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How to adopt a pet: a step-by-step guide

If you’re a first-time pet adopter, there’s no need to stress! Here’s what you should know in order to adopt the right pet for you.

Deciding it’s time to bring a furry family member into the fold is incredibly exciting … and a bit overwhelming sometimes. You want to make sure that you’re adopting the right pet, the right way … right? Here’s the good news: With a little research and know-how, you can make sure you, your family and your new pet are all prepped and ready for this exciting transition. Here's what you need to know when getting ready to adopt a pet.

Make sure you’re really ready to adopt a pet

There’s no way around the reality: Adopting a pet is a commitment and an adjustment. If you adopt a puppy or kitten, you’re essentially committing to 10 or even 20 years with your new companion. That’s not a decision to take lightly! So if you’ve been kicking around the idea of adding a pet to your life, Katie Hamlin, an employee with the Oregon Humane Society, suggests asking yourself the following questions: 

●  Am I ready for a years-long commitment?

●  How much spare time do I have for a pet?

●  Can I financially afford to care for a pet?

●  Is my living situation conducive to having a pet?

●  What if something happens? Do I have a backup plan for a pet I can no longer take care of?

●  Am I ready for my lifestyle to change (sometimes dramatically)?

●  Do I have a plan for introducing a new pet to children and/or pets already in the home?

 You may think these questions are a little stern, but adding a pet to your life requires time, money and a long-term commitment. It’s not something to take lightly. 

“Remind yourself that pets are a commitment and require daily care. Make a plan to start your search on a specific date and be willing to meet with many different animals until you find one best suited for you,” Hamlin emphasizes. 

Because, as cute as that English Bulldog puppy is, if he ends up having health issues, he (and you) are going to be in a world of hurt if you can’t afford to pay for vet appointments and medications.

Prep your home for the pet you plan to adopt

If you know you’re going to adopt a puppy or a kitten (or a dog, cat, hamster or rabbit, for that matter), it’s best to make sure your house is set up before you bring your new pet home. Think about where you want your pet to have access, and what spaces you may want to remain pet-free. Purchase and set up gates to limit access to the areas that are not pet-friendly. And, of course, go ahead and do a supply run to make sure you have the most important resources on hand. 

“Food, dishes for food and water, toys, leashes, treats and a kennel, are all things you might want to purchase in advance,” Hamlin says. If you’re bringing home a cat, don’t forget the litter box and kitty litter too.

 Also, if you know you’re going to complete your adoption on a particular day, think about how you plan to make your new pet feel comfortable in a new environment. 

“If you’re able, taking the day off [of work] the following day is ideal to help begin a routine for your new furry family member,” says Director of Operations at Brandywine Valley SPCA Walt Fenstermacher. “If you’re bringing home a new pet in addition to ones that are already in the home, you’ll want to consider giving the new cat or dog their own space to ensure a slow intro for cats and dogs new to each other. For instance, when bringing a new cat home, give them their own room that has all their essentials to ensure a slow introduction to resident pets.”

Crates are great safe spaces for dogs, too. Dr. Kwane Stewart, a practicing veterinarian and member of Fetch's Veterinary Advisory Board, explains how introducing your dog to their crate as soon as they come home can help them feel comfortable in it long-term.

RELATED: Brandywine Valley SPCA

Do your research to pick the right pet

Not all pets (and not all breeds) are suitable for all situations. As much as you may want a puppy, they may not be the right choice for you. If you work long hours, you may not have the time to make sure the puppy receives enough attention, walks, training and socialization. An older dog or a cat might be more appropriate.

Remember, there’s a big difference between the exercise needs of a pug and a border collie. If you’re not committed to taking your new pet on long walks, and you don’t have the space to allow him to run around, you may need to choose a pet or breed with lower physical activity needs. At the end of the day, it all comes down to research. 

“Use multiple sources to find out what behaviors, medical issues and exercise requirements a particular breed or breed mix may have,” Hamlin says.

And of course, if you’re adopting a pet from a shelter, you likely won’t know which pets are guaranteed to be available until you show up to meet them (most shelters practice a first-come, first-serve adoption method that doesn’t guarantee a pet’s availability without a paid adoption fee.). As such, it’s important all the people who’ll be living with the pet are present to meet the different options available. 

“Bringing the whole family, specifically young kids and other dogs to the shelter for a meeting is a good place to start to get a feel for how you [and the potential pet] gel,” says Fenstermacher.

Ask what comes with the adoption fee

Depending on the shelter or location that you’re adopting your pet from, you may be provided with a number of services before taking your pet home. For instance, Fenstermacher states that at the Brandywine Valley SPCA (and many other Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals [SPCA] shelters and Humane Societies), adoption fees include spaying or neutering, providing current vaccinations, microchipping and a free follow-up exam at the facility’s health center. For these reasons, adoption fees may be a little more than you were expecting.

“Price of adoption can sometimes be an initial surprise to adopters, but it quickly turns into a happy shock when they realize all that’s included with our adoption fee,” Fenstermacher says. “When you adopt a shelter dog or cat, the animal comes spayed or neutered, microchipped, up-to-date on vaccines, treated for internal and external parasites and we even give them a bag of food to get started.”

That said, if you’re adopting a pet from a high-turnover municipal shelter, few-to-no services may be provided. As such, adoption fees might be comparatively lower. Just be sure you know what you’re getting (or not getting) when you take your new pet home.

Begin the adoption process

Generally speaking, when you’ve made your adoption choice, the process is fairly straightforward. You’ll likely have to fill out some paperwork and if you rent a home or apartment, you may have to provide proof that you’re allowed to have a pet in your home. There’s typically a fee that you’ll have to pay (which may be higher if you’re adopting a puppy, kitten or small breed animal, as these tend to be adopted more quickly than larger, older pets) and you may have to commit (or wait) for the animal to be spayed or neutered before you can take them home.

“One thing many people don’t take into account is a vet visit,” says Hamlin. “Shelter animals still need to get established with a veterinarian and that can cost at least $50-$100 or more.”

It’s also important to understand that the adoption process may vary based on where you live. In areas with high adoption rates, adoption may be highly competitive, and you may “lose out” on an animal you want because someone else put in an application first. On the other hand, you may be surprised at how quickly the process can take — in areas with lower adoption rates, shelters may be pressed for space and eager to adopt out the animals they’re supporting.

Take your pet home and start bonding

Once you’ve gone through the adoption process, the real fun begins: You get to take your pet home! Just remember, this transition is likely to come with a few bumps in the road for you and your new friend. 

“Pets are another living being occupying your living space. They have individual personalities that often won’t mirror our expectations of having a pet. Before moving forward with adopting a pet, take your time — don’t be in a hurry. Find the pet that’s a good fit and that you’re excited about,” says Hamlin. This will help ensure that it’s a good lifelong decision for you and your pet.

The Dig, Fetch Pet Insurance's expert-backed editorial, answers all of the questions you forget to ask your vet or are too embarrassed to ask at the dog park. We help make sure you and your best friend have more good days, but we’re there on bad days, too.

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