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Finding the Perfect Pet For Your Family at an Animal Shelter

An animal shelter can be a very stressful place for a homeless dog or cat. The constant barking and meowing and the continuous foot traffic from shelter staff and people looking to adopt can be both scary and intimidating. Many cats and dogs are also bewildered as to how they got there in the first place.

Many animals may appear timid, may hide in the back of their cages or may even hide under their bedding. As a result, it can be very difficult to get a grasp of their true personality. That shy, timid, frightened pet may actually become a fun-loving clown when you bring him home. Many animals begin to blossom once they are in a loving home environment.

Here's how to find the perfect pet for your family:

Plan ahead

Bringing a new pet into your home is a lifelong responsibility. Don't rush into a decision. It may even require several visits to the shelter before you make a final commitment.

You can make the decision a bit easier if you narrow down some of your decisions:

  • What type of dog or cat are you looking for?
  • Do you want a puppy or a kitten?
  • Would you prefer an adult dog or cat?
  • Would you consider giving a loving home to a senior pet or one with special needs?

If you have very young children:

  • Consider leaving them in the care of a friend or family member when you make your initial visit. Children can get overly excited and their enthusiasm can be intimidating for a dog or cat meeting them for the first time.
  • Once you have focused in on a particular dog or cat that is the time to take the kids along and introduce them to the animal in the shelter's hospitality room, or, in the case of a dog, outside in the exercise area.
  • Most shelters or rescues will not hold pets for you, so have your kids nearby if you anticipate you'll be adopting a pet the same day as your first visit.

How to assess an animal at a shelter

Most shelters will have kennel cards on each cage that provide basic information about the animal, including age, whether or not the pet is owner relinquished, any obvious health issues, and, sometimes, how the animal does with other animals. it's also important to try to assess for yourself the health, demeanor and personality of a potential pet:

  • Does the animal appear healthy? Are his eyes clear or runny? Is he sneezing?
  • Does the stool in his cage or kennel seem solid and formed?
  • Is he showing any signs of aggression, such as hissing or growling?
  • When it comes to felines, does the cat or the kitten stand up and try and attract your attention when you walk past the cage? Once again, don't be deterred if he is a bit shy. Cats or kittens that are hiding or facing away from you may simply need a bit more socializing. You will have to determine if you have time at home to spend extra time working with the cat to help coax him out of his shell.
  • How does the dog or cat move and walk? Check for any signs of awkwardness.
  • Kittens or puppies are often kept together in their original litters. Check how the kitten or puppy that catches your attention reacts to his littermates.
  • How does the dog or cat respond if you approach the cage and wiggle your fingers?

Shelter volunteers are happy to answer all your questions. Often the volunteers have spent enough time around the animal to provide additional insight into what the pet likes or unique behaviours.

Assessing a pet's health

These days, shelters go to great lengths to ensure that their pets are well-groomed and free of fleas, ticks and ear mites. Many shelters also work with animal behaviourists who volunteer their time to ensure that pets are well socialized, as this gives them a better chance of overcoming the stresses of the shelter environment and ultimately of being adopted.

Many animals that end up in shelters have had a rough time and may not have glossy coats as a result of being previously malnourished. Don't let this deter you. Proper food and a loving, stress-free home can often turn around a dull coat.

Animals with special needs

Many animals with physical disabilities, medical problems or behavioral issues end up in shelters, too. Caring for a special needs pet can be very rewarding experience. Before you undertake this extra responsibility, talk to your veterinarian about what is involved with the pet's care to ensure you can afford the additional expenses and time commitments you may encounter. Also, never undertake this responsibility unless there is someone at home full-time.

Get to know the animals

There may be several animals that get your attention at the shelter. Ask a volunteer to arrange for you to spend some time with each animal separately in one of the shelter's hospitality rooms.

These private areas are often away from the shelter activity and noise and the one-on-one time gives you both a chance to interact. For animals that are stressed and cower in their cages, a visit will give them an opportunity to come out of their shell a little bit and slowly begin to react to you. Remember, be patient.

If you think you have found the perfect dog or cat to become your newest family member, arrange for the shelter to put them on hold so you can arrange to bring your children to visit. It's important to explain to kids to sit quietly and observe and initiate games slowly. This gives the animal an opportunity to inspect them, too.

The paperwork

Once you have made your decision, the shelter will require you to fill out adoption forms, which can be lengthy. Expect questions about:

  • Where do you live?
  • Do you have a suitable outdoor area for a dog?
  • For cats, expect the shelter to request that you guarantee in writing that the cat will have an indoor-only lifestyle.
  • The shelter also will want to know about other pets and people in the home.
  • Many shelters will require confirmation that all consenting adults in the home agree to the adoption. They are looking after the animal's best interests and ensuring the pet is going to a loving, forever home.

Adoption fees

Adoption fees vary from shelter to shelter. They cover the cost of any medical care the pet may have received as well as the spay/neuter operation, if not previously done, vaccinations and deworming.

Another reason for an adoption fee is because shelters believe a monetary commitment helps people to underline the responsibility of pet parenting and the promise to give a pet a good home.

Home inspections

Many rescues will not release a pet into your care before they have made a home inspection to confirm it's a safe and clean environment. This is because they take entrusting a pet into your care very seriously and want the best situation for that pet to thrive and be safe.

While adopting a pet is a commitment, it's also important to inquire about the shelter's return policy, just in case things don't work out.

Most shelters provide you with as much information as they can about your new pet (you'll receive more if the pet was owner relinquished). This also will include a health assessment from a veterinarian. Additionally, you'll likely receive a few supplies and a sample of the food the pet is currently eating. Be sure to use this food and slowly transition to any new food. This will help prevent upset stomach and intestinal distress. You can always transition slowly to another brand or formula later. For the same reasons, don't rush to change the brand of cat litter. Again, when the time is right, make it a slow transition.

Settling in to a new home is quite a transition for a pet. It may take your pet a couple of weeks to begin to shine. Have patience. Don't invite a lot of family and friends over to meet the newest family member until you feel they are comfortable in their new home.