Seeking Shelter: Finding and Using Animal Shelters

Love Dog
In This Chapter
  • Looking at the different types of animal shelters and what they do
  • Finding and recognizing a great animal shelter
  • Assessing potential pets
  • Questioning the shelter about policies, procedures, and pets
  • Gathering all the information and documentation you need

Animal shelters do a great service for people and animals. Many communities have animal shelters, and some may even have several, but unfortunately, not every community has one. If you have an animal shelter in your community, consider yourself lucky! If not, local police routinely are relied upon to take care of animal-control issues. Regardless of whether they’re run by the city or county or privately operated and funded via donations, animal shelters serve an important function. They take in the pets that people don’t want — the strays wandering through the streets or countryside — and the lost pets whose owners are frantically seeking them.

A shelter is a great place to go if you want to adopt a pet, but you can’t just waltz into most shelters and waltz out with a new puppy, kitten, parrot, or iguana. Shelter workers have seen up close what can happen when people buy or adopt pets on impulse. Those pets often end up right back at the shelter, and as a result many animal shelters have instituted strict rules about adoption.
Shelters usually have a multistep process for adopting a pet. They need certain information from you, and you also need to get certain information from the shelter. Not all shelters are the same; their procedures vary and so do the quality of the facility and the knowledge of the staff.
This chapter is your roadmap to the pet adoption process through an animal shelter. In it you’ll find information about:
  • How shelters work.
  • What to expect when you try to adopt a pet from a shelter.
  • What you need to take with you to a shelter adoption.
  • What questions to ask before adopting a pet through a shelter. I provide a similar list of questions on the handy Cheat Sheet at the front of this book. Tear it out and take it with you for quick reference.

Many people find the pets of their dreams from their local shelters, but many others encounter only regrettable circumstances and situations, so you need to be prepared and know what you’re doing. Start here.

Animal Shelters Explained

Animal shelters come in two basic forms:
  • Animal control agencies run by local government designed to protect people from animals, take in strays, and manage animal issues and problems within the community.
  • Humane societies and other privately run shelters that are founded and managed by individuals who want to protect animals, advocate for animals, and find homes for animals that need them.

In general, both types of animal shelters do the same things; they take in animals without homes, arrange for adoptions, sometimes euthanize animals that cannot be adopted, and often rehabilitate animals to make them more adoptable by providing healthcare, spaying or neutering them, and working with them to socialize and train them. Not only do animal shelters provide you with a place to find pets that need new homes or look for your lost pet, but they also manage animal control issues where you live.

Animal shelters often work in conjunction with rescue groups that specialize in providing homes to specific kinds or even specific breeds of pets. These rescue groups often are better equipped for finding a home for purebred dogs or cats or less-common shelter animals like parrots or snakes, because they specialize in the unique needs of these animals and have more extensive connections and resources to find homes for their particular types of animals. (For more about rescue groups, see Chapter Rescue Me! All About Pet Rescue Groups.)
Most of the animals at typical shelters are dogs and cats, but they often accept other small animals like ferrets, rabbits, birds, reptiles, and other exotic animals. These less common animals usually come to the shelter not as wandering strays, but rather because their previous owners bought them on a whim without first researching what was involved in caring for them. These animals suddenly are left without homes through no fault of their own.
Some shelters are privately funded in communities that support them, even though they’re under the control of local government. Some have nice new facilities with plenty of donated food and toys and actively advertised adoption programs. Some employ trainers and veterinarians so that every incoming animal is screened, health-checked, and socialized. Some shelters have obedience-training programs for dogs to make them more adoptable, and they carefully screen pet behavior to determine how suitable each animal is for adoption.
Not all shelters, however, are so well equipped. In some areas, shelters are so overworked, understaffed, and depleted of resources that they can’t give pets the best of care, let alone evaluate each individual animal to get a good idea of its adoption potential. Many shelters constantly deal with a lack of funding. Running a shelter takes a lot of know-how, from running a business and advertising to being a savvy accountant and business manager. Shelter work is a difficult business to be in, and yet shelters offer an invaluable service to their communities. The people who work at shelters serve pet owners and pets, often purely on a volunteer basis. (If that isn’t reason enough to remember the local shelter at holiday giving time, I don’t know what is!)
What is your local shelter like? The best way to tell is to visit, check it out, look at the animals, and ask questions before deciding to adopt. You can find out a lot about a shelter just by looking.
Thinking twice about the success of shelters

