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Adopting a Rescue Pet: What to Consider

WebMD talks to veterinarians and other experts for advice about adopting a dog or cat from a shelter.

So you want to open your heart to a homeless pet?

Before you run out to your local shelter looking for a new best friend, take a moment to think about your decision: adopting a cat or dog is no small thing. It requires the right environment, the right attitude, and the willingness to train, exercise your animal, and pay veterinary bills. You may not find the perfect match the first or second time you visit a shelter, so be patient.

Take a little time to investigate the shelter and perhaps visit or foster the pet that could become the newest member of your household. Experts say it will go a long way in ensuring a lifelong, rewarding relationship.

Why Adopt a Rescue Animal?

Pet adoption advocates say a shelter animal is typically housetrained and properly immunized. The dog or cat has lived around people -- if only at the shelter -- and has likely been loved.

Consider also that there are about 4 million to 6 million adoptable pets at any given time in the nation's shelters. About half were given up by owners and the others found on the streets, according to the ASPCA. More than half of them will be euthanized.

The ASPCA and other animal rescue groups have helped to chip away at the number of strays and kills by implementing widespread neuter/spay programs nationwide, and by advocating for adoption of adult or senior pets.

"They're house-trained already, and many people enjoy adopting a more mature pet because they're more sedate. A person might work full-time, they may have kids," says Kim Saunders, vice president of shelter outreach for Petfinder.com, an advocacy and training organization that lists adoptable animals in shelters nationwide and in Canada, free of charge. At last count, there were 350,000 animals listed by about 13,600 shelters.

Robin Johnstone of San Diego and her live-in partner, Archie Smith, set out to adopt an older dog -- and the fit turned out to be perfect.

Three years ago, while they were perusing Petfinder.com, they spotted a picture of Jody, who was living in a shelter in Camp Pendelton, a Marine base about 50 miles away. They drove out a few days later to meet the dog, a casualty of a nasty divorce who'd been left on her own until neighbors called the pound.

"Because this is the first dog between us, we wanted a dog that was a little older, had a little more experience in being a dog, wouldn't chew on the couch, wouldn't have accidents,'' says Johnstone, 45.

The shelter staff was thrilled somebody wanted the old girl, a collie/Jindo mix whose age they estimated at 6 or 7. It turned out she was 9 -- Johnstone learned that when she called the microchipping company to change their new pet's address. She'll be 12 in November. Despite dental issues and stiffness from arthritis, Jody is a happy, active dog who walks with Smith to work every day.

"She's a joy," Johnstone says. "I don't know if there's going to be another dog that measures up.''

What to Consider Before Adopting a Pet

Look at your lifestyle and means before committing to adopting a pet.

If you are stable - you don't travel extensively or plan to move and you have the financial resources to cover the cost of the pet's care - that's a big plus. According to Petfinder.com, the annual veterinary costs for an average dog come to about $1,000; an average cat's medical care can run about $650 per year.

The ASPCA advises would-be adopters to think about their living space and whether a big dog is the way to go. Ask yourself whether you want an energetic pet or a couch potato. If you can't provide the exercise an animal needs, consider the latter.

Of course, you'll need to spend time with your pet or you'll invite trouble.

Not all shelter animals will be properly trained, so be prepared to retrain your dog. It will help build your relationship. As for cats, adopt with some understanding of their scratching and litterbox behaviors.

Finally, consider whether your family is ready for the new addition, says the ASPCA. Is everybody willing to pitch in to care for the pet? It's a good idea to create a schedule of responsibilities.

What Kind of Shelter Should You Adopt From?

Look for a shelter that does behavior assessments on dogs and/or cats and that has veterinarians who are providing medical exams and treatment, says Gail Buchwald, vice president of the adoption center at the ASPCA in New York City.

"I think it's a great idea for a prospective adopter to go to the shelter and check it out, get a visual. If they see animals that don't look healthy, they should ask some questions," she says.

If the animals seem well cared for, talk to the staff about your needs and get their observations about the dog or cat you're eyeing. If a shelter doesn't do any testing of its animals for diseases that aren't obvious, an adoption may be riskier, Buchwald says.

"The biggest drawback is not knowing what you're going to get, but it's the same drawback with breeders and pet stores," she says. "Choosing a shelter that provides as much information as possible about the animal is important."

Keep in mind that you may not find exactly what you're looking for the first time around.

''This is up there with getting a car or a house; expecting to walk out the same day with a shelter animal may not happen. It may require several visits," Buchwald says. "Making the commitment to adopt means you're going to help a homeless animal, even if it doesn't happen instantly.''

Why Is the Shelter's Adoption Fee So High?

Though the average shelter adoption fee is $75, Saunders says, the price of taking home a new pet can be as high as $250 to $300.

That can come as a shock, but consider the cost to a shelter for spaying and neutering, administering vaccines, screening for disease, deworming, and general upkeep, which can easily come to $2,000, says Buchwald.

"Typically, the donation doesn't cover the cost, much less keep the lights on in the shelter," Saunders says. "Someone won't think twice about walking into a pet store and spending $600 on a puppy that's been poorly bred and likely to get sick. They'll also have to pay for spay/neuter and additional medical costs.''

Preparing for Your Adopted Pet

Dogs and cats have different basic needs, but for both, it's a good idea to get ID tags or microchip your new pet at the beginning of your relationship so you don't get separated from each other. In addition, make sure you've got food and water bowls at the ready.

For cats, the ASPCA advises you to have:

  • A litter box with clean litter, preferably the kind used in the shelter where she came from
  • A bed lined with a blanket or towel
  • A brush and a nail clipper, if the cat has her claws
  • Stimulating, safe toys
  • A scratching post that is at least three feet high

For dogs, have:

  • A crate for training and for creating boundaries in your household
  • Barrier gates to restrict the dog's movement until you are comfortable allowing him unsupervised access
  • A leash
  • A chew toy or bone

Don't forget to cat-proof and dog-proof your home by tucking away electrical cords and putting away small children's toys that they can swallow.

For new pet owners, line up a veterinarian you trust and bring in your new family member for a wellness exam as soon as you can.

What If It Doesn't Work Out?

If there are reasons why an adopter can no longer take care of the pet - such as financial problems or allergies - returning it to a shelter is the way to go, Saunders says.

"Part of the adoption process is understanding that the adopter will bring back the pet if it doesn't work out," Saunders says. "We want it to be a lifetime match, but if it isn't working, having them bring the animal back to the shelter, we consider it a success. The shelter is a support for adopters and pets.''

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