If you’re reading this, you probably have the best intentions about adding a furry companion to your family and you’ve started to prepare. Keeping up with rabies and other requisite shots, check. Grooming tools, check. Endless number of fluffy toys for your fur baby to rip to shreds, check. Dog walker research, check.
What you may not know, however, is that some of the most important decisions happen before you sign any paperwork or stop by your nearest local pet shop to scoop up the best treats. It starts with where you find your pet.
“Adopting a pet means acquiring one from an animal shelter or a rescue group as opposed to purchasing one from a pet store or breeder,” says Vicki Stevens, director of the companion animals department for program management and communications at the Humane Society of the United States, a nonprofit national animal advocacy organization.
The majority of puppies sold in pet stores and online come from puppy mills, which force animals into overcrowded and unsanitary quarters. Breeders may follow similarly unethical practices or source their animals from mills (though, not always. More on that later). Meanwhile, according to the ASPCA, some 6.5 million cats and dogs entered shelters each year in the U.S. between 2015 and 2018 and, though about half were adopted, about one fifth of them ended up euthanized. Those numbers can vary widely, depending on how data is collected, but the TL;DR? If ethics is a concern, you should look into adoption.
“It’s always a good bet to adopt from your local shelter or rescue group,” says Holly Sizemore, chief mission officer of Best Friends Animal Society “We’ve seen tremendous progress over the years in saving more lives but there’s still around 300,000 cats and dogs being killed in our nation’s shelters, simply because shelters lack the resources to find them new homes.”
Where you get a pet is a big consideration if you want to do it ethically, but there’s more to consider beyond that, too. We spoke with animal advocacy organizations to learn how you can adopt an animal with its best interests in mind. Our step-by-step guide is below.
Questions to ask yourself
Before you visit a shelter or contact an animal rescue group, says Stevens, you’ll want to mull over a few considerations first, such as:
This first question can help determine what kind of animal you choose. Both cats and dogs need playtime, says Stevens, but dogs also require several walks every day. You’ll also want to prepare yourself for an animal’s lifespan, no matter how short or long it may be. Smaller dogs usually live longer than bigger ones, and, if you buy a bird, it could live for two decades or more.
Other considerations include:
Do you understand what the pet needs to be healthy and happy?
How much can you afford for pet food, toys, vet care, and what are the options for each in your price range?
If you go on vacation and can’t bring your pet, who will take care of it?
Do you want an energetic pet or one that’s more low-key?
Answering the questions above can help you start to narrow down if you’re ready to be a pet parent and what kind of pet is best for you.
Shelters versus rescues
As Stevens mentioned, shelters and rescues are good options for adopting a pet if you want to support a place that likely treats animals well and serves a larger mission.
Rescues tend to be run by private, non-profit organizations and may or may not have a facility or a network of foster homes, says Stevens. Shelters may be similarly operated or run by a government municipality.
Sizemore says some rescues and shelters work together to leverage each other’s resources and save the most pets possible.
Bottom line, says Stevens, each shelter and rescue is its own independent entity with individual policies. So it’s best to adopt from one with policies you can co-sign, like a shelter that also offers foster options.
Animals don’t always show their true personalities the first or even several times you meet them. They may not yet be adjusted to their environment or you. Like humans, their real self tends to shine through once they’re comfortable.
“Especially in shelters, if it’s loud, pets might be intimidated or overly stimulated and they’ll behave differently,” says Stevens.
If you’re first-time pet owner or you’re not yet sure if the animal you want to adopt would be a good fit, it’s worth asking the shelter or rescue if you can adopt or foster the pet on a trial basis.
Stevens and her husband, for example, weren’t sure how the kittens they wanted to adopt would fare with the cat they already had.
“The rescue group let us foster those kittens for about six weeks until we felt comfortable that things were going to work out,” she says, “and then we adopted them.”
If you haven’t found the animal for you at a shelter or through a rescue, you could turn to a breeder.
While both Stevens and Sizemore don’t think breeders should be your first choice, there are ways to differentiate between a breeder who only cares about profits and one who puts an animal’s well-being first.
