This story is far from unusual. According to the National Council on Pet Population Study and Policy, the top reasons people abandon their pets in shelters are issues like landlords that object to pets and the cost of pet food--the unforeseen problems that come up when people casually take on animals without thinking about the long-term future. Many of the pets in shelters today could have been spared if their owners had gone through a careful decision-making process before adopting them.
Can you commit?
It may seem simple, but people often forget that the most important part of adopting a pet is deciding whether you should have one at all. If you're revved up and ready to go get that puppy, stop for a moment to be sure. It's hard to check your enthusiasm, but you need to--ask yourself the tough questions. Answering them honestly now could save you and your pet from a heartbreaking situation later on.
• Do you have the space to keep an animal in your home? Some pets need a big, open lawn to run in.
• The average pet owner pays $150-350 for veterinary care each year, according to AAHA's Pet Owner Survey. Are you willing to spend this much or more? Can you afford to provide medical care, pet food, a cage, bedding, kitty litter, and/or a collar and leash?
• Are you very protective of your furniture, rugs, and other possessions? How upset would you be if you came home to find your shoes chewed or sofa scratched?
• Do you own your home or have a lease that allows pets? Pets can live for anywhere from four to 20 years or more. If you might be moving in the next five or ten years, will you be able to find a home that accepts pets?
• Do you have enough free time to exercise, play with, train, and give affection to a pet? To feed, groom, walk, and clean up after an animal?
• Are you expecting a child to be the animal's primary caregiver? When your son says he's going to feed the kitty, groom her, and clean the litter box, no doubt he means it with all his heart. But a child's attention is naturally fickle, and parents will probably end up performing most or all of the pet care.
It can be a terribly hard decision for an animal lover to make, but if you don't have the time, space, or resources to keep a pet healthy at this point in your life, sometimes choosing not to have one is the most loving thing you can do.
Finding the pet that fits
Now that you know you're ready to adopt your bundle of love, you need to decide what kind of animal is right for you. Your biggest considerations are space and time: if you live in a basement apartment and work 60 hours a week, you're best off considering a low-maintenance pet such as a hamster, gerbil, guinea pig, snake, or turtle. These pets aren't maintenance free, however: they do need fresh food and water, their cages need to be cleaned often, and they need to be observed carefully because they can become ill quickly.
If you have a bit more room and free time, a cat or dog could be the pet for you. Cats are the less demanding of the two. They can be happy in a small apartment, so long as they have plenty of toys to bat around and at least an hour of attention a day. Dogs, on the other hand, take the most time and effort of all the traditional pets. They need to be walked at least two to three times per day. Also, they are very social animals, and they need a lot of play and affection to stay healthy.
Dogs vary more between breeds than any other pet: think about how different it would be to live with a three pound Yorkshire terrier, for example, than to live with a 160-pound mastiff. If you're thinking about getting a dog, you should talk to your veterinarian about what breeds will best fit your needs based on size, temperament, grooming, and energy level. Be sure to consider mixed breeds as well--they often combine the best characteristics of several breeds in one package.
If you adopt a dog or cat, you should give some thought to the age you're looking for. Kittens and puppies are adorable, but they need to be housetrained and socialized. They are also generally much more rambunctious and mischievous than older animals, and they will probably leave you more messes to clean up. Adult pets, on the other hand, usually know the ins and outs of interacting with a human family.
Looking for love
Now it's time for the most fun part--picking out your new friend. Buying from a pet store generally isn't a good idea: these animals often come from places that don't treat animals well. Adopting from a breeder can work out well, but you must be sure the breeder is reputable and isn't breeding animals with genetic defects.
A wonderful alternative to buying is adopting a pet from a shelter. When you adopt, not only are you saving hundreds of dollars, but you're rescuing an animal from abandonment or euthanasia. Classified ads and signs advertising free puppies and kittens are one way to find pets who need "parents." Or, if you're looking for a more structured environment to adopt from, try a humane society or animal shelter. There are a variety of shelters across the US and Canada, some offering only cats or dogs and some offering a range of animals from dogs to pocket pets to exotics. Shelter workers can be a huge help as you pick out a pet: they get to know the animals they house, and they generally screen them for disease and behavioral problems. They can usually tell you the history of the animals you're interested in, how they behaved with their last family, and why they were given up to the shelter.
To protect the interests of their animals, shelters require adopters to show that they can be good pet parents. There is generally a requirement to be older then 18 or 21 and an adoption fee ranging from $40 to $90. Sometimes fees are higher because they include the cost of vaccinations, spaying or neutering, or microchip identification.
If you are interested in an adult purebred dog, you may want to look into rescue organizations. These groups focus on matching new owners with abandoned dogs of one specific breed. The organizations come in a wide range of shapes and sizes. Some have their own boarding and training facilities and handle adoptions directly, while others function more as a referral service, matching a list of dogs in the area against inquiries from people who want to adopt. In either case, they are an excellent source of information about living with a certain breed.
Getting to know them
Wherever you choose to seek out your new fuzzy (or feathered or leathered) pal, be sure to spend some quality time with him before you take him home. Sit down with the animal you choose and start playing. Not only will this make it easier for your pet to adjust to you later, but it will also give you a chance to make sure he's social, responsive, and healthy. If you notice signs of a disability, chronic illness, or behavioral problem, that doesn't mean you shouldn't adopt your new friend. It just means you should talk to your veterinarian or a shelter worker to be sure that you have the resources to care for him. Living with pets with special physical or behavioral needs can be incredibly rewarding, but it takes some time and commitment.
In the long run, it's important to use as much logic as love when you get a new pet. It may be hard to be patient when you just want to run into the pet store and pick up the sweetest little thing on four legs, but the extra restraint is worth it. When your new best friend bounds through your front door for the first time, you'll be a happy pet parent, knowing you made the right choice for both of you.