Sometimes it seems like it's raining cats and dogs in the UAE, with sad-looking kitties on every corner and stray dogs desperate for a home - add to that children's pleas for a pet that can be hard to resist. But before giving in, you need to think about more than if a cat or dog's fur colour will match your furniture.
Domesticated animals, such as cats, dogs and hamsters, need a stable, loving environment. It's unfair to adopt one without being sure you can adequately care for it for the rest of its life. Non-profit animal-rescue organisations such as K9 Friends, SAD (Strays of Abu Dhabi) and Feline Friends can tell tale after tale of cats and dogs abandoned to their fates by their owners.
"Around 40 per cent of the dogs we have taken in were abandoned by owners who left the country," says Jackie Ratcliffe of the dog rescue organisation K9 Friends. With the economic downturn of the past couple of years this has almost become an epidemic, with shelters and fostering programmes often having to turn animals away because they have no room for them.
"For many expats, if you lose your job, you have to leave almost immediately," says Leslie Muncey of Feline Friends. For expats, then, it's vital that as soon as you adopt an animal you start preparing in case you suddenly have to leave.
"The rules for exporting dogs from the UAE vary depending on the country you're taking them to," explains Ratcliffe. The same legalities also apply to cats and a limited number of other companion animals, and your vet will be able to give you the details for your country. "It usually involves having your pet microchipped, vaccinated, blood tested once, and then again six months later. You'll need the papers to prove it, and even with all this, some countries still insist on a quarantine period." And, of course, none of this is free, so you'll need to plan to pay the vet's bills.
If you can't be sure of looking after a cat or dog for the rest of its life, there is an alternative. "Those who can't be sure of a long-term home but who still want a cat or dog should seriously consider fostering," says Muncey. "Both Feline Friends and K9 Friends are always desperate for fosterers to help us save more pets' lives."
Even in the short term, adding a new member to your home, whether human, canine or feline, will require adjustments, and unless everyone who lives in the house is on board, it could all end in heartache. That means you need to have a serious discussion with the entire family before committing to adopting. Topics you should discuss include: allergies (minor allergies, such as runny nose or itchy eyes, can be controlled with antihistamines, but the family member needs to be prepared, and able, to take these daily); who will play with the cat or walk the dog every day; who will be responsible for feeding and watering, for taking them to the vet and for ensuring their overall safety, health and well-being.
When dealing with children, it is a good idea to write down all the details of who will handle what, and have them sign it, like a contract. Bear in mind, however, that even if your child promises to take on some or all of the responsibilities, this is very unlikely to be consistent for the long term, and it is you, the adult, who must ensure the pet is well cared-for. If the child fails in his or her duties, you might punish the child after the fact, but it is the animal who will have suffered.
"You also need to think about the expense involved - annual vaccinations, vet bills, food, etc - as well as boarding or pet-sitting costs when your family goes on holiday," says Muncey. And, of course, you need to make sure your residence allows pets, otherwise you could be forced to give up your much-loved new family member as soon as the leaseholder realises you have an animal.
Bear in mind, too, that dogs and cats are banned from many public areas and parks: if you don't have a large garden or somewhere easily accessible to walk and play with your dog or cat, you could end up with an obese pet - with all the expensive and painful health complications that entails - as well as a very unhappy and frustrated one.
Write down a schedule of essentials for the dog or cat, such as when they need to be fed, watered, walked and played with, then marry that up with your family's own lifestyle to make sure the animal won't be forgotten when times get busy.
One of the biggest issues for animals in the UAE is the weather, and companion animals must have access to both the indoors and outdoors to be protected from the scorching sun. "Many people still believe it's OK to tether a dog outside," says Ratcliffe. "The summer temperatures here soar to over 45 degrees and this is not acceptable." It leads to heat stroke and an agonising death for many animals.