“All breeders are not created equal; quite the contrary,” says Sizemore. “It’s pretty easy to tell if someone is a responsible breeder versus the type of breeder that is just doing it to make money and is happy to jeopardize the health and well-being of the animals in their care.”
If a breeder doesn’t allow you to see an animal before you buy it, that’s probably a red flag. They might not want you to view your potential pet because they keep it in unsanitary conditions (like a puppy mill). However, Sizemore says she’s heard stories of unscrupulous breeders who show a pet in good condition but down the block and out of sight there are rows of small cages housing the breeder’s mistreated animals.
The below resource from Best Friends Animal Society can help you determine whether a particular breeder is the right one.
Credit: BEST FRIENDS ANIMAL SOCIETY
The American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty for Animals also recommends you ask for information like the animal’s health records and photos of prior litters. And it’s a two-way street — not only should you be curious about the breeder’s practices but they should also ask you questions to determine if you’re a responsible pet parent. If they don’t, that should get you thinking about how invested they are in the animals in their care.
Puppy and kitty mills
Some mills that sell animals online may pose as a responsible breeder or a rescue group, says Sizemore.
One red flag to look out for is cost.
“The higher the price, the more likely it might be [masquerading as] a [responsible] breeder,” says Sizemore. “Now, certainly, some reputable breeders do sell dogs at pretty high prices.”
That being said, if the cost is over $500 for a single pet online, it’s worth investigating if you’re talking with a responsible breeder.
Again, the biggest sign you’re dealing with someone exploitative is if you’re barred from visiting the animal to check out how it’s treated.
“The problem is we now live in this society where we’re used to instant gratification, ordering things online and they’re shipped to us,” says Sizemore. “We really encourage people to not buy sight unseen on the internet.”
Another red flag? Someone who tries to sell you a puppy younger than 8 weeks old.
“Many of the backyard and puppy mills will happily let puppies go earlier, it’s in their bottom-line best interest,” says Sizemore. “But it’s not good for puppies to be removed from their mothers before 8 weeks of age.”
Kitten mills are much less common than puppy mills simply because there are more cats in the world, so they’re not as profitable.
If you want to help cats, the best thing to do is to adopt them from a shelter.
“Cats are dying in our nations’ shelters two to one, compared to dogs,” says Sizemore. Often “cats live in colonies in the neighborhood where a few people may feed them. You don’t see dogs living like that in our communities, and so that results in more stray cats coming into shelters.”
Beyond cats and dogs, Stevens says the Humane Society of the United States never advocates owning an exotic pet.
“Keeping wild animals as pets is inhumane and it poses the potential for unacceptable physical harm and zoonotic disease risk to the community and emergency responders,” says Stevens. “It’s detrimental to true wildlife conservation efforts.”
Additionally, exotic animals often require specialized and costly care, such as large natural habitat enclosures.
What to do after you adopt (or foster)
Now that you’ve done all your research and you’re ready to adopt (or foster), you can search shelters and rescue groups near you to find a good match.
If you’ve brought home a cat, Sizemore recommends first keeping it in a room by itself so it can get acclimated to that space first and then expose it to the rest of your apartment or home. For dogs, you might consider crate training while your new pet is getting to know his space. No matter the age of your dog, give her time to adjust to your family and her new home.
And whatever your comfort or experience with animals, consider basic training sessions.
“It’s about training you as much as it’s about training the pet,” says Sizemore. “It’s about learning interactive tools between you and the animal.”
Overall, Sizemore says, a relationship with a pet, as with people, will have some bumps in the road, such as behavioral or medical issues.
“Reach out to the experts because they make a world of difference,” she says.
Adopting and caring for an animal that will likely depend on you for many, many years is no small (or inexpensive) feat. Though immensely rewarding, it’s a huge responsibility and you’ll have to make sure you’re up for the challenge of being a pet owner before you adopt. Fortunately, rescue and shelter organizations typically have resources to help, so you don’t have to do it alone.