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Adopting a New Pet – What to Watch For!

July 17, 2010

By Nancy Holmes

There are enough happy endings with adopted pets to make adoption an attractive option in finding your next companion animal. There are enough bad matches, that don’t work out for pet or new owner, to make one wary too.

With the internet it is easier than ever to find a dog or cat etc. that catches your eye, without heading to the shelter to check the adoptable pets out in person, but the internet also causes many to rely entirely or mostly on someone else’s judgment about the attributes of the pet they are considering adding to their home.

Therein lies the problem – can you trust what the people are telling you about the pet they wish to place in your home? Can you trust how much they actually know? Are they concealing an issue in order to ‘move’ the pet along out of their hands and into yours? Are they unaware of an issue that will be a big problem for you?

Of course this is all equally true with breeders, but many people don’t realize they need to apply the same sort of careful consideration, of where and who their pet is coming from, when it is coming via ‘adoption’ as they do when it is a breeder purchase.

Recently I saw a dog up for ‘adoption’ through a group that described the dog as a ‘perfect family pet’. This local group provided a link to another description of the dog, at the shelter where the dog actually resided awaiting adoption. On the second site the description mentioned the dog was food bowl aggressive and so protective of the food bowl he would lay on top of it, once it was empty, growling and lunging at other dogs. It also mentioned he had been fighting through the fence with another dog. Seems this dog was not so perfect after all!

Yes, food bowl aggression is something that a dog can typically be trained out of, but that can take quite a bit of work and may present a hazard to other pets or small children in the household before training is completed. Yes, altering might reduce the dog on dog aggression, but it might not also. What a shock for someone adopting a ‘perfect family pet’ if any of these behaviors were an issue for them!

The enthusiastic local person, who hoped to facilitate the rescue of this dog, to ‘save’ the dog from euthanasia, by placing an ad, overlooked some potentially serious canine behavior issues in their description of an appropriate home for this particular pet. To me this violates the primary goal of rescue, which I believe is ‘the right pet in the right home for life’ not ‘any pet in any possible home’ just to ‘save’ it.

Another animal recently up for adoption, from the original owner, was a friendly, wonderful cat, that was listed as box trained and indoors only, healthy, good with people and kids etc. Then you got to the reason for placement. They thought the new baby in the home was stressing the cat and causing him to urinate all over the place. They wanted a home with no babies for the cat. Now this behavior issue could be due to a medical problem, which the owner should have checked out first with their vet, but if it actually was stress related, then changing homes would most likely really stress out this cat and might bring about the same or even worse behavior issues!

Many of the rescue groups and shelters are not at all adept at determining breed or mix of the animals they are rehoming that come to them from out of state or as strays. This means you cannot rely on the general breed description for a particular breed when evaluating them as a potential fit for your home. Any quick cruise through adoption websites by a knowledgeable person proves breed identification by shelters and rescues is erratic at best.

As an example, I see a lot of Irish Wolfhound mixes up for adoption that obviously (to me) have no relationship to a Wolfhound, beyond a whiskery face which likely was passed down by a terrier or poodle ancestor. There is a huge difference in temperament (as well as size) between Wolfhounds and terriers. Even the biggest poodles or terrier type breeds are no where near the size of a Wolfhound. So what you expect to get and what you really get can be quite different.

Another common ‘error’ in identification is that some rescue groups or shelters may try to hide the likelihood of the dog being a particular mix such as a smooth coated terrier mix, i.e. a mix of pit bull type dog and another breed, or any other breed not currently thought of as a ‘good pet’ by some. Again the big issue is not what the dog’s ancestry really is, but that the expectations based on breed heritage may not work out for the new owner if the mix is not represented properly.

A boxer mix (a common choice of words used instead of pit bull terrier) is apt to have a far different attitude about other dogs and animals than a pit bull type mix could have as it matures. Either dog might be perfect for the right home, but honest representation of the dog or pup’s underlying breed heritage makes it easier to match the right home with the right dog.

A poodle mixed with a shedding breed may be presented as ‘hypoallergenic’ or ‘non shedding’ when in truth once you mix a poodle with a shedding breed the resulting pups are extremely likely to shed. As there is no such thing as a hypoallergenic dog, representing a dog as being one is also deceptive. Humans are allergic to dander and saliva proteins, not the hair, so even a hairless dog can cause allergy issues in an allergic person! Some people do react less to lower shedding dogs but there are no guarantees!

Cats are often misrepresented too. Frequently cats will be represented as being a particular breed or mix of a breed based on color alone and not all gray cats are Russian or British Blues, just as not all cats with a loud voice are Siamese. People may be disappointed in the color, size, coat length, activity level or personality of their chosen pet if the breed or mix (when known) is not represented correctly.

Misrepresentation may not be intentional but merely the result of inexperienced people making decisions and judgments about the animals that they are not quite qualified to do.

Back when I started doing rescue the majority of rescuers who were pulling pets from pound or shelters for rehoming, or taking in dogs relinquished by owners, were actually breeders with strong knowledge backgrounds in their breeds and years of experience in behavior, training and in placing dogs in homes for life.

Nowadays, well meaning animal lovers are frequently going into rescue work with little to no background in animal care, behavior modification training, rehoming by screening adoptive homes etc. and that leaves room for many errors as they learn how to best judge both the pets and the people to make a good match. It’s a complex field and based on those people I’ve mentored in this over the years, it does take some time for people to learn how best to approach the work and how to handle and recover from failures and errors.

