Charlie was abandoned when he was six years old. No one knows for how long he was chained to the floor of his empty home, or how long he had gone without food, water or affection. Neglected by loved ones, he was left to waste away on a hard concrete floor. It wasn’t until a realtor discovered him that his life changed – but by that time, he was already skin and bones.

Like my dog, Charlie, there are millions of cases around the world where cherished household pets are abandoned, abused and left to suffer because of human neglect. Unfortunately, not every pet gets a happy ending like Charlie. At this time of year, parents often begin looking for lovable puppies and kittens as presents for their children. Sadly, many people are enchanted by the idea of newborn, purebred pets and often shell out hundreds of dollars for them instead of adopting older, socialized and unwanted animals from the shelter. And, for some students, the novelty of having a pet at school is a comfort and reminder of home.

Meghan Watson, a third year student at the University of Windsor, bought a golden retriever puppy from a private breeder two Christmasses ago. With pride, she reveals that her puppy is “the offspring of a former champion show dog.”

“We bought Cody because he was a purebred and because of his background,” she says. “I also liked the idea of having a pet at school.” It must have been a surprise then, when two years later, Cody suddenly died. The affable golden retriever who loved playing fetch was not only the spawn of a champion show dog, but he was also the product of inbreeding. While there are hundreds of genetic health problems for all kinds of dogs—purebred, crossbred and mixed—the risk of health problems is exponentially higher in purebred dogs. And these issues are not limited to just canines—all animals from cats to horses risk facing the same health problems.

The problem lies within the breeding process, since most breeds are the result of a few founding animals. The same sets of genes have been reproduced over and over, limiting the gene pool. Some potential breeding animals are also rejected because of something as trivial as not having a “desirable eye shape.” This limits the gene pool even further, which leads to inbreeding. As was the case with Cody, this might cause major problems down the road.

“I was obviously really upset,” says Meghan Watson, wiping away a tear as she picks up a small fetch toy before placing it into a box. “I couldn’t believe he was only with me for two years. And it also really sucks because I’m a student and I paid close to $500 for him.” She tapes the box shut and shoves it into the back of her closet. She explains she doesn’t want to be reminded of her loss.

For people, especially students, who are looking for animal friends, the process can be costly. Not only do animals from breeders cost hundreds of dollars, but the pets typically still need to see a vet to get their shots. Add in the fact that most puppies still need to be trained and it can be a pricey venture. According to FetchDog.com, the average cost of a new puppy in the first year is $1,760, but this figure can reach up to $5,910.

But perhaps the most costly factor about buying from breeders is that more animals are being created in an already overpopulated world. Additionally, animals at pet stores run the risk of being products of puppy mills. There are already perfectly adoptable animals living on the streets or caged in a crowded shelter. The Animal Care and Control Department of San Francisco estimates that there are over 7.5 million unwanted animals in the United States alone. For many of these furry creatures, life is miserable and full of disease and neglect, and for those lucky enough to be picked up by local shelters, their pain only ends when adopted into loving homes, or when they are put down.

Kristina Read, a Leadership student at Laurier Brantford, has always adopted her animals. “I wanted to open my home to an animal that didn’t have that good of a chance of getting one. Plus, I didn’t want a puppy.” She lists housetraining, vet bills, shots, and chewing as some of the reasons why. “I wanted a dog based on character, not breed.”

Wynona was a stray cat that was picked up by the Toronto Pet Rescue. A fluffy grey and white cat, she was sent to be sold at Petsmart in Kitchener where fourth year Concurrent Education student, Lyndsey Shiels, saw her and fell in love.

“To be honest, I [have] had cats in the past and wasn’t particularly looking for another. I saw her in Petsmart, cute and mild mannered, and I love having a pet at home, so it seemed natural to adopt her,” says Shiels who explains that she couldn’t adopt earlier because she lived in residence. She believes “adoption is a better avenue if you’re looking to acquire a pet.”
“There are plenty of animals out there who are looking for homes and encouraging the breeding of new ones doesn’t help their case,” she adds. “Adoption can change the life of the pet you adopt, and buying from breeders only helps increase the demand, and therefore, increases the likelihood that more animals will end up in shelters.”

Animals come to shelters for a variety of reasons: abandonment, abuse, or simply because their previous owners couldn’t take care of them anymore. Many shelters are full of unwanted cats, dogs, birds, rabbits, and a variety of other animals.

“It is disheartening to think that many of the animals there may have had difficult pasts or even been turned away from previous pet owners for a number of reasons,” says Shiels. “It is encouraging to know that you can make a difference though.”

For Lyndsey and other students, the allure of having a lovable pet is not without its disadvantages, particularly on a meager student budget.
“Being a student can make it hard to balance the books, but I manage to save money through my lifestyle. I don’t spend a lot of money on ‘extra’ things and I make sure to budget for any expenses that she incurs including not only food and consistent costs, but also the possibility of vet bills or other expenses,” she says.

But for those students who can’t afford the responsibilities of owning a pet, there are other options for people looking to get involved with animal rights. From not eating meat to volunteering at the local SPCA to getting your pets fixed, the options are endless.

Mary Welsh is the founding director of Brant Animal Aid. The non-profit, charitable foundation provides monetary support for projects that assist to prevent and relieve unnecessary suffering of animals within Brant County. The foundation assists responsible pet owners with limited finances by paying a percentage of their vet bills. Brant Animal Aid also runs a spaying and neutering program which makes the expensive procedure available to less well-off families.

“The spaying and neutering program basically gets out unnecessary pain and suffering,” says Welsh in a phone interview. “Some animals usually just run wild and have litter after litter.”

She also mentions that people who can’t afford to get their animals fixed are generally left with litters of puppies or kittens that they do not want – or cannot afford – to keep. “They let them loose to fend for themselves and endure unnecessary pain and suffering,” she explains.

The Brant Animal Aid is one of only three foundations like it in Ontario. Welsh says the foundation also works closely with the Brantford SPCA which is always looking for volunteers. In regards to holiday pet shopping, Welsh notes the Brantford SPCA has “strict policies” on adopting during this time of year because “sometimes, things don’t work out, and the animals are returned.” The SPCA could not be reached to provide further comments.

It’s been three years since Charlie moved into my home. Now, as he runs around the house with his favourite heart-shaped toy in his mouth, he’s a completely different canine. Gone is the shivering, fearful Black Labrador-Pointer whose ribs threatened to break through his thin skin, or the dog who would whine and cry every time he was left alone because he was scared of being abandoned again. Charlie has a happy ending; he is a happy, confident member of the family that dominates the couch, eats like a king and lives for his walks. He is my best friend.

And the greatest gift I’ve ever given was what I’ve given him: the chance to start over.