The Ultimate Guide to Responsible Pet Adoption


PetMD Editorial

Published Jan. 13, 2017

By Elizabeth Xu

Adding a cat or dog to your family is a big decision, and these days there are many ways for you to do so. Adoption is an option for folks looking to possibly save a little money—and more importantly, save a life.

Adopting a cat or dog shouldn’t be taken lightly—after all, you’ll hopefully have this pet in your home for years to come. Luckily, when it comes to pet adoption, you’ll have plenty of good options when deciding on the best pet for your household.

“I think that people don’t realize the great variety and quality of animals that are available for adoption,” says Carol Novello, president of the Humane Society Silicon Valley. “I think there’s the perception that there’s something wrong with shelter animals, and in many cases they’ve just found themselves in circumstances where the cards haven’t fallen in their favor.”

There are multiple things to consider before you adopt, including what kind of pet you’re seeking, where you might find that pet, how much your new furry friend will cost up front and in the long run, and more. Read on to learn everything you need to know about responsible pet adoption.

Pet Adoption: Picking the Right Family Member

You might already have your ideal pet in mind, based on what you know about certain breeds or your interactions with them in the past. While that’s perfectly fine, you should realize that you might change your mind once you meet a few cats or dogs.

“While certain breeds do tend to have certain characteristics, there is a lot of variation of personality within individual dogs or cats within a breed, so it’s much more useful to focus on [your] lifestyle and expectations, and then to think about the individual pet,” says Aimee Gilbreath, executive director of the Michelson Found Animals Foundation.

Think about how a pet will fit into your life and your schedule. Do you want a dog that’s good with children? Do you have the time to devote to training a puppy? Do you have the space to accommodate a larger dog? Figuring out those types of questions will be more important than honing in on a specific breed or being swayed by an adorable face.

“Knowing what you’re looking for in terms of activity level, play level, all of those types of things are really important,” says Jim Hanophy, CEO of Operation Kindness, a no-kill shelter in Texas. He says that some breeds come with special considerations like high exercise, mental stimulation, or grooming needs, and it’s important to keep such things in mind when picking out a cat or dog.

You can narrow down your options if you know whether you’re looking for a cat or a puppy or an older dog. Looking closely and honestly at your lifestyle can help determine if you have time to put the work into a puppy.

“A lot of people love to adopt puppies because they’re cute,” Novello says. “Puppies are also a ton of work. You’ve really got to invest in training and it’s a huge time commitment versus lots of great older dogs.” And while cats, and especially kittens, do require your attention, giving them the care they need generally takes less time and effort than with dogs.

Where to Adopt a Pet

If you’ve already done a search to see what kinds of pets are available in your area, you might’ve been surprised to find how many options you have when it comes to where to adopt from. Depending on where you live, municipal shelters, rescue groups, no-kill shelters, or a local Humane Society might be an option.

“There’s a huge range of options and you can’t use one paintbrush to say, all municipal shelters work like this or all rescue groups work like that,” Gilbreath says. “If the animal’s been in a foster home obviously you’re going to have information about whether or not they’re housebroken, any interesting habits or quirks they might have, potentially how they are with other animals or children. In a shelter in a kennel setting, a lot of times, you aren’t going to have as much information.”

Rescue groups and foster programs typically have higher adoption fees and a longer adoption process than shelters, Gilbreath says: “It can work out great, wherever you adopt from, it’s just a matter of understanding that the process may be different.”

Hanophy suggests asking friends with adopted animals where they adopted from and what the experience was like. Depending on your area, online review sites like Yelp might also give you an idea of a shelter or rescue group’s reputation.

“Make sure you’re dealing with the people and organizations that care for animals,” Hanophy recommends. “Most municipal shelters are reputable and have the best interest of the public at heart. With the freestanding shelters, look at the reputation of the organization, talk to people who have adopted from them. Then it’s just using your own best judgement.”

