Animal Law

What You Need to Know When Adopting a Pet

There are thousands of animals in thousands of animal shelters across the US waiting for someone to adopt and take them home. Before you grab the car keys and head for the local shelter, it's a good idea to know how the process works. There are decisions you needed to make, like what type of pet you're looking for. And there are decisions the shelter has to make, like if you're capable of caring for the pet you want to adopt.

Type of Pet

What type of pet are you thinking about adopting. You may find all kinds of animals at your local pet shelter, anything from hamsters to pot-belly pigs to fish. However, cats and dogs are the usual suspects.

There are some questions you need to ask yourself when thinking about adoption and the type of pet:

  • Do you have the time to take care of a pet? Most pets need some sort of socializing with the owner, exercise and play time, and every pet needs you to feed and care for it
  • Do you have room in your home for the pet?
  • Are you prepared for years of friendship and the years of care? Dogs and cats can live 15 years or more, and some birds can live 60 years or longer
  • There are costs, too. Food, veterinary care and licensing (for animals like dogs and cats) are long-term expenses for you
  • Do you have children? Very young children and a new pet may not mix, especially when it comes to cats and dogs

Some shelters can help you find the perfect pet. The American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (ASPCA), for example, has programs where adoptive pets are screened or assessed on characteristics like friendliness, playfulness and energy level. It then tries to match you with the pet that fits your family and lifestyle.

Adoption Process Basics

Each shelter has its own process for adoption, but here are some things to keep in mind:

  • Some adoptions may happen the same day you go to the shelter, other times it may take several days or longer. Make sure you ask someone at the shelter how long a typical adoption takes
  • You'll be asked to fill out some paper work. The application is geared for determining if you're a good candidate to adopt a pet and what type of pet might be best for you
  • You may have to guarantee that you won't declaw your cat (front or back), or you must spay and neuter the animal within a certain time period
  • There's a fee? Yes, most shelters charge a fee to help defray the shelter's cost of caring for the pet
  • Some shelters won't let you take the pet home until shelter employees have seen you and your spouse and/or children interact with the pet

Your Part in the Process

Your part in the process is more than just filling out paper work and paying a fee, too. Be prepared to ask questions to make sure you get the pet that's right for you. For example, you want to ask the shelter about:

  • How the pet got to the shelter. Was it a stray, did an owner drop it off at the shelter or did the shelter take the animal because it was being abused? There may be behavioral or medical problems you'll want to know about before you adopt
  • Whether the shelter offers training classes to help your pet adjust to its new home
  • Who's responsible for medical care if your pet becomes ill shortly after leaving the shelter. Many times you'll be responsible, but the shelter may offer to take care of minor medical issues
  • What happens if the adoption simply doesn't "work out." What if your new pet doesn't get along with your children or other pets? What happens if you have to move and you can't take the pet with you? Some shelters may let you return the pet within a certain number of days, while others may leave it up to you find the pet a new, good home

Applications Get Rejected

Sometimes adoption applications are rejected. There are many reasons why. For example, you may not be the only person interested in a pet and someone else may have filed an application first. Or, the shelter may decide the pet you want isn't right for you or your family. For example, someone living in an apartment may not be an ideal candidate for a Great Dane.

Don't Give Up

The shelter usually will tell you why your application was rejected. Explain to someone at the shelter why your application should be approved. Shelters are in business to help the animals they care for, and they'll work with people who genuinely want to adopt.

Don't give up. Find out why your application was denied and what you can do to convince the shelter that you can be a responsible pet owner.

You've made an important decision by choosing to adopt a pet. A new pet changes both yours and the pet's life. By knowing how the process works, and what to ask yourself and the pet shelter, you make big steps toward finding a friend and companion for many years to come.

Questions for Your Attorney

  • Can I get into any legal trouble if I call a pet shelter because I think a neighbor is abusing a pet? How can I protect myself?
  • The dog I adopted attacked another dog on my street, but the shelter didn't tell me anything about the dog's history of biting and attacking. Is the shelter responsible if I get sued by the other dog's owner?
  • I was told my adopted cat had been spayed but she had a litter of kittens a few months after I took her home. I can't care for them. Does the shelter have to take them?
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