You’ve made the decision to adopt your next pet, and you’ve located a nearby shelter. Now what?
You’ll need to choose a companion for up to the next 15 to twenty years from up to several hundred pets, all vying for the chance to come home with you. If the shelter you’ve chosen is of the busy, open admission variety, you’ll also be likely to end up making this choice while surrounded by dozens of other chattering families hoping to adopt, and in an environment where it’s difficult to evaluate an animal’s true personality due to stress and noise.
So, what’s a family to do, faced with making a lifetime committment to a new pet in this situation? One way to maximize the chance of bringing home just the right fit is to find a friendly shelter employee and ask a few questions about each pet on your “short list” of potential new family members.
1. Was he ever in a foster home?
If you’re wondering whether or not that Beagle will chew the sofa, or the tabby cat will use her litterbox, who better to ask than someone who kept that animal in their home with their own family temporarily? Young, special-needs, or senior pets are more likely to spend time in foster care before going up for open adoption at a shelter, but it can’t hurt to ask about any pet that you like. Some shelters let volunteers take a favorite adoptable pet home for just a night or three, to get more information on its personality and give it the chance to enjoy a respite from shelter stress.
2. Has a behavior specialist evaluated her?
Many shelters, particularly large ones which see a high volume of neglect and abuse cases, employ a behavior specialist or two. These professionals are trained to perform a battery of temperament tests that will, to a degree, determine the type of home for which each pet is best suited. Temperament testing is not infallible and is affected by shelter stress, but can generally identify major issues like aggression, resource guarding, fear-biting, or noise-sensitivity before the animal leaves the shelter.
3. Has he been exposed to other animals or to children in the shelter?
Some shelters cat-test, dog-test, and even child-test adoptable pets in order to determine whether or not they are suitable for homes with other animals and with children. However, other shelters consider this kind of testing unsafe for the pets and volunteers, and will leave the determination of a pet’s safety with others up to the adopter.
4. Has she been health-checked by a veterinarian?
Some shelters have a veterinarian perform an intake evaluation on every new arrival. Others leave this job to vet techs or to volunteers without formal veterinary training. Some shelters also provide adopters with a certificate to see a veterinarian for a free wellness check after adopting. If the pet you’re considering has had a checkup from a veterinarian, ask to see the medical report. It is unlikely that a shelter would intentionally fail to disclose a medical problem, but shelter workers can be overwhelmed and forget details like, “The vet said she suspects this dog has hookworms.”
5. Is a volunteer who has walked or socialized with him available in person or by phone?
Most shelters have a volunteer base consisting of dedicated volunteers who give their time regularly, as well as a revolving door of volunteers who spend only a visit or two with the pets. The frequent volunteers often bond with particular pets waiting for adoption. If you can identify and contact a volunteer who spent extra time with the pet you’re considering adding to the family, you can glean valuable information that will help facilitate a smooth adoption process. Does he pull on the leash? Is she most playful in the mornings? A picky eater? A volunteer might know all of these answers and more.
6. How did she arrive at the shelter?
Some pets literally are found sitting outside a shelter tied to a post with no identifying information. Others are strays picked up by Animal Control. In either of those scenarios, you’re unlikely to find out much about her personality by asking about her arrival story. However, some pets come in as planned owner-surrenders, and shelter workers are able to extract a detailed medical and behavioral history from the former owners. Of course, sometimes such declarations are suspect– for example, every shelter worker has seen a family come in to surrender a “Perfect dog, but it’s just that the kids have allergies, and really our work schedule is too much, and he doesn’t match the new tile in the kitchen, but really, he’s a perfect dog,” and then found that Mr. Perfect Dog has a serious behavioral illness like separation anxiety or fear aggression.
7. Has he ever been adopted before?
Sometimes pets bounce back to a shelter two or three or more times before finding a forever home. Most pets, of course, have not been adopted and returned, but it pays to ask this question anyway. Even if he has been returned, it may be for a reason that makes him even more suited to your family. If you have rambunctious children, adopting a dog returned by a senior citizen for having too much energy might not be a bad bet.
8. Was she treated for any physical or behavioral condition during her stay at the shelter?
Some shelter pets have already survived and recovered from heartworm infection, parvo, kennel cough, distemper, or a myriad of other illnesses to which strays and neglected pets are particularly suspectible. In general, a potential adopter will be told about a past history of severe illness by default, but as mentioned earlier, overworked shelter employees sometimes forget important information. It’s your job to ask the right questions. Behavior problems may also have been treated in the shelter. Some shelters employ a training staff that can work on problems like food guarding before pets are adopted.
9. Can I take him outdoors for a walk? (dogs only)
Behavior inside the shelter can be very different from behavior on a walk. Taking a walk with a shelter employee on hand to supervise is a great way to learn about your new potential family member. Issues like leash aggression or noise phobia may be uncovered on walks. Conversely, a shy pet inside a noisy, smelly shelter may turn into a social butterfly when he gets outdoors in the fresh air with a few friendly humans.
10. Can I take her to a quiet room?
Both cats and dogs will show more of their personalities when under minimal stress from the sight and sound of shelter goings-on. Most shelters have quiet sitting rooms where potential adopters and prospective adoptees can play and socialize before a decision is made. For cats in particular, spending a fair amount of time in a quiet room is essential. A cat that starts out by slinking away shyly to a corner may be purring in your lap if you wait ten minutes for her to acclimate herself to the new environment.
If you’ve asked every question on the list, and any others that come to mind, and are happy with the answers, congratulations! You’ve got a new family member. Make sure to read the adoption contract thoroughly before signing, ask about spaying and neutering requirements if the pet isn’t already altered, and ask for a copy of any medical records from the shelter. Enjoy!