In addition to being lifesaving for animals, most places that offer adoption want to make sure you and your chosen pet will have a happy life together, Novello says: “A lot of shelters and rescue groups will really take the time to determine what your needs are and create a match that will work for the family looking to adopt.” Most also will accept pets back should a match not work out as expected.

Adopting a Pet: Cost Considerations

Any time you get a pet, whether through adoption or other means, you’ll also need to buy supplies for that pet. Common expenses include those for food, bowls, treats, litter boxes, bedding, crates, collars, leashes, and toys, Hanophy says.

You’ll also have to budget for medical expenses. Although it’s a common misconception, shelter pets aren’t necessarily more expensive than others when it comes to medical costs.

Some pet medical expenses are likely to be covered for you before you even adopt, depending on the facility. At the Humane Society of Silicon Valley, for example, a health exam, spay or neuter, vaccines, and a microchip are all included in the adoption fee. Learn more about what to expect from adoption fees here.

“There are a lot of added services that you get when you adopt a dog from a shelter as opposed to getting a dog from Craigslist or a breeder where you have to incur those additional expenses for vaccines or veterinary care,” says Dr. Cristie Kamiya, chief of shelter medicine at the Humane Society Silicon Valley.. “Probably about three-quarters of the animals that come through our doors need some level of medical or behavioral support,  These are dogs that might have an injury or an illness that needs to be treated and we spend a lot of time fixing these guys. If we have animals that have chronic conditions we might take a little bit longer to find a home for them.”

If it’s not included with your adoption fee, Gilbreath recommends looking into microchipping your pet, noting that one in three pets will go missing in their lifetime. While a collar with an ID tag is essential, a microchip can be a good backup option should the pet become separated from its tag.

“We want all pets to get a happy, loving home and keep that happy, loving home, but things happen,” she says. “Pets are animals, they naturally have an instinct to wander. A microchip is the only form of permanent identification.”

Consider Dog Breed Restrictions

No matter how much you love a certain breed, check to make sure your city or town doesn’t have a law preventing that breed before you adopt. While it may seem unfair to prospective pet owners, these laws (known as breed-specific legislation) may ban breeds such as Pit Bulls, American Bulldogs, Mastiffs, Rottweilers, and more according to the ASPCA. More than 700 cities have such laws.

Breeds may also matter for homeowner associations and for homeowner’s or renter’s insurance. Some insurance companies will deny coverage if you adopt a dog of a specific breed. These rules vary by homeowner association and insurance company, so check with yours before you adopt a dog.

Not Ready for Pet Adoption? Try Fostering

Many organizations have limited space and many animals to care for. Or they may have dogs or cats who do better in a home setting than in a kennel day after day. Whatever the case, many shelters and rescue organizations seek foster, or temporary, families for the animals in their care.

“The beauty of fostering is it can be for as little as a weekend or as much as 10-12 weeks,” says Hanophy. “We have some fosters that love to take the pregnant moms, deliver the puppies, and help the puppies grow.”

By fostering you can “try out” having an animal in your home and see if it’s a good lifestyle fit for your household. If you’re unsure about what type of animal you eventually want to adopt, most shelters have cats, dogs, kittens, and puppies available for foster programs. As a bonus, most organizations give you all the pet supplies and food you need while fostering, so it’s more of a time commitment for foster families than a financial one.

“It’s a lower commitment way to get pets in your home and get your feet wet,” says Gilbreath. “At the end of fostering, if you don’t want to keep the animal, that’s fine, and if you do want to keep the animal, that’s great, too.”

If you do end up adopting the animal in your care, that’s called a “foster failure”—and it’s not a bad thing.

“Fostering is fantastic,” says Kamiya, who is a foster failure herself. “It’s a win-win for everyone. It’s a win for the adopter and it’s a really nice entry into pet ownership for people who are interested in getting a cat or a dog, but aren’t quite ready to make that commitment yet.”

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