Your Guide to Adopting a Shelter Pet: 5 Things You Need to Know

This cute dog Zan is currently available for adoption at the Bucks County SPCA. (Photo: Bucks County SPCA)

By Patrick Berkery

April 26, 2023

Your local animal shelter has dozens of cats, dogs, rabbits, and other critters just waiting to find their forever home. Here are some tips to help find the right furry companion for you and your family.

You’ve probably seen the phrase “Who rescued who?” on a bumper sticker or a t-shirt. For the uninitiated, it’s pet-parent shorthand for “This shelter animal I adopted fills my life with so much love, it actually feels like they adopted me!” If you know, you know.

Of course, there’s no scientific way to prove that pets adopted from an animal shelter have more love to give than those purchased from a breeder or pet store. But ask anyone who’s ever provided a forever home to a furry family member they found at an animal shelter, and you’ll likely hear a pretty convincing testimonial that it’s true.

This Sunday, April 30, is National Adopt a Shelter Pet Day, a day created to raise awareness for the millions of animals waiting for their forever homes in shelters across the country. According to the ASPCA, approximately 6.3 million cats and dogs enter US animal shelters each year, and about 4.1 million of them end up getting adopted. Which means that right now, at an animal shelter near you, there are dozens of cats, dogs, birds, rabbits, and “pocket pets” such as guinea pigs and hamsters waiting to join your family and fill your life with joy. 

It’s easy to fall in love with that plus-sized tabby or high-energy mutt with a spot over one eye you see on your local animal rescue’s Instagram feed. But like any big decision you make in life—and make no mistake, bringing an animal, no matter how small, into your home is a big decision—you’ve got to do your research before you make the commitment to adopt a pet.

Cindy Kelly, who is the director of communication and development for the Bucks County SPCA in suburban Philadelphia, likens the role of her shelter to that of matchmaker. Rather than just housing animals who have ended up at the shelter through a variety of circumstances, Kelly said her staff works diligently to get to know the animals, and then help match the right pet to the right owner.

“It’s really wise for people to think about their own household; what’s the activity level?,” Kelly said. “Are you a person with a relatively quiet home? Do you have rowdy young children? Think about that in terms of what species might be a good pet. And then let the people at the shelter know about your home. The people at the shelter get to know the animals. We allow animals that come to the shelter to settle in for a bit before we evaluate them, medically and behaviorally. And what we try to do is determine what animal is going to succeed with you. We want to learn about you, be helpful, and help you find the right fit.” 

We spoke with Kelly about the important things anyone looking to adopt a shelter pet should consider.

Don’t Make an ‘Impulse Adoption’

Of course you’re going to fall in love with that three-legged shelter dog named Tripod you saw on Instagram. But stop and think before you try to adopt: will your lifestyle really allow you to put in the time and effort required to care for a special needs animal, or any animal, for that matter?

Kelly emphasizes the importance of being honest with yourself about what kind of animal you’re looking for and what kind of commitment you’re willing to make to care for your new pet.

“People may see a cute dog and fall head over heels not realizing that this dog may have some really tricky behavior issues that require training, and an owner really committed to that training,” Kelly said. “And not everybody’s up for that. Some people want an animal that’s just going to walk right into their home and sit right down on the couch and be good to go right away.”

Some important things to ask yourself before you consider adopting a shelter pet, according to Kelly: 

  • What kind of pet are you looking for?
  • What’s your availability to care for a pet with your work schedule? 
  • Will others living in your house, such as young children or older adults, be OK living with a pet, due to allergies or other reasons? 
  • Does your budget allow you to care for a pet with medical issues?
Lando e1682534067863
Lando the cat is currently available for adoption from the Bucks County SPCA. (Photo: Bucks County SPCA)

Older Animals Can Make Great Companions

People get drawn in by playful pups and cuddly kittens, sometimes at the expense of those shelter animals with a little frosting around the muzzle. But Kelly said that older pets make ideal companions, especially for those seeking a somewhat mellower furry friend.

“You adopt a pet that’s nine, ten years old, and they have fewer demands in terms of their energy level,” Kelly said. “They’re generally a little more relaxed and wonderful companions. And it’s a joy to give them that comfortable place to enjoy those golden years.”

Kelly said one thing that is especially important to consider when adopting an older animal is potential medical needs, as the cost of medication and veterinary care may be prohibitive for some adopters.

Another benefit of adopting an older animal? Making room at the shelter for another critter seeking a forever home.

“Senior pets are great to adopt from a shelter because you’re not only saving that animal, you’re opening up space within that shelter for another animal to move in,” Kelly said. “We really like to tell people they’re helping two animals at once.” 

Shelter Pets Are a Pretty Good Deal

If you acquire a new pet from a breeder or store, or even if you get one for free from a litter of puppies or kittens, once you bring that new pet home, food and toys aren’t the only expenses. Animals need to be spayed and neutered, they need vaccinations, and microchipping for safety. Those costs add up quickly. Many shelters offer those procedures free or at a discount, along with other procedures.

“By adopting from a shelter you’re getting a bargain that you won’t even get from taking a kitten from your neighbor cat’s litter,” Kelly said. “Taking that cat to the vet to get vaccinated, neutered, and microchipped is going to cost you a lot of money. At our SPCA, cats, dogs, and rabbits are always neutered, microchipped, and ready to go. 

Most shelters also have free behavior pet helplines, and referrals for reputable dog and cat trainers. 

“Those services can be invaluable,” Kelly said. “The goal is to help people get the most out of that relationship with the animal they adopt.”

Buzz Lightyear e1682534137231
This guinea pig, Buzz Lightyear, was recently adopted from the Bucks County SPCA. (Photo: Bucks County SPCA)

Cats and Dogs Aren’t the Only Animals in the Shelter

Not everyone seeking a furry companion is a cat or dog person. Those folks should know that shelters regularly contain those “pocket pets” like guinea pigs, hamsters, and even rats and mice. Kelly recommends the “pocket pets” as good starter pets for young children.

“They’re obviously much smaller and easier to care for, so you can let younger children share some responsibility in caring for them,” Kelly said. “It’s a great way to teach young children about the responsibilities of caring for a pet, while letting them experience the joy of a pet.”

Kelly pointed to rescuing guinea pigs from a shelter as another good example of the benefits of adopting versus buying. 

“Many people go and get a cute guinea pig from a pet store and they’ve been housed in a group and the animal’s sex hasn’t been determined by a vet,” Kelly said. “What often happens is you bring that cute little guinea pig home, and suddenly, you notice that the boy is now a female and it’s pregnant. Now you have more guinea pigs than you can manage. Our vets always make sure the animals have been sexed.” 

Don’t Forget About the Rabbits

Rabbits are commonly found at animal shelters, and are very popular. Kelly said they’re the number three most adopted animals at the Bucks County SPCA.

While she said they make wonderful companions, just like bringing home a cat or a dog, potential adopters need to think hard about the kind of environment their home would provide for a bunny.

“Rabbits can be more of a nervous animal,” Kelly said. “They’re a prey species. Really young children who have that natural exuberant energy might not be a good match for having a rabbit, especially as a first pet. But if you have a 12 or 13 year-old that’s really good at taking instruction, rabbits can be a fabulous pet in the home.” 

Rabbits tend to become so domesticated, Kelly said, that families can end up with some very Instagrammable moments.

“They can even get along with house cats and well-trained dogs,” Kelly said. “We have some folks that send us photos of the whole family sitting there on the couch, kids, cats, dogs, and a rabbit.” 

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