10 Things About Adopting a Shelter/Rescue Pet (in the United States)

In December, my family had to say goodbye to our dearly loved Boxer. His name was Major and he was 11, almost 12. That’s pretty elderly for his breed, but it was actually a ridiculously aggressive form of bone cancer that took him from us. It was hard for all of us, but watching my 7-year-old react nearly did me in. We’d had Major since before he was born and that dog was his very first best friend. He cried. Bawled. And so did the rest of us. The last night Major was with us, my son refused to stop petting him to go to bed because he knew what the next day would bring. I couldn’t blame him. After the kids were in bed, my husband and I took turns doing the same thing. The next morning, even the vet tried to comfort us. I’m not a hugger, but one of the vet techs at our vet’s office has known us for years. She came in and hugged me. I let her. She was crying almost as much as we were.

We were blessed to have Major as part of our family for over 10 years. We adopted him from a local rescue organization. He was one of the first pets they took in as the head of the organization was just getting things started. You want to know some interesting things about my wonderful rescue dog? We adopted him when he was only one year old. He was already crate trained, house broken, and new several commands. We knew his birthday. He was up to date on vaccinations and neutered. All things that saved us time, money, and a lot of work. He was amazing. He was never aggressive to us or the kids, he was a big ol’ snuggle puppy. He was 75 lbs of wannabe lap dog. We let him be. Fuzz therapy is real. Snuggling with a dog and petting their fur is good for the soul.

You’re thinking, Only if all rescue dogs were that great. Spoiler alert: a LOT of them are. Seriously. We’ve taken time to grieve. We still miss our furry friend, don’t get me wrong, but there is an emptiness to our house without a dog here. And that’s saying something during a pandemic when all of us are home ALL. THE. TIME. We weren’t entirely sure we were ready for another dog, but we’ve kept in touch with the woman who runs the rescue that got us Major. She was in desperate need of an emergency foster for the last week so she could take in a dog from an animal cruelty case. If she didn’t, the local shelter might have put him down because they had no room to take him in. We said we’d foster him.

He was only with us for a week, but wow he did a lot to help heal our hearts. He was part of a neglect case. You’d think he’d have some behavioral problems, but he was the one of the sweetest, most loving dogs I’ve ever met. He had zero behavioral issues. He was about 18 months old, picked up on the concept of house training and crate training in a snap, was completely in love with our kids, gentle as could be, and his only desire was to be allowed to be near you. Well, not just near. Touching. It was like he didn’t believe we were all real. We even taught him how to play with toys. He didn’t understand the concept at first, but wow did he really enjoy it once he figured out he was allowed to have them. He already has a permanent family waiting on him. He left our house to go get neutered (a requirement of the rescue before they’ll allow adoption) and then on to his forever family! Interesting thing: He was a Pit Mix. A lot of people fear pit bulls. But pit bull itself isn’t a breed. It’s a group of breeds that look very much alike and are much maligned. There was not a mean or aggressive bone in that dog’s whole body, which is actually more commonly true of “pit bulls” than most breeds their size.

If the things I’ve told you about Major and Mojo (the foster dog) don’t seem to line up with the things you think about shelter/rescue dogs, you’re not alone. A lot of people don’t know just how great a shelter/rescue dog can be. While this month’s post may not help much with world building (unless you’re writing a rom com about people who meet up while volunteering with a rescue or shelter–which I WOULD TOTALLY READ SO PLEASE LET ME BE A BETA FOR YOU), hopefully it will help shine a light on some often overlooked darlings.

10 Things You Might Not Know About Adopting a Shelter/Rescue Pet (in the U.S. because stats, laws, and populations are different in different countries).

