The Complete Guide to Adopting a Small Animal

By Vanessa Voltolina


Like cats and dogs, rabbits, chinchillas, guinea pigs, ferrets, hamsters and other small animals are given up for adoption daily. While some are adopted quickly, others may spend the rest of their lives in shelters looking for a new home. Interested in rescuing your next, or first, small mammal? Here, find everything you need to know about the adoption process and what to do once they are yours.


Why Rescue a Small Animal?


For starters, the benefits of rescuing a small animal are similar to those for dogs and cats. “There is no hidden agenda; these pets are looking for good homes,” said Deana Matero, adoption coordinator at My Hopes in You, a small animal rescue based in Poughkeepsie, NY. Well-run rescue organizations, she said, should not be making a profit off of pet food or cages; the process is more centered on the relationship between the prospective owner and small animal.


“When we talk to a prospective adopter, we want the animal and the person to really bond,” she said, adding that the organization allows people to interact with their prospective pets before adopting them to make sure that the animal they’re interested in will fit into their lifestyle.


Where to Adopt a Small Animal


Although you may want to adopt a small animal from a rescue, it’s difficult to know where to begin. Marcia Coburn, president of Red Door Shelter (which rescues cats, dogs and rabbits) in Chicago, recommends using the internet and calling local veterinarians, particularly those who are exotic medicine vets, to ask for recommendations. “Often, animal hospitals will know of excellent small animals who, through no fault of their own, might need re-homing,” she said.


Emi Knafo, DVM, assistant professor at Tuft University’s Cummings School of Veterinary Medicine, recommends enlisting vets who are board-certified by the American College of Zoological Medicine or the American Board of Veterinary Practitioners, as they are highly-trained specialists in these species.


Coburn also recommends researching a prospective shelter using, a website that  shows you how a non-profit organization spends its money (bad signs would be large payments to staff, as opposed to on programs, she said). “Every legitimate rescue should be able to give you their Federal Tax ID number, and you can check that it is real on the internet,” she said.


Research to Do Ahead of Time


Once you’ve identified a rescue that fits the bill, consider taking these steps before falling in love with a small animal:

  • Learn all you can before the adoption. Often, rescues will have information sheets or booklets on the specific type of animal you’re looking to adopt (be it rabbit, guinea pig, chinchilla or something else) and will gladly share them with you before an adoption takes place, Knafo and Coburn say.
  • Confirm your pre-conceived notions. This is especially important with small, furry animals. “Many people think rabbits are good starter pets for children, but informed rescues will tell you that's not true,” said Coburn. Rabbits can scratch and bite, and some dislike handling, Matero said, particularly if they’ve had previously stress-inducing experiences. Does this mean you should nix the idea of a rabbit? Not necessarily, but it’s vital to decide ahead of time how much time you can devote to a new animal, she added.
  • Don’t rush into the process. “Once you start meeting animals, your emotions will be running at high-gear,” Coburn says, which is why it’s important to do your research in advance. Try to answer some key questions, such as: do you want an animal that can live full-time or part-time in a cage? What kind of a personality are you looking for? Are you willing to pet-proof an area for the animal, if needed?


Once you’ve done your due diligence and have selected the species of your new family member, be sure to read the adoption contract completely before you sign, Coburn says. Some questions to have answered:


  • Is the rescue responsible for any immediate health issues? Some rescues offer two-week coverage on adoptions if health issues pop up; others have the adopter assume responsibility from the moment of adoption.
  • Will the rescue provide breeding information? Knafo recommends confirming that the shelter has a veterinarian available or on staff to examine and treat any sick animals and that they are willing to provide you with information about the breeding facility from which the pet came. “You want to make sure your money is supporting ethical businesses,” she said.
  • Is your pet spayed or neutered? It’s important to spay and neuter these species to reduce cancer risk and also for behavioral reasons, said Knafo.
  • What’s the return policy? Most contracts also outline a return policy if the adoption doesn't work out, said Matero. Many rescues require that adopters return the animal to them, even if the return is years later.
  • Can I get copies? Ask for copies of all the medical records and other background information about your new pet, advised Coburn.