Kitten looking at camera
After two of Alexandra’s four cats died, she decided to add to her feline family. But it wasn’t as easy as she expected.

Her surviving two cats were rather aloof, and she wanted more of a companion. First, she brought home Rufus, a 12-year-old orange tabby. Although Alexandra* liked him right away, he would growl and hiss any time her two other 12-year-old cats came near him. Her veterinarian thought Rufus was afraid the other cats would hurt him if they jumped on him.

She took him back to the rescue, and it found a home for him in a big duplex. “He got to be the only cat, and I think that was very much what he wanted,” Alexandra says. “I’m glad it worked out for him.”

Then she adopted Homer, a little black kitten who’d been sick and was nursed back to health by her vet. “As he started getting better, he got bouncier and bouncier and bouncier and had never been socialized with older cats. He hadn’t learned any cat manners,” she says. With her older cats terrified of Homer and her small apartment in chaos, Alexandra called the rescue, and a foster was found.

“I just had this huge feeling of relief and guilt,” she says. “I wanted to give this cat a home, and I failed him.”

Sorting Out the Options

Like Alexandra, most people have the best intentions when they bring new pets into their homes. But for a number of reasons, the new residents might not be good matches for those homes. If you decide things aren’t going to work out with a pet you intended to adopt, what can you do?

Some surrenders can be avoided if potential adopters understand the amount of work they’re taking on, understand the emotional and financial commitment a pet deserves, and make sure it’s the right time in their own lives to take care of a new pet. Adopters of canines can educate themselves about the dog’s breed so (although breed doesn’t tell you everything about a pet) they have some idea what to expect. Potential adopters should also consider their existing pets. How have they responded to other dogs or cats in the past? Could getting a new pet negatively affect quality of life for current pets? Your veterinarian can probably help with some of these questions, but a bit of soul searching can go a long way when deciding whether getting a new pet is the right move.

Still, even if you do all your homework, there can be unforeseen circumstances.

About 6 percent of adopted dogs are returned to shelters, but that number doesn’t include people who decide to rehome animals themselves, says Emily Weiss, vice president of shelter research and development for the ASPCA. Fewer cats are returned than dogs, possibly because it can be easier to find new homes for them.

“People relinquish their pets to shelters for a variety of reasons — someone in the home is allergic, the pet sheds more than expected… One potential reason tends to be that it’s simply not the right match,” Weiss says. “Depending on the facility, the information about a particular pet before he goes home may be pretty limited.”

*Note: We’ve changed the names of the pet owners and their pets in this story to protect their identities.

Reducing Returns

The ASPCA has created some tools to help reduce the likelihood of returns. For example, shelters can use the Meet Your Match tool to gather information from potential adopters about what they’re looking for, such as “It’s most important to me that my dog [fill in the blank].” They might answer “be house trained” or “be affectionate,” and those insights can help shelter workers pair them with pets who meet their expectations.

“Yes, it’s about saving a life,” Weiss says of adopting a shelter animal. “But this life’s going to be with you for a long time.”

Weiss, who is a certified applied animal behaviorist, says many shelters call new adopters after three days, then three weeks and again after three months in hopes of identifying issues before there’s a big problem.

The ASPCA also has the Virtual Pet Behaviorist tool, which can help new pet owners work through problems with potty training or excessive barking, among other things. 

Anna adopted Danny, a SpanielLabrador mix, from a rescue about five years ago, when he was 3. The group had had him for only three days, so it hadn’t seen the severe storm anxiety that Danny had. He’d become so anxious he was destructive, Anna says. In addition to his storm anxiety, he would also fight with other dogs.

Anna says she was committed to dealing with issues that another adopter might have given up on. She’s worked with behaviorists and made modifications to her own life, like passing up social invitations when she knows it might storm so she can be home with Danny.

“It’s a hard situation, because until the animal is in its permanent environment and the honeymoon period is over, its issues may not rear their ugly heads. That is what happened with us,” Anna says. “I feel that if I can care for a difficult animal, that is one less [pet who] will be brought back.”

Coping With Problems

Even when you’re committed to your pet, things can be difficult, as Kelly has found. She adopted Casey, a Corgi mix, about five years ago when he was a puppy, only to discover that he was incontinent.

“From the time we brought him home, this little guy dribbled urine,” she says. Casey’s veterinarians thought he might have a problem that could be repaired with surgery, but CT scans didn’t find anything. The vets now theorize that it could be a complication of the parvovirus he had as a puppy.

Kelly has turned her enclosed, temperature-controlled back porch into Casey’s home. He’s comfortable there with a couch and his food and water bowls, has a doggie door to go outside and can see inside through the windows. Her children often hang out with him on the porch. But Kelly has to mop the floor every day, and her family has to put a diaper on Casey to bring him inside “so we can give him some loving.”

