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Adopting a new pet is exciting and stressful. You're about to add another member to your family and your life will be changing.
The adoption process has many variables and requires patience. For example, there may be family members who need to meet the animal, consultations with shelter staff about behavior or medical issues, paperwork to be reviewed and signed, and other steps. But you can navigate the sometimes confusing adoption process by knowing the right questions to ask.
Ask about the animal's background if it's not clear from the cage card. Did the pet arrive as a stray or was she given up by her previous owner? If so, why? How long has the animal been at the shelter?
Medical and/or behavioral assessments
Shelters continue to raise the bar in terms of their testing and vaccination protocols, as well as their behavior modification programs to make animals more adoptable. Inquire about any medical or behavioral evaluations and make sure you understand what type of treatment is required for any problems that have been identified. In addition, you may want to ask about the animal's behavior at the shelter and how it may be similar to or different from what you can expect at home.
Timeline of adoption process
Some shelters are eager to send animals home the same day adopters visit them. This turnaround enables shelters to make room for new arrivals and is helpful for people who have traveled a long distance to meet an animal. Other facilities take a slower approach (e.g. ensuring that children and/or a spouse have met the animal). Familiarize yourself with the adoption timeline at the beginning of the process so you'll know what to expect before emotions are running high and patience is low.
Virtually all animal shelters have policies to ensure that their animals are spayed or neutered to prevent unwanted litters. A number of facilities have animals sterilized before they're available for adoption. In other cases, this procedure is scheduled when an animal goes home, and then the adoption is finalized once the surgery is performed. And some shelters rely on spay/neuter deposits that are refunded when proof of spaying or neutering is provided.
Whatever your concern, don't be embarrassed to contact the shelter and ask for help. Too often, adopters struggle with behavior issues on their own and decide to return a pet because of an issue that could have been resolved.
What if my animal gets sick shortly after adoption?
Despite robust cleaning routines, animal shelters inevitably harbor germs. Unfortunately, infectious diseases can spread quickly through populations of animals that are housed in close proximity. The good news is that common conditions such as upper respiratory infections in cats and kennel cough in dogs are very treatable.
If your new companion becomes ill, check your adoption agreement to see if it addresses this issue and notify the shelter promptly about changes in your pet's health. Sometimes a little encouragement and reassurance are all that's needed as you nurse your kitten through a bad case of the sniffles; other times a visit to the vet may be in order. Some shelters have a vet on staff and others may refer you to a local clinic.
It's common for adopters to bear some or all of the cost of veterinary treatment because shelters have such limited medical budgets. Exceptions may include animals with pre-existing medical conditions that are already being treated by the shelter or other special cases. Some facilities may also provide a short-term pet health insurance policy or cover specific conditions that arise within a certain period of time after adoption.
What if I have questions about my new pet's behavior?
Whether you're a first-time pet owner or a seasoned pro, there's no question that the transition period can be bumpy. New surroundings, new people, other animals, and an unfamiliar routine can be stressful for your adoptee.
Whatever your concern, don't be embarrassed to contact the shelter and ask for help. Too often, adopters struggle with behavior issues on their own and decide to return a pet because of an issue that could have been resolved. Housetraining, chewing, barking, separation anxiety, litterbox issues ... these issues and more will be familiar to the shelter's staff.
Ask about resources to resolve behavior problems at the time of adoption. Some facilities offer behavior help lines and training classes, and most organizations can provide basic troubleshooting.
The adoption process can be filled with opportunities for miscommunication and misunderstanding. After all, animals inspire strong emotions in people on both sides of the counter. Most adoption stories have happy endings, but occasionally customers will find themselves being denied an opportunity to adopt an animal, either because of an issue with their adoption application or because more than one potential adopter is interested in the same animal.
Keep in mind that animal shelters can be busy, chaotic places without much opportunity for privacy. It may be helpful to follow up with the adoption counselor or shelter manager by phone when both of you can speak without distractions.
Are you ready to add a pet to your family?
It can happen to the best of us. You see a cute, tiger-striped kitten with white paws and green eyes, just begging for attention. Or maybe it's a gorgeous Labrador mix whose tails seems to be wagging just for you. You take one look, and the next thing you know, you're walking down the pet food aisle at the supermarket.
If you're like most of us, falling in love with a pet is easy. And no wonder!
Sharing your home with a four-legged friend can be one of life's greatest joys. Dogs, cats, and other pets give us unconditional loyalty and acceptance, provide constant companionship, and even help relieve stress after a hard day's work.
But adopting a pet is a big decision. Dogs and cats require lots of time, money, and commitment—more than 15 years' worth in many cases. Pet ownership can be rewarding, but only if you think through your decision before you adopt a companion.
Ten things to consider
The fact that you're thinking of adopting from an animal shelter means you're on the right track; homeless pets in your community are counting on people like you to give them a chance. Here are some things to think about before you make a commitment:
- Why do you want a pet? It's surprising how many people don’t ask themselves this simple question before they get a pet. Adopting an animal because of a chance enounter at the shelter or because the kids have been pining for a puppy (without buy-in from mom and dad) often ends up being a big mistake. Don't forget that pets may be with you 10, 15, even 20 years.
- Do you have time for a pet? Dogs, cats, and other animal companions cannot be ignored just because you're tired or busy. They require food, water, exercise, care, and companionship every day of every year. Many animals in the shelter are there because their owners didn't realize how much time it took to care for them.
- Can you afford a pet? The costs of pet ownership can be quite high. Licenses, training classes, spaying and neutering, veterinary care, grooming, toys, food, kitty litter, and other expenses add up quickly.
- Are you prepared to deal with the challenges that a pet can present? Flea infestations, scratched furniture, accidents from animals who aren't yet housetrained, and unexpected medical emergencies are unfortunate but common aspects of pet ownership.
- Can you have a pet where you live? Many landlords don't allow pets, and most rental communities have restrictions. In addition, certain types of dogs (e.g. pit bulls, rottweilers, Doberman pinschers and other imposing breeds) are often excluded from homeowner insurance policies, or the owners aren’t allowed to renew or continue their coverage. Make sure you know if and how you are limited by housing-related policies before you bring a companion animal home.
- Is it a good time for you to adopt a pet? If you're a student, in the military, or travel frequently as part of your work, for example, waiting until you settle down is wise. If you have kids under five years old and you’re thinking about adopting a small mammal like a hamster or gerbil, you might consider postponing this decision since many small mammals present a risk of Salmonella.
- Are your living arrangements suitable for the animal you have in mind? Animal size is not the only variable to think about here. For example, some small dogs such as terriers are very active—they require a great deal of exercise to be calm, and they often bark at any noise. On the other hand, some big dogs are laid back and quite content to lie on a couch all day. Before adopting a pet, do your research—surf the Internet, talk to pet-owning friends and neighbors, and use shelter staff as a resource. That way, you'll be more likely to choose an animal who fits your lifestyle and living arrangements.
- Will you be a responsible pet owner? Having your pet spayed or neutered, obeying community leash and licensing laws, and keeping identification tags on your pets are all part of being a responsible owner. Of course, giving your pet love, companionship, exercise, a healthy diet, and regular veterinary care are also essential.
- Do you know who will care for your pet while you're away on vacation? You'll need either reliable friends and neighbors or money to pay for a boarding kennel or pet-sitting service.
- Are you prepared to keep and care for your pet for the long haul? When you adopt, you are making a long-term commitment to care for an animal. That said, good people sometimes find themselves in unfortunate circumstances that prevent them from holding onto their pets. If this should happen, be prepared to take a proactive role in finding a new home for your animal companion.