Petting a dog at a shelter

Some of the nicest pets come from shelters. I should know: Plenty of my patients were adopted from shelters, as were two of my four dogs, including Amazing Gracie, my beloved 7-year-old Lab-Pit Bull mix.

But I know that sometimes people have concerns about adopting pets from shelters. They worry about how and why the animals wound up in there. They think that maybe they weren’t friendly or they misbehaved or, in the case of cats, wouldn’t use the litterbox. Or they assume animals at shelters may be sick or injured or otherwise unsuitable as pets.

I’m here to tell you that’s just not the case. Most pets who land in shelters are healthy and well-adjusted. Often, though, they have been relinquished by owners who didn’t have the time, money or space to care for otherwise healthy and happy dogs and cats.

Shelter Pet Myths and Realities

In my experience, there are five myths about shelters and shelter pets that come up over and over. Here’s the truth about all of them.

Myth: There must be something wrong with a pet if he’s in a shelter.

Reality: More often than not, something has gone wrong with the owner, not the pet. Most animals end up in shelters through no fault of their own. “One of the main reasons animals are given up is because their owners are no longer able to provide proper care, perhaps due to financial hardship, a move to a new home, illness or death of the owner or a change in lifestyle,” says Aimee Gilbreath, executive director of Michelson Found Animals, a nonprofit organization dedicated to helping shelter pets find homes. “In all of these situations, the animal is relinquished for reasons unrelated to [its] health, temperament or behavior.”

Myth: Shelter personnel don’t know anything about the personalities of individual animals.

Reality: Making the right match between people and pets is Job One for shelter staffs. When possible, staffers gather information from former owners; in addition, they make their own observations over time as they interact with the pets awaiting adoption. In order to find the dog or cat that’s right for you, Gilbreath suggests, chat with the shelter volunteers: “Often, it’s the volunteers who have the chance to spend the most time with individual animals and can help match you with your new best friend.”

Myth: There’s no way to ensure that I will get the right pet for me.

Reality: Shelters are constantly looking at ways to create an easier adoption process, provide adopters with more information and make sure there’s a really good match between person and pet. Lisa Pedersen, CEO of the Humane Society of Boulder Valley in Boulder, Colorado, says that at HSBV, counselors have individualized conversations with potential adopters about their pet-owning experiences, lifestyle and wants and needs from a pet.

But not every match is perfect; sometimes a pet is brought back to the shelter as part of HSBV’s adoption satisfaction program. And that’s not a terrible thing.

“That animal has gotten a chance to go into a home environment,” Pedersen says. “When it comes back to us, we have a better understanding of what that animal is like in a home, so we have more information to give to the next potential adopter. That’s been a hugely successful approach for us. We want the chance to create a better match for that animal, as well as send that family an animal who might be more suited for them.”
Myth: Cats in shelters are sick or have behavior issues.

Reality: The standards of care for cats in shelters are very high. “Shelters practicing good shelter medicine screen for diseases, prevent the spread of infectious diseases through proactive preventive care, and provide positive behavioral support and enrichment,” says Dr. Elizabeth Berliner, a director of shelter medicine at Cornell University’s College of Veterinary Medicine. “Additionally, shelters are saving cats with treatable conditions, which can involve managing the cat through an illness and then providing the adopter with a cat who has a resolved or manageable condition.” Your new kitty is also more likely to be up to date on vaccinations and already spayed or neutered, and she may even have had her personality charted during her stay in the shelter — so there should be relatively few surprises when you get her home.

Myth: The shelter won’t have the type or breed of animal I’m looking for.

Truth: You can find all kinds of great animals at shelters: puppies, kittens, adult animals, purebred dogs and cats, rabbits and a range of other exotic species. Most shelters have websites where you can see at a glance what animals they have. You can also visit to see descriptions of the pets available in your local animal care centers. This can save you time and energy if you’re looking for a specific breed, a pet of a certain size or age or one with a particular coat type or color.

And don’t assume that all dogs and cats in the shelter are mixed breeds. According to several studies, between 15 and 25 percent of animals found at shelters are purebreds. “Owners of purebreds can experience personal, financial or medical hardships that can cause them to give up their dogs,” Gilbreath says. “If your heart is set on adopting a purebred, visit animal care centers regularly, as specific breeds can sometimes be in high demand.”

Just because a shelter doesn’t have the kind of pet you’re looking for doesn’t mean it can’t help you find one. Many shelters have transfer programs that allow them to move animals in high demand in one area from shelters in areas that have too many of them. Transfer programs help reduce pressure on overpopulated facilities and ensure that shelters can provide a good variety of animals of different ages, breeds and species. For instance, Arizona exports an abundance of Chihuahuas to areas of the country where they are less common and highly sought after. Pedersen says that HSBV is one of the few shelters that brings kittens in, because the Boulder community has done such a good job of spaying and neutering cats. “If we don’t have any kittens being fostered or in the adoption center, we can reach out to communities that maybe have higher populations,” she says.

The bottom line is this: Don’t be afraid to adopt a shelter animal. The love you can share with even an older pet is amazing. I’ve witnessed the incredible bond that is formed when somebody chooses a pet from a shelter both in my own life and in my veterinary practice. It’s strong, resilient and lasting.

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