“It’s just a real hardship,” she says. “I adopted him — he’s my responsibility for better or for worse. He really is a good dog and he gets along great with my other dog, so we’ve kind of kept going with it.”

When It’s Best for Your Pet

The experts point out that though there’s guilt and relief on the human side when a pet is returned to a shelter or a rescue group or is rehomed, there are times when it’s best for the animal, too.

“If it’s not a good match for the person, then it’s probably not for the pet, either,” the ASPCA’s Weiss says.

In the case of purebred animals, breeders usually ask prospective buyers a lot of questions and give them plenty of information so the breeders know they are placing their dogs or cats in homes that are good fits.

“A responsible breeder will always take back one of its puppies or adult dogs if the owner is for any reason unable to keep it,” states the American Kennel Club (AKC). “So if you are faced with the dilemma of having to rehome your dog, always contact your breeder first.”

The AKC also has its own network of breed-specific rescues, which can help with finding a home that’s better suited to a dog.

Joan Miller, a longtime cat breeder and outreach and education chair for The Cat Fanciers’ Association, says returning a cat to a breeder can sometimes be more complex because of the risk of infectious illness that a cat coming back to the cattery might pose to the other kittens and adult cats. Still, she says she thinks a contract is important for spelling out the procedure if a cat has to be returned. In many cases, if the breeder can’t take the animal back, he or she will try to find a new home for it.

(As a reminder, not every breeder adheres to these practices, so buyers should beware.)

A Trial Run

Many shelters and rescues also have contracts saying they’ll take an animal back if there’s a problem. For example, the Best Friends Animal Society in Utah makes a lifetime promise to take their animals back at any time.

Like a growing number of organizations, Best Friends allows a potential adopter to take an animal home or to a hotel (if he or she has traveled to the Utah sanctuary) to spend more quality time together and get a better idea of whether a match is a good one. The group also recommends fostering before adopting. Both allow you to get to know a dog or cat better and experience what the pet is like outside a shelter environment. But the unexpected can happen.

Best Friends adoption manager Kristi Littrell had one situation where a nice couple adopted a terrier, but the dog had something in her past that made her scared of the husband. He felt horrible, and the dog was always terrified. The couple worked with Littrell and ended up bringing the dog back and taking home a different terrier.

“We don’t just adopt them out and leave them,” Littrell says. “We do our best to find that lifetime match, but stuff happens. People lose their homes, their own health crashes or, for one reason or another, the animal has to come back to us, and that’s OK…The animals are resilient. It’s amazing what some of these guys have gone through, and they still like people.”

Financial Constraints

Financial troubles and human health problems that crop up after someone takes in a dog or cat can make it hard to keep a pet. It’s something Kim Wolf, director of the nonprofit Beyond Breed in Brooklyn, New York, sees every day.

Wolf combines her background in social work and animal welfare to help pet owners in underserved, low-income areas, many of whom have taken in strays. She helps connect them with the resources they need and either can’t afford or don’t know are there.

Her group might help get an animal spayed or neutered, provide pet food or grooming, drive to a pet store to get a crate because the owner doesn’t have a car or offer temporary boarding.

Wolf sees a lot of people who are forced to give up their pets when they have to move into apartments that aren’t pet friendly. “It’s not that these people don’t want to keep their pets; it’s that they’re having to choose between their pets and the roof over their heads,” she says.

She points out that lower-rent apartments usually aren’t the ones that are pet friendly, and many landlords have size restrictions on animals or a limit on the number of pets or require deposits too large for someone living paycheck to paycheck. “Life circumstances happen, and not everyone has the resources to get through them,” she says.

Wolf also oversees a program that helps senior citizens in New York keep their pets by taking them for walks or to the vet. Sometimes simple things like that can help someone keep his or her pet.

Withholding Judgment

“Certainly the goal is, the adopter comes in, we make the right match, they go home and everything’s great,” Weiss says. “But if we’re judgmental when he brings [the pet] back, then he’ll probably get a pet from another source that may or may not be a humane one. [The adopter] came to our shelter to save a life. We just have to find the right one.

“There are organizations that can be judgmental toward the person, but more and more shelters are moving away from that and understanding that adopters are just like us and understanding that it just didn’t work out,” Weiss says. She explains that if an animal comes back, at least the shelter workers know a lot more about that pet than they did before, which can facilitate another potential adoption.

After the heartbreaks of her first two adoptions gone wrong, Alexandra found two more cats who needed homes and who were a better fit, and now has a happy ending to her story.

“It was hard to take in these other cats and develop attachments to them and have to give them back,” she says. “Finally, I have a little cat family.”

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