Finding the Right Pet at an Animal Shelter


by Elizabeth Hess


Itís no secret that we get pets to improve the quality of our own lives. But for animals to make a difference, they must be treated with respect. People who were raised with pets, including dogs and cats, frequently assume that they require very little care. This is an illusion. When you were little, having pets was a breeze because your parents did all the work. Taking good care of a pet, whether it is a tiny tetra or a large Thoroughbred, requires a significant investment  in time and money. Even tropical fish are far from maintenance free; you practically have to become an amateur ichthyologist to maintain a healthy environment in the tank.

            Animals need time to adjust to their new homes. Younger pets require more attention for their first few years until they learn to live within the parameters of their new lifestyle. Most dogs, for instance, will bond quickly with their owners, but when they are first left alone, they can develop nervous habits that will plaque them (and you) for years. Cats are more independent by nature, but they, too, need time to accept the boundaries of their new habitats. The reason there are so many young animals in shelters is that people get impatient and give up before their pets have time to integrate themselves into their ownersí lives. These are people who probably shouldnít have had pets to begin with.

            Make sure you are getting a pet for the right reasons. Any child who goes to the movies and watches television quite naturally wants a pet and tons of candy. You can limit the candy. But once you bring a puppy home, the animalís needs wonít wane even if your childís interest does. If your children want a dog, but you don'tódonít get one. You will begrudge the amount of work involved in exercising, feeding, training, grooming, and vetting a dog if he or she was acquired simply to entertain the kids. Young children require even more supervision when there are pets around. And when you go on vacation, someone still has to feed the animals.

            If itís the appropriate moment for you to get a pet, I hope your first step will be to find your local shelter. Given the variety of animals available in most facilities, your chances of finding the right dog or cat are excellent. If you assume that the ďbestĒ animals in shelters are skimmed off the top and taken home by employees and insiders, you are absolutely wrong. At Columbia-Greene, staffers go for the most unadoptable animals to save them from euthanasia. The youngest, healthiest, cutest pets are waiting for you.

            Some people avoid shelters because of their reputations for rigorous adoption procedures. I have never come across an application form that couldnít be filled out in fifteen minutes. If you have read this book, then you know that there are good reasons for these policies. A strict adoption protocol is frequently an indication of a quality shelter. If you were surrendering an animal, instead of adopting one, wouldnít you want your pet placed as carefully as possible?

            Before you visit any shelter, you need to make a few decisions based on your living situation. Do you reside in the country or the city? In an apartment or a house? Are there children? Most families are looking for purebred pets who look like movie stars. Before you even think about breeds, consider whether you want a young or an adult animal. Donít assume that you have to get a puppy or a kitten because they are so adorable or that older animals come with too much baggage. Itís just not true. Older animals are often already trained, more mellow, and generally more responsive to people. They are frequently better with children. Puppies treat kids like their own littermates; they mouth them constantlyówith razor-sharp teeth.

            Of course, if you decide on a puppy, you must make time for some training. First, read some books before you bring home the dog. (First-time pet owners should read Carol Lea Benjaminís Second-Hand Dog or The Chosen Puppy. Also popular are The Art of Raising a Puppy and How to Be Your Dogís Best Friend by the Monks of New Skate.) Joining a basic obedience-training class is the fastest and most effective way to train any dog. The myth that older dogs canít be taught anything new is completely unfounded. Dogs of all ages thrive in classes where they get to be with their own kind and work for treats. There are many levels of training, and people often keep working with their dogs for years. Itís fun. Training is also an ideal way to bond with your new pet.

            Decide how much time you really want to put into a dog. How many hours a day are you away from home? Be realisticóeverybody works for a living. If you are away from home all day, you might want a dog who is already housebroken and partially trained. Ask a shelter employee which dogs can be left alone for long periods of time without wreaking havoc. You will have some brief transition problems when you take these dogs home, but they will settle down much faster than puppies.

            These decisions will weed out certain animals, making the selection process easier. You may even conclude that you need a cat in your life rather than a dog. Cats value their time alone. They have different needs.

            Educate yourself about breeds. Dogs and cats have been bred for centuries to have specific characteristics or traits, which will manifest themselves to different degrees, despite the mixed ancestry of crossbreeds. Donít be guided by the all-too-prevalent myths about dogs: pit bulls are not inherently vicious (although some of their owners might be); greyhounds are not born to run. Indeed, pit bulls are not for everyone, but they are extremely intelligent and loyal, while greyhounds are couch potatoes and make ideal pets. If you live in the country, you might consider a herding breed, otherwise your Border collie, cattle dog, or Australian shepherd might start nipping at the heels of joggers in the park.