There are some things you can do to prevent or limit chances the pet you are considering is being misrepresented to you:

  • You should plan on meeting the pet, in person, with as many family members present as possible, before placing any money down on adopting it.
  • Do not send money for transport or vet care to anonymous groups, or private individuals, as many scammers on the net are selling phantom pets and simply sending out sad stories and pictures to dishonestly get people’s money.
  • If you do choose to pay transport money, find out if you can refuse adoption if the pet is not as represented and make sure any money you pay out you can afford to lose if it vanishes.
  • If you have a specific breed in mind, consider a breed specific rescue, rather than a general all animal rescue, to get a good match, or good advice on a match, from someone who knows the breed well.
  • Make sure any rescue or shelter is legitimately licensed with the state.
  • Be sure you are comfortable with the group you are planning to work with to find your next pet. Groups that do not represent themselves honestly in their ads may not be safe or reliable to deal with.
  • Ask for references. There is nothing wrong with wanting to find out if others are happy with the adoption procedures, matching processes, fees, and policies of any group you may be dealing with.
  • Read any contracts carefully. Find out if you will get your money back if the pet is not as represented and if you can return the pet. You should know what your options are if the adoption does not work out.
  • Make sure state laws on health certificates, rabies vaccinations, vet exams etc are complied with and that means you should know what those laws are ahead of time.
  • Read up on dog or cat breeds so you can try to recognize if a pet is being represented honestly or not.
  • Learn in general about behavior and health issues in the type of pet that is your choice, and find out how they are usually resolved, before getting a pet that may have issues from excessive stress, changes or genetic issues. And yes mixes actually have more potential for genetic issues than purebreds do as they have a wider mix of genes including those that produce different canine health issues.
  • Read too about introducing a new pet to a home so you can go about it the safest way right from the start.
  • Listen to what is said about the pet in terms of needs for training, housing, confinement, socialization, grooming etc. and be honest with yourself about what resources you have available. If the pet arrives and is immediately ill (and transport or home changing stress can bring out illness in any pet) are you going to be able to afford vet bills after paying an adoption fee? Quite often love is not enough – cash and time are frequently required for the help a pet needs.
  • Watch out for the too good to be true pets. Free Yorkshire terrier puppies, exotic cat breeds, or English Bulldogs, for example, are a common scam. People send money thinking to adopt these pets and never get a pet they just lose their money.
  • Read as many ads as you can to help you spot the resellers who are picking up free pets they know nothing about and selling them as ‘perfect pets’ to unsuspecting ‘adopters’, the rescues which are avoiding telling anyone what group they represent etc. Reading ads over several days or weeks can be a good way to get to know who is placing animals in your area.
  • Watch out for groups that don’t want to tell you who they are, don’t feel comfortable giving references, don’t seem to know much about the animals they are rehoming and are more interested in your check being good than in checking you out.

When talking with the people who have the pet you are considering, check to see if they are finding any home perfect for that pet as they try to ‘unload’ it or if they are being careful about where the pet goes.

In addition, you can write out what it is you need and expect from a pet. Make a list for yourself of behaviors and health issues you know you can’t deal with in terms of the others living in your home and your own time and money resources. You may love fluffy dogs but can you commit to grooming time or paying someone to groom? Do you really have time to housebreak a puppy or attend training classes? Will a hound really fit into your apartment complex if it bays with a big deep voice? If the puppy doesn’t stay small will you be able to keep it where you live? Can you commit to training to change behaviors you are not happy with? Can you tackle care of health issues should any show up?

While it is very easy to be swayed by sad stories, pathetic or cute pictures, or glowing descriptions of ‘perfection’, in a pet someone else can no longer keep, it is important that you get in person hands on interaction with a potential companion animal before it comes to your home unless you are 100% sure that the person who is choosing your newest life companion has the best interests of both you and the pet in mind and the skill set to make that choice be as accurate as possible.

If the person who is ‘selling’ you the pet has never met the pet in question, then I’d be concerned that they cannot accurately match you with that pet. You should be concerned too. It may not stop you from adopting the pet, but you might be ready with plans for training classes, vet care, or professional help of some sort, no matter what is needed, when your new pet arrives at your home.

Do your homework the same as if you were contemplating buying from a breeder. Plan on making some decisions yourself on the suitability of the group you plan to work with or the pet you ultimately choose.

Be ready for a wonderful pet to join your family, but also be careful who you let help you find that pet and know what you can do if the match just isn’t the right one.

Even the best ‘matchmakers’ know they can make mistakes, so any adoption group should be just as ready to help you with support, advice, or even the return of the pet, if your adopted pet does not work out, as they were ready to help you acquire a new companion animal.

My experience has been that pets that have been fostered in a real home often have the very most accurate information available to help them get placed in the right sort of home to meet their needs.

Pets coming straight from a shelter or rescue that doesn’t do any professional personality evaluations, or from a previous home anxious to have the pet move on, require a bit more basic animal knowledge on your part to ensure that you get the pet you expect, instead of an unexpected and perhaps undesirable surprise along with your new companion.

There is more to adoption than picking a cute face in a picture, or a sad story that moves you to compassion, and you will need more than just love to make an adoption work, but with the right tools, the right resources, a careful review of the available pets, and an honest look at your own abilities, you may find the right ‘pre-owned’ pet is out there just waiting to join you and your family.

A Few Resources – many more found online:

Dogs

Cats

Birds

Choosing a Rescue group

Places to Look for an Adoptable Pet

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