  1. Approximately 6.5 million pets enter U.S. shelters every year. Anywhere from 1.5 million to 2.7 million end up being euthanized. Some for health reasons, but some because there is just no place for them to be. It’s not fair, it’s not easy, and even the shelter employees wish is wasn’t true.
  2. Almost 35% of people looking to adopt a cat or dog still turn to breeders first. There is nothing wrong with a *reputable* breeder, but sadly, not every breeder is, in fact, reputable. All this while nearly 7 million pets enter shelters annually just begging for a home–and at the cost of roughly $2 Billion in taxpayer dollars.
  3. People might go to a breeder because they want a pure bred dog. Great! Up to 30% of shelter animals are pure bred. People might avoid a shelter because they are afraid of unforeseen, costly health issues. However, due to the nature of the shelter system, every dog has to be given a full medical evaluation upon intake. That means, you’re actually just as likely to be up to speed about a shelter dog’s medical needs as you are a breeder’s dog (more so if the breeder isn’t entirely forthcoming).
  4. About half of the animals that enter the shelter system each year are adopted. Nearly 750,000 dogs and 620,000 cats are returned to their rightful owner after entering the shelter while being lost. Many more come in wearing collars but no identification tags or microchips.
  5. The most common reason cited for owner surrender of a pet is their behavior. Most (not all) of the reasons are the fault of poor training, not actual pet behavior issues. The most common time for owner surrenders is January-March. Families buy a pet for Christmas without really knowing what they’re getting into and end up giving up the pet before St. Patrick’s Day.
  6. The average age of a shelter dog is 18 months. Yes, there are some older and some younger, but nationwide the average is a year and a half. The good news for a potential adopter is that 18 months is out of the puppy chewing phase, and into adolescence. They’ll play and have derpy fun with you, they’re still pretty easy to train, and they won’t destroy your shoes. Although, full disclosure on that last part, Major would sometimes hide my shoes from me because he didn’t want me to leave the house without him. He didn’t hide my walking shoes, only the shoes I wore to work/church/etc. He never destroyed a single one, but he would hide them around the house.
  7. Scientific studies show that pet ownership is good for your health! Pet owners often have a longer life span than their non-pet owning counterparts. And I told you Fuzz Therapy is real. Studies have shown that petting an animal is good for your mental health. And shelter/rescue dogs usually LOVE people and being petted. They’re individuals, so there are definitely exceptions, but most of them are desperate to be loved.
  8. Most shelters/rescues have rules about spaying/neutering so that by the time a dog is adopted that’s already taken care of. One less expense for the new owner. They’ll also often go ahead and get the animal’s vaccines up to date. And most rescue dogs that spend time with foster families are pretty well trained by the time they get adopted out too. You might miss out on the super fluffy puppy stage, but wow is it ever hassle free.
  9. Adopting a dog from a shelter or rescue is often cheaper than buying from a breeder. There are still fees involved, but often hundreds less than from a breeder. And please, NEVER, EVER BUY A DOG OR CAT FROM A PET STORE. Those are more often than not (as in, almost always) puppy/kitty mill pets. They are bred in horrible conditions just to make a quick buck. So unless, it’s an adoption event that’s part of a partnership with a local shelter or rescue (that does happen and they are great!), don’t buy a dog or cat from a pet store. Many municipalities, counties, or even entire states are starting to pass laws against the sale of animals directly from a pet store (this would not affect shelter/rescue events), but not all. A town to the north of me just experienced weeks of protests to start the process of passing legislation against it when a pet store notorious for such practices tried to move in. The protestors are winning the battle for now, but it’s too early to give up the fight.
  10. If you can’t afford to spay/neuter or microchip your pet and that’s what’s keeping you from bringing an animal home, talk to your local shelter/rescue. They often know of events to help low income households get such services done for discounted prices. For instance, there is a clinic in my metro area that a few times a year holds an event for low income families to get their pets spayed/neutered for only $35. I know of several that do microchip clinics for $20. However, if money is an issue, I do suggest to talk to the shelter/rescue about the food costs for the specific pet you’re curious about. They can help give you a better idea of what you should expect to spend every month. And there are even pet insurance companies now, so if you’re worried about your pet needing emergency care that you can’t afford, the pet insurance company pays up front and you pay them over time (yes, there is often some sort of interest involved).

Having another dog in our home, even for a short while, definitely helped our hearts start to heal. We’re already talking to the rescue about taking in another dog, this one on a permanent basis. The rescue currently has a one-year-old Rottweiler (the type of dog I had as a child) female who is looking for a home. We met her and I love her. The kids love her. My husband loves her. She is gentle with my youngest son, she plays with my oldest son. She’s energetic and sweet. And hopefully she’ll be ours in about two weeks. She is already house broken and crate trained. She knows basic commands. Her foster home has kids and other pets, so we know she’s been well socialized and gets along well with others. Why was such a sweet baby surrendered? She was hit by a car and her previous owner didn’t want to pay for her surgery (not couldn’t–didn’t want to). So the rescue took her in. She’s been through the surgery and is doing WONDERFULLY. The orthopedic vet specialist says she is looking great. She’s healthy as can be, spayed, up to date on vaccines, and after her next check-up, she’ll come home to us. Forever.

I’m not saying in all this that buying a dog from a reputable breeder is a bad thing. I’ve had dogs from breeders before. But after my experience with Major, I know just how amazing shelter pets can be. Mojo reinforced that. And soon, Elsie the Rottweiler will too. So there is a special place in my heart for shelter/rescue dogs.

After all, love is a four-legged word.

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