            If you are a person who knows dogs and you have your heart set on a Saluki or a borzoi (two breeds among many that are unusual to find in a shelter), call their rescue groups. (They can usually be contacted through the Internet or your local shelter.) If you want a puppy and none are available, you either have to put your name on a list or consider going to a breeder.

            My friend Ernie, who loves his basset hound, Sugar Ray, as if he were his son, recently asked me if I thought it was immoral to get a dog from a breeder. Not exactly. I think it is immoral for breeders to breed dogs like chickens and send them off through the mail or in substandard vehicles to pet stores. The problem is that most breeders produce more dogs than they can sell either out of their homes or to pet stores. They frequently keep dozens of dogs who live out their lives in small cages. When breeding is motivated by profit, animals suffer.

            There are also far too many individual dog owners who breed their pets out of a combination of love and ignorance. They do not know whatís in the bloodline, how to pick a proper mate for their dog, or the procedures for carefully placing the offspring. These are the folks who put their ads in the paper when they canít get rid of the puppies by word of mouth. Obviously there are some quality humane breeders around who do not produce an overabundance of litters. Why would they, when there are millions of unwanted animals in shelters?

            Most people just want affectionate pets, and for that, mixed breeds are

every bit as goodósometimes betteróthan purebreds. Mixed breeds also come in all sizes, colors, shapes, and ages. There is no reason automatically to go to a breeder when shelters are euthanizing perfectly good pets.

            People stay away from shelters because they assume they are dirty and noisy. But Columbia-Greene, for instance, is cleaner than many pet stores I have visited in New York City. Nevertheless, shelters house more animals than stores, and the environment in the kennels is geared to the animals, not the shopper. There is no reason for a shelter to stink unless the kennel workers are not doing their job. But you must prepare yourself for the noise. Shelter dogs tend to bark constantly, largely to keep from going crazy with boredom. If one barks, usually they all go off. Donít penalize them for acting like dogs.

            Selecting an animal from a shelter can actually be an educational experience. If they can, staff members will spend time with adopters, discussing the pluses and minuses of individual animals, their breeds, and histories. People have specific needs from animals and often attach sentimental value to breeds. Some people like Labs better than retrievers or have a special fondness for hounds. For others, selecting a dog that doesnít shed (usually anything with poodle or terrier in the mix) is the goal.

            People are frequently searching for watchdogs, but virtually any dog, once it is part of a family, will become protective; they almost all bark when strangers show up. Still, submissives will lick an intruder to death rather than go for the jugular. If you really want to make sure your jewels are safe, go for a dominant breed like a shepherd, Doberman, or rottweiler. Itís not that these dogs are aggressive but that burglars will incorrectly assume they are. Bear in mind that owning a dominant breed dog may drive up your liability insurance. These dogs also need consistent training.

            Many families are just looking for a pooch who will be good with children. If you have kids under ten, ask the shelter for a list of available dogs who are child-friendly. Dominant breeds, as well as dalmatians, cocker spaniels, and small terriers, tend to prefer adults unless they have been successfully raised with kids.

            What size pet should you get? If you live in a small city apartment with no open space to run a dog, donít bring home a Saint Bernard or any dog who needs a great deal of exercise. All dogs need some exercise, but smaller breeds require less space to do it in. If you live in a five-story walk-up, forget about basset hounds or any heavy dog with very short legs; they have enough trouble scooting along on flat surfaces.

            In every shelter, you will meet animals who show signs of having been abused. Typically, these dogs are withdrawn and hand-shy; that is, they dash away or duck when you reach out to them. Some need extra coaxing before they will even approach you, but these are often minor behavioral problems that can be corrected. As soon as the animals are convinced that you wonít hurt them, they will begin to trust you. Other problems are shelter-specific. Stress, changes in diet, or even the chemicals used to clean the kennels can cause rashes, hair loss, or hyperactivity. Itís always a good idea to consult the expertsóvets and trainersó but all these conditions should disappear when the animal leaves the shelter. Sometimes the dogs who are most stressed out are the most relaxed once they are out of the pound.

            Before you walk through the kennel, encourage the staff to suggest particular animals whom they think you might want. Often, people come to find a particular kind of dog or cat but end up falling in love with a completely different type because the staff pointed them in a new direction. People who lose their pets come through shelters hoping to find one who looks exactly the same as their old one. Sometimes they find such an animal, but frequently they are motivated by grief and are not really ready for a new pet. Find out what services the shelter offers; grief counseling can make a difference when that inevitable day comes and your pet dies.