Many people refuse to visit animal shelters because they find it too sad or depressing. They shouldn’t feel so bad because so many lucky animals are saved from a dangerous life on the streets, where they’re at risk of traffic accidents, attack by other animals or humans, and subject to the elements. Many lost pets likewise are found and reclaimed by distraught owners simply because they were brought into animal shelters. Most important, adoptable pets find homes, and sick or dangerous animals are humanely relieved of their suffering.
Many people also think animal shelter employees are somehow the bad guys. If your average shelter employee had a nickel for every time somebody said, “I could never do your job. I love animals too much,” that employee probably would want to chuck those nickels right back at the unthinking visitors. Shelter workers have tough
jobs full of heartbreak and loss, but they do it because they are the ones who love animals “too much.” Volunteer at your local shelter to see what I mean. Need more proof? Did you know that:
  • 18 percent of pet dogs in the United States are adopted from animal shelters.
  • 16 percent of pet cats in the United States are adopted from animal shelters.
  • About half the dogs and cats that come into animal shelters each year are adopted — hurrah! Of course, sadly, the other half must be euthanized because they either were not adoptable or nobody decided to adopt them.
Shelters are great places to find a pet to adopt, even if you’re looking for a purebred dog. Between 25 percent and 30 percent of the dogs taken in by shelters are purebred.
Exploring what no-kill shelters offer

Some animal shelters advertise as “no-kill” shelters, meaning they do not euthanize animals. Although the idea of a no-kill shelter working hard to place every animal it accepts may sound like a worthy one, the downside is that no-kill shelters accept only animals that are deemed adoptable. Animal shelters — usually those run by local government — accept all animals, and that means they sometimes have to euthanize
the ones that are not adoptable because of severe health or behavior problems. All shelters try their best to adopt out the animals that will make good pets; however, many animals suffer from abuse or abandonment, become lost, or are allowed to stray and may no longer be adoptable. At least animal shelters take them in and ease or eliminate their suffering.
A shelter is a great place to adopt a pet, and I almost always recommend people look at the shelter first before choosing or buying a pet from another source. But adopting an animal companion from a shelter isn’t for everyone, and you definitely need to consider the pros and cons that follow before you decide whether a shelter is the right place for you to adopt your pet.

Shelter pros

A few of the wonderful reasons for adopting a pet from a shelter (and sometimes a rescue group — see Chapter Rescue Me! All About Pet Rescue Groups), as opposed to buying one from a pet store or a breeder, are that you can
  • Save one of the millions of animals that are euthanized in shelters every year. When you adopt a shelter animal, you give one of these adoptable pets a second chance at a new, healthy life and a happy home.
  • Discover that the pet you thought you wanted isn’t the one you need. An in-need shelter pet may be a much better fit for you — for example, you may think you want a puppy but discover that an older dog is calmer, better trained, and more bonded to you.
  • Pay less for your pet. Adoption fees typically are far below what pet stores charge.
  • Find out more about your new pet than you can from a pet store. Responsible shelters provide you with plenty of care information, support, temperament evaluation, and more.
  • Get more specific information about a shelter animal from shelter workers. Talk to the people who have been spending time with the pet to find out about what the animal is like and what he needs.
  • Feel good about contributing to and supporting a process that supports the welfare and management of stray animals in your community. You can get involved with the process in many ways, from adopting pets to donating money to volunteering your time. In fact, most shelters include many volunteers on their staffs, solicit donations, and conduct fundraisers. They often need your help. In fact, humane societies and privately run shelters usually depend almost entirely on donations and volunteers.
  • Find a lost pet. Shelters often are responsible for reuniting lost pets with their owners.
  • Give up an animal that you’ve found or that you’re unable to keep. If, for some unfortunate reason, you’re unable to keep a pet, you can turn it over to (or return it to) the shelter. If a stray wonders into your life, you can turn it over to the shelter — and maybe later adopt it.


