Christmas celebrates the birth of a baby in a stable, surrounded by animals. So at this time of year, our thoughts turn to our own homes, which, while perhaps not filled with straw and manure, do often contain small, vulnerable creatures with Messiah complexes — our pets.

Right now I am stealing glances behind me, where my cat Graham reclines in a well-gnawed nest assembled from the cardboard packaging of review books, stirring uneasily in his sleep as I play the festive Jingle Cats mashup of What Child Is This? and Hava Nagilah.

I adopted Graham nearly three years ago from the Lost Dogs’ Home, which is currently offering half-price adoptions from its shelters across Australia. Unlike most retailers’ pre-Christmas sales, this one is pragmatic — the Lost Dogs’ Home, along with many other animal rescue organisations, needs to make room in its shelters for the thousands of unwanted pets that will be surrendered over the next month.

That’s why I was so upset this week to see a local pet store with so many puppies and kittens for sale that it had to display them in portable mesh enclosures on the shop floor as well as in the window boxes. If you buy an animal from a pet shop, over the internet, from a market or a classified ad, you’re very likely buying from a backyard breeder or large-scale puppy farm – irresponsible profiteers who don’t care for animals’ welfare.

The RSPCA conducted a highly visible campaign this year against puppy farming.

In any case, unless you plan to enter purebred cats or dogs in shows, I feel it’s not cool to buy a pet from even the most caring, respected breeder when perfectly healthy, gorgeous, adorable animals are being euthanised in shamefully large numbers in Australia.

Between 25% and 40% of dogs that enter Australian shelters are euthanised each year, and the numbers are higher for older, larger and more energetic animals. Then there are dogs of (or simply mistaken for breeds targeted as “dangerous” ), such as pit bull terrier crosses.

For cats, the statistics are even worse. Almost 70% of shelter cats are euthanised in NSW each year, while internal turmoil raged at the Cat Protection Society of Victoria in 2010 over a kill rate of almost 90%.

But while it’s easy to demonise irresponsible pet owners as ignorant impulse buyers, not all animals suffering during the holidays are Christmas gifts. The festive season is a pressure cooker for all sorts of crisis and hardship.

It’s an unfortunate corporate tradition to lay off workers in November and December in order to begin the New Year with a clean slate … and avoid expenditure on holiday pay and other entitlements. The affected workers then face the unenviable prospect of scrambling for another job at a time when most companies are winding down their operations for the year.

Other workers anticipate a less than merry Christmas as they agitate for decent pay and conditions. As Australians bustle through large shopping centres in search of last-minute Christmas gifts, the cleaning contractors working there don’t earn enough to support their families — often as little as $16.57 per hour.

And as we order more drinks at end-of-year parties, Schweppes workers are locked out of their factory because their union objected to Schweppes-Asahi’s plan to introduce 24-hour, six-day-a-week production.When the financial pressure is on, pets are often the first to suffer. Veterinary expenses become prohibitive, along with the cost of food and litter. And if people are forced to change accommodation due to financial hardship, an already packed and competitive rental property market becomes even harder to navigate if a pet is part of the equation. Sure, we love our pets, but do we love them enough to become homeless?

Family and relationship conflict also bubbles up at Christmas time, which also negatively impacts on pets. It’s well known that animals suffer from domestic violence just as much as people. They can be brutally tortured or slain by abusive or vengeful partners — perhaps the same partners who lovingly gave the pets as gifts in the first place.

And when Australians flee abusive relationships, pets are often unwelcome in temporary accommodation. RSPCA Queensland is one of the few organisations to rescue pets in such crises.

So, you may chuckle at the confusion of your pets this Christmas as you dress them in humiliating Santa hats and jingle-bell collars. You may shout at your cat for destroying your tree because basically anything you decorate it with makes an excellent, alluring cat toy. You may shout at your dog for stealing an entire freshly baked ham off the kitchen bench as you turned your back for a second.

But please save some Christmas spirit for these vulnerable animals who provide us with joy all year round. Let’s never forget to repay their touching trust in us with our own kindness and loyalty.

Peter Fray

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