Urban Jungle

PUBLISHED : Friday, 25 January, 2008, 12:00am
UPDATED : Friday, 25 January, 2008, 12:00am

This week: Responsibility

There has been some talk around town about setting a legal age for the purchase or adoption of an animal. At the moment there isn't a statutory minimum age for purchasing a pet at a pet shop nor for adopting an animal from a shelter. However, there are many shelters that have arbitrarily set minimum ages for adoption. At the Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals it is 16 years old and at Hong Kong Dog Rescue it is 21.

Pet shops have a legal requirement to provide an adequate living environment for animals for sale, and they have to meet the stipulated requirements when applying for a licence from the government to run a pet shop. But pet shops are able to sell to anyone who can pay their asking price.

In most cases it is impossible for a child to have the ability to provide the husbandry needed to keep a pet properly, and therefore totally irresponsible for a child to be able to purchase a pet. This does not mean children shouldn't have pets; it means the decision to buy one should be made by an adult. This is because only an adult can provide the funds for the pet's upkeep and, more importantly, children are not equipped to predict their own ability to adequately provide attention and a stable environment for the duration of their pet's life. A dog or cat can easily live for 16 years and longer. I have a dog and a cat that are both 18. A child will go through too many changes, over the course of 16 years, to reliably provide for an animal.

There was a classic example of this during a consultation I had last week. Two years ago a lovely Indian family came in with their new Maltese terrier puppy. The owners were very intelligent and came from a relatively affluent part of town. That is to say, these are savvy clients keen to do their best for their new pet. During that consultation two years ago, the parents said to the teenager present: 'Listen to Dr Eric, he is going to explain how to look after the dog. It's your dog, and you're going to have to listen carefully.' I followed that statement with: 'Well, I have bad news for you guys. It is going to be your dog [mum and dad], as your kids will be either too busy with studying or boyfriends and, by the time your dog is three years old, she will be at university and she will have no time even to play with it. You guys are going to be taking the dog to the vet, giving the dog its required medications; you will be grooming and washing the dog; you will be the ones to buy the dog food; you will be walking the dog and not your kids.' I then went on with the puppy check-up and gave this particular puppy a clean bill of health.

Last week the father came in with the dog for its annual vaccination. He said to me: 'You weren't joking about us being the ones to look after the dog. My daughter went to London for her higher education, and it's me and my wife that are doing all the dirty work. She comes home during vacations and she is too busy catching up with her friends to even play with her much.' I tried my best to resist, but couldn't help but say to him: 'I told you so.' We both laughed. Fortunately, both mum and dad have fallen in love with the dog and have taken the responsibility to look after it in earnest.

During my many years of working with welfare organisations, I have come across many stories that haven't had such a happy ending. The parents really didn't like pets in the first place, and it was only because of constant nagging from their children that they agreed to buy or even adopt a pet. But once the children grew up and lost interest, the pet became a nuisance. After a while, the cost of owning a pet built up and the time spent on caring for it became a chore, and the parents decided to dump the dog at a welfare organisation or, worse, on the streets.

Training a dog is also a whole-family affair; it is no good if just the children turn up to puppy class. That's not to underestimate children, who may understand fully the dog-training concepts. Since parents will play an integral part in a pet's life in the long run, they need to know how to train the dog, too. It is pointless and counterproductive having only half the family understand training. It nullifies the training and you end up with a disruptive and destructive dog. The poor animal will eventually get marginalised in a remote corner of the house and forgotten. The only attention it will get is angry attention, because the owners will have to clean up after it. The marginalisation will eventually escalate to abandonment in some cases.

So consider carefully whether your future is compatible with keeping a pet. It may be prudent to consider a shorter-lived pet, such as a hamster, if your future is unpredictable. Make sure any decision about a new pet is a family decision and that everyone in the family wants the new pet, as it will be part of the family for a long time, like it or not.

The family must decide carefully - a new pet will be part of the family for a long time, like it or not