Some shelter pets have special needs, and if you’re willing to manage those needs, you can save a pet that otherwise may not find a home — and that feels great.

Shelter cons

I can’t think of many cons to adopting a pet from a responsible shelter that properly screens potential pets for health and temperament and works hard to match pets and owners appropriately, but a few downsides to adopting a pet from a shelter can be problematic for you. You need to think carefully before adopting a pet from a shelter because:
  • You’re unable to find the exact kind of pet you want.
  • You’re unable to adopt the pet you want immediately. Shelters often must adhere to a waiting period so you don’t rush into a decision and so pet owners have time to reclaim any incoming animals that may be lost.
  • You’re faced with answering a lot of personal questions and submitting a lot of paperwork.
  • Shelters aren’t always rolling in dough. Just because the government funds an animal-control agency doesn’t mean it’s getting everything it needs. Some shelters are underfunded and may not be able to maintain spacious facilities or spend much time screening or training the animals. Most shelters do all they can with the resources they have, but all too often, those resources are pretty slim.
  • Your new pet may turn out much different than you expected. When you bring any animal home, you may find it’s much different than it appeared to be at the shelter.
  • Some shelter pets have special needs that you may not be willing to deal with.
  • You may be rejected for the pet you want if you don’t meet the shelter’s requirements.

Finding a Great Shelter Near You

Great shelters are not usually hard to find. Many cities and towns have excellent animal sheltering facilities that work hard to pair the right pets with the right people. Where do you find a reputable shelter? Even if you don’t have one in your immediate vicinity, you may have one nearer than you think. You just need to know where to look.


Sometimes the only nearby shelter is in great need of funds, volunteers, and resources, one that may not be able to provide careful screening, microchip identification, spay/neuter services, or even veterinary checkups before an adoption. These shelters may be busy, hurried, and so stressed that they may even let you walk in and walk right back out with a pet. That doesn’t mean you shouldn’t adopt a pet from such a shelter; animals in low-budget shelters with little staff aren’t any better or worse than the animals in sufficiently funded and staffed shelters. You simply may not be able to find out as much about the animal, and that means you need to be extra vigilant in choosing an animal that’s right for you. If the animal turns out to have an insurmountable problem, you may have to return it. However, with the know-how you’re getting from this book, you can choose an animal that works in your situation. See the “Checking out the facility” section later in this chapter for help with adopting a pet from a less-than-perfect shelter.

Checking the Yellow Pages and Internet

“Letting your fingers do the walking” is the first step to finding a shelter near you. Look in the phone book under “Animal Shelter” or “Humane Society,” or check under city or county government sections for “Animal Control.” Doing so provides you with a link to your local animal control agency, but it may not be your only option.
One great thing about the Internet is the way it has facilitated pet adoptions. Several excellent Web sites link shelters across the country and quickly let you know exactly what shelters and rescue groups exist in your city, state, or region. Using these sites, you can search online to find out what pets are available anywhere in the country. You can search by species and breed, and some sites even have pictures and descriptions of the animals, including whether they work well with children or other pets. This information can help you spot potential pets, which you can then meet in person, already armed with some basic knowledge.
Web sites are no substitute for an in-person visit, but they certainly let you know what’s out there. They even put you into contact with other nearby shelters that you otherwise may never have found. These sites often list animal-control shelters, privately run shelters, and rescue groups. Finding the perfect pet may be worth a day trip. Here are comprehensive Web sites designed to put you in contact with shelters near you:

Rounding up recommendations

Another great way to find a good shelter is by asking friends, co-workers, or local animal-care professionals — pet sitters, doggy day-care owners, and groomers — what they know about local shelters. They often can recommend the best places to adopt pets or share with you their own experiences with different local or regional shelters. If you already have a shelter in mind, talk to people who have adopted pets there, and if you can find them, talk to people who have been denied adoptions. These people may not be happy about their experiences, but if the shelter denies someone who didn’t have the right environment or situation to adopt a particular kind of pet, that actually is a positive sign that the shelter is keeping the best interest of the animals in mind.
If you don’t know of anyone who adopted from a particular shelter, the shelter should be able to provide references or put you in touch with someone who has. Checking these references can be especially helpful when you’re adopting from a shelter in a different town or city. Other sources to consult for more recommendations about or background on a shelter include:
  • Local veterinarians. Vets in the area have probably met and treated animals adopted from local shelters. They may have special insight into the way particular shelters handle the health of their animals. Although they may or may not like the shelter’s procedures, vets may also have good insight into the health and temperament of some of the animals people have adopted from local shelters.
  • Local dog trainers. Dog trainers, especially the ones who teach basic obedience courses, have probably seen many of the pets coming from shelters and may have a unique perspective on the way shelters assess adoptability and behavior.
  • Pet stores that don’t sell cats and dogs. These stores have probably sold pet supplies to many people who have just adopted a pet from the shelter. Some pet stores work in conjunction with local shelters, even sponsoring shelter animal adoption events. Pet stores may have information about and be able to recommend shelters.
Your shelter needs you
Animal shelters are notoriously understaffed and underfunded, and many of them rely on volunteers to keep doing the good work they do. Are you one of those volunteers? Volunteering at your local shelter is one of the best ways to understand how shelters work, to make a significant contribution to animal welfare, and to meet many potentially adoptable pets. Shelters need people to walk dogs, play with cats, feed and water animals, even apprentice as dog trainers. People with special knowledge about
small animals, birds, or exotics may be in demand to help out with these less common pets, and people interested in exotic pets may find shelters the perfect place to find out about them before adopting. You can feel good about making a difference in your community while helping animals. In addition, for people who want to adopt every stray dog and cat they meet, volunteering gives you an opportunity to get to know and spend time with many animals without the burden of bringing them all home.

Walking through the Adoption Process

After you locate an animal shelter or shelters near you, you can visit, have a look around, ask questions, look at the animals, and inquire about the adoption process. Every animal shelter is different, but most operate according to some basic principles. This section hooks you on a leash and walks you through the process so you know just what to look for and what to expect from the shelter.
Checking out the facility
When you first visit an animal shelter, you may want to make a beeline for the nearest kennel of puppies or kittens. Whoa, Nelly! Hold on a minute. You can tell a great deal about a shelter just by looking around a bit. Here are some signs that the shelter you’re checking out is a good one:
  • Animals are kept in clean, spacious, well-ventilated kennels.
  • Animals get time outside their kennels to go on walks or play in outdoor kennels.
  • The shelter offers adoption counseling to help you find the right match for your needs and situation.
  • The shelter employs or is affiliated with a local veterinarian, a local dog trainer, and a local animal-behavior consultant or veterinary behaviorist.
  • The shelter spays or neuters animals or gives adopters vouchers to have this service performed by a local vet at a reduced cost or even for free.
  • The shelter implants microchips in its pets for identification.
  • The shelter works on socializing and training or taming animals and evaluates temperament and behavior carefully to help make the best pet/owner match.