Even worse than leaving your animals outside in the baking sun is leaving them in cars, even for just a few minutes. According to the UK's Royal Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (RSPCA), dogs can die within minutes of being left in a car as temperatures rise rapidly. "When it is just 22°C (72°F) outside, the temperature inside a car can soar to 47°C (117°F) or even higher. For this reason, the RSPCA advises that animals are never left inside cars." And leaving the car windows open or putting a bowl of water inside does not help, says the RSPCA. So don't take a dog out with you unless you know you can take it inside the shops, cafés or friends' homes you're visiting.
Whether indoors or out, a permanent supply of fresh drinking water is essential, and this needs to be changed daily, rather than just topped up. Organisms can grow in water bowls that can make your pet ill. Cats in particular can be sensitive to the taste of water, so you might have to filter it to ensure they stay hydrated, or provide running water using a Drinkwell, otherwise, your cat could end up with cystitis or even kidney failure.
It's not just abandoned animals that fill the streets and shelters of the UAE (K9 Friends has taken in 4,000 dogs in the past decade). One unspayed female dog and her offspring can produce 67,000 puppies in only six years, according to People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals, and one female cat and her offspring can produce a staggering 420,000 kittens - statistics that are based on adding up the typical number of dogs or cats per litter, multiplied by the typical number of litters an animal can have, then extrapolated to include their litters' litters.
It's crucial, therefore, that you don't add to this exploding population with a litter of your own. It's a myth that it's good for cats or dogs to have one litter, so make sure you get yours neutered or desexed right away. Neutered animals are much less likely to fight or stray, living longer, healthier lives.
If you get your cat or dog from a reputable rescue centre, they will have assessed whether the animal is safe to be around children before allowing you to adopt them. But it's up to you to make sure your children treat the animal with respect and care. Almost any creature will defend themselves from abuse, and if your child is handling the cat or dog roughly, it is possible - and natural - that they will lash out at the child. Young children, in particular, should be supervised around animals and taught not to squeeze them too hard when hugging them, pull their tails or ears, and should never, ever kick or hit them, no matter what the animal does. Animals who are abused by being kicked or hit can become very vicious, ultimately leading to disastrous consequences, while those treated with love and respect will likely become cherished members of your family.
Choosing your animal companion is the fun part. However, given the huge numbers of unwanted healthy kittens and puppies, as well as adult cats and dogs, there is no need to buy from a breeder or pet shop. There are some serious considerations with pedigree animals, too. You might be under the impression that the only way to guarantee a pet's temperament is to get a purebred. In fact, the Humane Society of the United States says that purebreds are more prone to genetic defects than mongrels or moggies, and this can affect their temperaments as well as their health. If you're desperate for a pure-bred, however, you'll find that many animals in shelters are abandoned pure-breds.
Get the whole family to spend some time with the cat or dog before deciding on it. If you won't be home all day with the animal, at least for the first few months, it's best to avoid a kitten or puppy and choose an adult cat or dog instead. An advantage is that they will probably already be house trained.
Crucially, if you're stuck on a pure-bred, "please do not choose an animal meant for cooler climates, such as huskies, St Bernards, etc," says Ratcliffe. "These are being brought in to the UAE regularly and really suffer."
Finally, take care to avoid getting a wild animal, which can happen accidentally in the UAE. "Although many of the wild species are known and recognisable, some tend to look similar to domesticated animals," says Moaz Sawaf, the education and conservation officer of Emirates Wildlife Society.
Worse still, some people - and this includes children - want to have wild animals as trophy pets. This can, and usually does, go disastrously wrong for both the human and the animal. "The behaviour of wild animals is totally different from domesticated animals," explains Sawaf. "In many cases it is unpredictable, posing a danger to humans. Another important matter is wild animals carry certain types of bacteria and viruses that are foreign to the region, causing threats to family members as well as other wildlife."
Having a pet can be a boon to your family, but it's a two-way street. To get the most out of having a pet you need to give a lot in return. Then you really will have a friend for life.
For more information on adopting or fostering, contact Feline Friends www.felinefriendsdubai.com, www.felinefriendsuae.com; K9 Friends http://k9friends.c-lab.co.uk; or Strays of Abu Dhabi www.straysofabudhabi.com.