanley has predicted that the pet care will almost triple in size in the next decade.” Blue Pearl has noted a 20% increase in puppy exams since the pandemic hit, but with that also saw a whopping 70% increase in parvo cases since the pandemic.
Parvo is a highly contagious gastrointestinal viral disease, but it’s also easily preventable by — we all know the answer — vaccines. And thus we circulate back to the individual owner’s perception and reason for acquiring a new puppy.
The effects of pandemic puppies on the veterinary industry
A cynical bystander may say that we in the veterinary field are clearly financially benefiting from this. New puppies mean new clients, which means more income generated. New sick patients also mean more income generated.
But when we see a significant increase the animals suffering from an easily preventable disease, and clients who refuse to pay for our services or are unable due to not understanding the financial commitment it takes to care for a living being, then we are the ones that have to make the difficult and heartbreaking decision to put these puppies down or watch them suffer and die.
We are also chronically understaffed. Emergency animal hospitals like Blue Pearl and Animal Medical Center here in NYC are forced to turn urgent cases away because they are overburdened.
We are torched on social media by people who refuse to understand the sacrifice and commitment it takes to do the kind of work that we do. We are also suffering from the side effects of the pandemic just like the general public.
So what can be done to mitigate this?
Preparing puppy owners for responsibility
The easiest solution is to never gift another living being to somebody who is not ready for it, or bring home a puppy on a whim without thinking about the implications of raising another living creature.
A person struggling with mental health such as depression, anxiety, or other common ailments should seek a mental health professional and receive the care they deserve. Not bring home a puppy that they are not equipped — emotionally or financially — to handle. It’s like trying to fix a fractured marriage by bringing in a new baby. It just doesn’t work that way.
We are all battling through the COVID-19 pandemic — perhaps in different ways with unique struggles, but this is a universal experience. Some are hit more than others for sure, but one thing is for certain. Our animals should not have to suffer with us. We, the human race, have brought on this pandemic, and it is our responsibility to end it, and minimize as much collateral damage as possible.
As for that puppy I saw — he never came back for his booster vaccines. I can only hope that he is in good hands, and is seen somewhere else that can provide the care he needs to live a successfully healthy and happy life.
Dr. Yui Shapard is an Associate IndeVet practicing in New York City.
Smuggling, price-gouging, dognapping: True tales from inside the great pandemic puppy boom. by Katherine Dunn. Fortune.
The relationoship between dog ownership, psychopathological symptoms and health-benefitting factors in occupations at risk for traumatization. by Johanna Lass-Hennemann et al. International Journal of Environmental Research and Public Health.
Human-dog relationships during the Covid-19 pandemic: Booming dog adoption during social isolation. by Liat Morgan et al. Nature.
Pets are helping us code during the pandemic — But that may be stressing them out. by Rachel May. National Geographic.
What will become of the pandemic pets? by Nick Paumgarten. The New Yorker.