Before you adopt an animal from a shelter that doesn’t screen for behavior or provide veterinary care before adoption, be sure to:

  • Take any animal you may want to adopt to the vet before you take it home and before you sign any paperwork committing you to adopt the pet. Get clearance from your vet that the animal is healthy, in good shape, and free from diseases and parasites. This visit may be costly. Expect to pay for tests, vaccinations, dewormings, and treatment. If you decide not to adopt the animal, take copies of all the veterinary records back to the shelter and hand them over. You may be able to deduct the cost of the vet visit on your taxes as a charitable donation. Ask your accountant whether you can.
  • Spend several visits with the animal to get a better sense of its temperament. Pets need to act confident but not aggressive, and may act reserved but not overly shy or cowering. Extremely shy or aggressive pets can turn out to be even shyer or more aggressive when you get them home and they get used to you. On the other hand, sometimes shy or pushy animals calm down and settle into a new home nicely. These pets are stressed at the shelter but gain confidence and self-possession when they realize they have somewhere to stay. You need to realize that adopting a shelter animal comes with risks and that you’ll be adopting a pet with some unknowns.
  • Be careful about unscreened animals if you have children, live near children, or if children often visit your house. Don’t put your children or other children at risk.
  • Look for animals that appear healthy, with shiny eyes free of discharge, healthy skin, coats or feathers (if applicable) without bare patches, and without fleas, ticks, or mites.
  • Consider adopting a special needs pet. Even if an animal has health or temperament problems, you may decide to adopt it anyway. Only do so if you’re prepared to put in some serious time, money, and work rehabilitating the animal. The last thing such animals need is to think they have a home and then again be given up and returned to the shelter.

Looking at the pets

After you’ve had a look around the shelter and asked a few questions, you’ll be eager to look at the pets. Shelter workers expect this exuberance, so ask whether you can see the animals, and they will be happy to direct you to the kennels, cattery, or other facilities. Shelters typically are arranged with a front office and then rows of kennels housing the animals. Some have special rooms for pets that are being treated for medical problems or that need special care. Cats may be housed in an open cattery with cat trees and scratching posts;
less sociable felines may be in cages or crates. Other animals such as small mammals, birds, and reptiles, may be housed in the front office to draw attention to them or in separate rooms where potential adopters can go to look at them. If you’re interested in animals other than dogs or cats, ask the shelter workers whether they have such animals, and they’ll be glad to show you.


If you don’t see the kind of animal or breed you’re looking for at the shelter, don’t assume the shelter won’t get that animal or breed. Most shelters take in new animals all the time. Although some shelters don’t have time to keep lists of special requests and call people when those animals arrive, some shelters will oblige. You just have to ask. If you want a Chihuahua or a Persian or an Amazon Gray parrot, you may be able to get on a list to be notified when such a pet comes in and is made available for adoption. If the shelter doesn’t provide that kind of service, just keep visiting and looking. Your perfect pet probably will appear eventually. Or, look into breed rescue (see Chapter Rescue Me! All About Pet Rescue Groups).

Shelters usually have special rooms where you can take the pet out of its kennel, spend some one-on-one time, and have a great opportunity to get a closer look for signs of good health and pleasant and appropriate pet temperament (for more on assessing the health and temperament of individual pets, see Parts II through VI of this book on the different types of animals). These special rooms also give you a chance to interact with the pet to see whether you think it’s the kind that you’d like to live with.
Although you may think you know immediately what pet you want, give it some time, and come back for another visit or two. First impressions are often correct, but not always. Bring all your family members, and if possible, even your other pets. Let everyone get to know your potential pet before jumping into the adoption process.

Asking the right questions

After you’ve looked at some pets, you’ll want to find out more information about the shelter’s adoption process. That’s when you need to ask some serious questions. If you have a specific pet in mind that you think you may want to adopt, be sure to ask questions about that pet. Parts II through VI address different types of pets and can guide you in the kinds of questions to ask about a particular type of pet. Some general questions to ask about the shelter process include:
  • Do you have the pets spayed or neutered, or do you require that adopters spay or neuter the pets? If so, do you offer a voucher to have the procedure done locally at a discount?
  • Do you embed microchip identification in the animals? How much does this procedure cost?
  • What information and supplies do you provide with an adopted pet?
  • Can you recommend a good trainer or behavioral consultant?
  • What information and paperwork do you require from people who are adopting pets?
  • What are your adoption fees? Are there other costs involved?
  • Do you have other requirements that I must meet before I can adopt a pet?
If you receive agreeable answers to these questions, ask the shelter for a list of everything you need and everything you’re required to do, before you come back to adopt the animal. Most shelters require a certain amount of paperwork (see later section about “Sealing the Deal”), and they may require you to agree to do certain things after you take possession of the animal, such as having the animal spayed or neutered. Every shelter is different and should tell you without reservations what its specific requirements are.

