How to Adopt a Shelter Pet

True story: you go to the park to dog watch, spend a little more than your lunch break looking at cat memes and anxiously await BunnyMomma’s next Instagram. You love animals so much, you might be stunned to learn that each year 7.6 million dogs and cats enter animal shelters and 2.7 million are euthanized, according to the ASPCA.

“These are mostly highly adoptable animals but just through whatever circumstance weren’t able to stay where they were,” said Christina Travalja, shelter director at North Shore Animal League America.

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The reasons tend to be lifestyle changes, such as the animal’s previous parents moving to a non-pet-friendly location or a death in the family, but it’s left US shelters so overcrowded that some must make difficult decisions to euthanize pets that would make perfect best friends. That’s why Travalja and Kate McEntee, the marketing director at Southampton Animal Shelter Foundation, encourage adoption.

“You save a life, you change your life and the pets and you get a great animal,” McEntee said. “It also frees up space, you save the life of the animal you brought home and you also open up a spot for another pet to enter a shelter.”

Travalja and McEntee shared tips on how to decide whether you’re in the right place in your life to get a new buddy and how to adopt a shelter pet.

Think About Your Lifestyle

adopt a shelter pet

Consider your lifestyle as you decide whether or not you’re ready for pet parenthood. image: ellen dunn

Remember: a top reason animals are surrendered each year is lifestyle changes. Take a hard look at your own life and future plans before making the leap into pet parenthood, which can be a 15-20 year commitment. Your best friend’s lab is adorable, but she requires three walks a day, playtime outside and daily feedings. Generally, cats tend to be less maintenance in terms of needing to be taken outside and exercised, so it might be a better option for people who are frequently out of the house. “Cats are a little more self sufficient,” Travalja said. “That’s not to say they’re not going to be as cuddly as a dog. They have many personality traits.” If you love animals but simply don’t have the time to commit to caring for one, consider walking dogs at a local shelter or putting your Facebook skills to work by being a social media advocate for a group like North Shore Animal League.

Do Your Homework

Before you even start looking at those adorable big brown eyes on Petfinder and picking out names, research how much it will cost to take care of an animal. Petfinder estimates that a dog costs between $526-9,352 per year and cats between $280-5,285. A simple Google search can help you find out costs of specific breeds and other animals, like rabbits or reptiles, and you can also speak with the vet and adoption counselor. If you don’t own your home, make sure pets are allowed, see if there are any breed or weight restrictions and be committed to bringing your friend with you should you decide to move during his lifetime.

Think Outside the Bark (and Meow!) Box

“You may not be able to have a cat or dog for housing reasons or restrictions but there’s so many awesome other pets that can fill your need for having an animal,” said McEntee, whose litter-trained bunny slept under her bed and followed her around the house like a dog (who didn’t require as much exercise) growing up.

Consider an Older Pet

Everybody loves puppies and kittens, but don’t overlook a young adult or even the older statesman of the shelter. “You know more about the personality. You can see how big they’re going to be,” Travalja said. Unlike puppies, older dogs won’t need any additional shots and can be taken outside right away, a major bonus as summer approaches. Adopting a senior pet can be particularly rewarding. “You’re giving these dogs some of the best days of their lives at a time when they’ve lost everything,” McEntee said.

It’s a Family Affair

adopt a shelter pet

Bring the whole family to the shelter or adoption center. It’s a great way to bond and make sure everyone is on the same page. image: ellen dunn

It takes a family to raise a dog or cat, so make sure everyone is on the same page about wanting the animal. “Make sure everyone knows what the responsibility is but also how fun it can be,” Travalja advised. Decide what the rules will be (is furniture off limits? Where will the pet sleep?) and who will take care of things like feeding, bathing and walking. Even though you don’t yet have an animal, this is an important first step in the training process. “If you let [your dog] on the couch for two weeks and then yell at her, she’s going to be confused and then resist,” McEntee said. When you go to a shelter, bring the whole family. “It’s a good bonding experience that can be shared with the whole family…and it’s important to have everyone there when the shelter staff explains the commitment,” Travalja said.

Start Your Search

Sites like Petfinder allow you to find animals in your area, as do websites for local shelters and rescues. You can also pop into shelters and visit with staff and animals, or meet animals at events like North Shore Animal League’s Adopt-a-Thon June 6-7 or Southampton Animal Shelter’s Putt Putt for Pitts May 7.

Don’t Judge a Pet in Its Kennel

Imagine you had a family that loved you and all of a sudden you’re in a small kennel, or you spent your whole life tied to a chain outside. You’d probably be stressed out. That’s how many animals feel in the shelter, which can lead to barking or cowering in the corner. “One of the main things we say is never judge a dog in its kennel,” McEntee said. “There’s a lot of energy in those kennels and when one starts barking they all start barking and a lot of times you won’t see that behavior in the home.” Take the dog for a walk, or sit in a meet-and-greet room and let a kitty cuddle up in your lap. A couple other house rules: approach animals slowly, let them smell your hand underneath their line of vision, not over it. “[This helps them] understand that you’re there to be friends with them, you’re not there to be a threat,” Travalja said.

Make Your Home Pet-Friendly

adopt a shelter pet

Cover outlets and make sure you have a comfy bed for your new friend before you bring them home. image: southampton animal shelter

Cover outlets and make sure the floor and any area an animal can reach (you’d be surprised how high your 10-pound cat can jump) are free of anything the animal can choke on. Have food, water and a comfy bed for your new friend as well as a leash for dogs and litter box for cats. Register your dog in the town you live, register your micro chip and be sure to renew each year and schedule a check up with the vet within 30 days.

Remember: It Takes Time to Be Best Friends

Take it slow when introducing your pets to one another, and remember it takes time for an animal to get used to a forever home (but it's so worth the wait!) image: ellen dunn

Take it slow when introducing your pets to one another, and remember it takes time for an animal to get used to a forever home (but it’s so worth the wait!) image: ellen dunn

If you bring your new animal home and they suddenly become a bit timid or struggle to warm up to a family member, give it time. Travalja recommends giving the animal toys and treats so it associates you with something positive. A crate can be a great tool in helping an animal feel more secure, too. “Sometimes people think of it as putting them in a cage after they just came from a cage but it’s important to realize that you’re giving them a secure area,” Travalja said. McEntee recommended making it a cozy spot with a bed to snuggle up in. Just as your animal may need time to acclimate to you, they may need time to get used to other pets in the house (and that pet may need time to get used to them). Even if two dogs hit it off in a meet-and-greet (required by many shelters if there’s already a dog in the home), there will likely be a transition period. During that time, feed the animals in separate rooms and don’t put them in a position to fight, such as by initiating a game of fetch with your first dog’s favorite squeaky elephant.

Still Having Issues?

Many shelters offer consultations for the life of the pet, and some, like Southampton Animal Shelter and North Shore Animal League, have staff on hand who can help you even if you didn’t adopt the animal from them. A vet or trainer can help as well.

beth ann clyde

beth ann clyde

Beth Ann Clyde is a social strategist of Long Island Pulse. Have a story idea or just want to say hello? Email or reach out on Twitter @BAClyde.