            Never judge an animal in a cage. Both cats and dogs are different behind bars and infinitely more congenial once they are free. Take the dog for a walk, preferably outside, before making a final decision. Shelter dogs have a tendency to be hyper and excited by visitors. They may jump all over you, but that doesnít necessarily mean that the dog has a frantic disposition. Give the dog some exercise. A walk will tire the dog out a little, which will help him or her to relax. Afterward find somewhere to rest, and try to get the dog to sit and calm down. If the dog is distracted and wonít settleódonít worry. The dog lives in a cage and is already starting to worry about when you are going to put him or her back into it.

            The more time you spend with an animal, the more that animal will begin to respond to you. Be patient. Try to get the dog to look you in the eye; talk to the dog and massage him or her behind the ears and on the back (they love to be rubbed). If you have time, ask the shelter for a brush and do some grooming; this is a great way to get to know an animal. Some dogs will bond with you immediately, while others need more reassurance. Dogs do not forget people. Come back and visit a second time, and the dog should be noticeably more responsive. Once they get home and begin to feel safe, they really start to unwind.

            Some shelters have small visitation rooms where adopters can get to know the cats. Never grab a cat or chase after one; let the cat come to you. I have seen the most hissy felines turn into affectionate creatures once they are allowed some independence. Cats can be leery of strangers. Many have also gone through rough stray periods prior to ending up in shelters. Some want to be handled and will purr with happiness the minute they are held, but others are more standoffish. Some people prefer independent personalities; others want cuddlers.

            Shelters have purebred and mixed breed cats, although most staffers are not trained to identify them. Do some research. Cats, like dogs, have different characteristics and needs based on their genetics. Siamese can be constant talkers; Persians may need to have their faces washed. Some longhairs require grooming, while many can do this job for themselves.  If you have a declawed cat at home, ask the shelter if there are others available. Bringing home a cat with nails puts your declawed one at risk. (Donít let declawed cats outside; most of them canít get up trees to escape predators.) Some shelters reject adopters who intend to surgically remove a catís nails; certain veterinarians also consider the operation to be inhumane. People donít realize that they can clip a catís nails with their own personal clippersónot too short, however, or you will draw blood. Cats usually donít appreciate this process, but they can be trained to accept it as part of their routine. There shouldnít be any need to declaw if you get a good scratching post and rub catnip all over it. Moreover, declawed cats often start to bite. Their teeth are their only weapons.

            Shelters have all kinds of cats, with or without nails. If you have no other pet at home, consider adopting two cats; they are happiest with company and endlessly entertaining when they play. Also, contrary to conventional wisdom, dogs and cats do not detest one another: they often get along quite well. Tibbs, my cat, is nuts about Tramp, and they play together constantly.  (Snowy, however, is indifferent to the species.)

Find out what vaccines the shelter has given the animals. If you have other cats at home, you donít want to bring one in with feline leukemia. Expect minor health problems that might have been overlooked when you first take home a cat or a dog. There is no reason not to adopt an animal with a treatable illness, like a cold. Many shelters will send animals home with appropriate medications.

            Get as much information from the shelter as possible about the history of the cat or dog whom you want to adopt. If none is available (largely because the shelter screwed up and failed to get adequate information from the previous owner), ask if it is possible for anyone to make further inquiries. Employees may consider this request to be beyond the call of duty. If youíre lucky, someone will take the time to make a phone call and get some information. (Shelters will notóand should notógive out a surrendererís name to an adopter.) If the animal came in stray, talk directly to the kennel workers who have been caring for him or her. They frequently know the cats and dogs more intimately than the adoption counselors do. Donít be leery of strays. They often turn out to be the most even-tempered animals in residence.

            People do not realize that all kinds of animals, apart from cats and dogs, are also available at shelters. It is common to find birds, snakes, ferrets, pigs, and a variety of rodents, including mice, rats, guinea pigs, and hamsters. In rural areas, homes for horses, cows, sheep, chickens, and goats are needed. In New York Cityís shelter, I have met monkeys, squirrels, seagulls, turtles, and iguanas. Let your local shelter know if you can offer a home to one of the more unusual pets. Many facilities keep lists of people who are looking for specific creatures. When the phone rings, and it is a shelter employee calling about that parrot youíve been waiting for, or maybe the mature papillon, it is thrilling to answer, ďIíll be right over.Ē

            If your local shelter is less than an ideal place for animalsógo there anyway. Many impoverished facilities are staffed with minimum wage employees who work hard but have little interest in animals. Remind yourself that the animals are not responsible for their predicament. Moreover, they are counting on you to find them and take them home.


From the book, Lost and Found: Dog, Cats, and Everyday Heroes at a Country Animal Shelter. Copyright © 1998 by Elizabeth Hess, published by Harcourt, Inc. and reproduced with permission. All rights reserved. $13. Available in local bookstores or click here.