Avoiding second thoughts: The waiting period

When you’re anxious and eager to bring home your new pet, the waiting period that many shelters require can be frustrating. Although you want your pet now, the waiting period is actually a good idea. Although not every shelter requires it, some shelters enforce a waiting period specifically to guard against impulse buys and buyer’s remorse.
People tend to get excited when they see a cute dog, cat, or exotic animal they’ve always dreamed of owning. In a frenzy to get that pet, people sometimes rush into a decision without really considering whether they’re ready to take on the responsibility. Waiting periods may be only a few hours or even up to a couple of days, but be patient and use the time wisely for what it is intended: to think seriously about whether you’re ready for the long-term commitment of adopting and caring for a pet . . . no matter how adorable. If you’re quite sure you want the pet, you may also use this time to collect the paperwork the shelter requires, prepare your home, and get all the supplies you need when you bring your new pet home. In some cases, there can be some competition for adoptable pets, so you might also ask whether anyone else is also considering adopting the animal you like. If you are first in line, then you needn’t worry that someone else will adopt the animal during your waiting period.

Sealing the Deal

Making the decision that you are indeed ready and willing to adopt an animal is an important part of sealing the deal, but it isn’t the only part. You also need to collect some important information. You fill out an adoption form that asks you many questions, and you may have to provide some paperwork to turn in along with the adoption application. Although every shelter does things a little differently, a typical pet adoption process probably involves the following:
  • Filling out an application form that includes basic information about you, your living situation, other people and pets in your household, and where you plan to keep the animal. The application may also ask whether you have a fenced yard, plan to let a cat roam, or have proper enclosures and other environmental requirements for small animals, birds, reptiles, or other exotic pets.
  • Showing proof that you own your home or that your landlord knows you’re adopting a pet and gives you permission to do so — usually in the form of a signed letter, a phone call, or personal visit. If you show proof of home ownership, the shelter may contact the assessor’s office to verify that proof.
  • Showing proof that you are not a student. Some, though not all, shelters won’t adopt pets to students, because they’re notoriously prone to leaving pets behind after graduation.
  • Agreeing to take certain steps in the future, including:
  1. Having your pet checked regularly by a veterinarian
  2. Having a microchip implanted in your pet for identification and so that it can be tracked if lost
  3. Having your pet spayed or neutered
In many cases, you must sign a contract that specifically states you will do any or all of these things. Sometimes you even have to pay a deposit that you get back whenever you show proof that you’ve had these things done. Other times the shelter takes care of these services before releasing the pet for adoption, and the costs are fully or partially covered by your adoption fee. When shelters perform these services, adoption fees obviously are higher.
  • Agreeing either verbally or in writing to take proper care of the animal by providing good nutrition and veterinary care and by having the animal adequately vaccinated, as required by law and as recommended by a vet.
  • Verifying either verbally or in writing that the animal is for you and not a gift for someone else and that you intend the animal to be your pet and not your guard dog, barn mouser, or breeding stock.
  • Agreeing that the pet will live inside and not be kept outside.
  • Providing proof that you have a fenced yard or the right kind of facilities to keep the animal.
After you fill out all the paperwork, collect your copies, pack up any supplies and other information that come with your pet, and take your pet home!


Come prepared to transport your animal home safely. Dogs and cats need to be in kennels that can be secured inside a vehicle or strapped safely into a pet seatbelt, both of which you can purchase at the pet store or online (for example at Animals in cages also need to be safely secured with a seatbelt or other secure device. Bring your own mode of transporting your new pet, because most shelters won’t provide one for you.

by Eve Adamson

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