Thinking of adopting a dog or cat? You’d be hard-pressed to find an animal lover to talk you out of it, least of all me, the mom to two amazing rescue dogs and one dearly departed rescue cat. But I will be honest with you: in each case, with all three pets, there have been challenges for which I wasn’t prepared. My cat ended up having chronic health issues that landed him in frequent need of medical care that I could scarcely afford as a broke college student. My eldest dog, who I got as a puppy, was fine by my first landlord, but often deemed a problem by future landlords and prospective roommates. My second dog, a total goof sweetheart, has severe separation anxiety that requires us to crate him whenever we leave the house, meaning my husband and I can’t be out for too long unless he has a sitter.
The love and joy these pets have provided me far outweighs the costs and complications they’ve introduced, and the fact that my life is infinitely more meaningful with them in it is non-negotiable, but do I wish I’d been a bit more realistic, especially when I was in my early twenties, about just how much I was ready to take on as a pet mom.
Specifically, I wish I’d asked myself more questions and faced them down with unflinching honesty, if only so I could be better equipped to deal with problems as they arose.
To help prospective pet adopters make informed decisions, we’ve compiled a list of expert questions to ask one’s self before adopting a pet.
1. What are my expectations of this relationship?
“Rescue animals have no say in who takes them home but you do,” says Jodi Andersen, co-founder at How I Met My Dog. “Consider first if you are looking for an affectionate companion, an energetic running buddy, an aloof roommate [or] a playmate for the kids. Knowing what you would like to achieve in this relationship with your new pet will help you make the best choice when deciding which pet is best suited for your family.”
2. Will a pet fit into my lifestyle?
Next, prospective adopters should consider how a pet fits into their lifestyle.
“Cats in general require less time than dogs, but that doesn’t mean you can ignore your cat when you get home from work just because you’re tired and you feel like watching TV,” says Dawn LaFontaine, a cat shelter volunteer, foster, cat blogger and founder of Cat in the Box. “With a cat waiting for you at home, you can’t just accept a dinner or drinks invitation after work without stopping home to at least feed her, and you can’t spend an impromptu night away from home without planning for her care.”
3. My kid promises they’ll take care of the cat or dog, but is that reasonable?
“Many parents adopt a cat or dog after giving in to pressure from their children, but it would be wrong to assume that children will be fully responsible for the care of the animal no matter how vigorously they promise they will be,” asserts LaFontaine. “While it is true that caring for a pet can help a child develop a sense of responsibility and build their self-esteem, children need to be given tasks that are developmentally appropriate based on their age and maturity, and these chores must be supervised by an adult.”
4. Can I afford it?
In a perfect world money would never come between us and our pets, but the cost of maintenance is among the top reasons why people give up their dogs, according to a study by the National Council on Pet Population Study and Policy (NCPPSP).
Andersen points out that there are all kinds of known and unknown expenses that one should be prepared for beyond the adoption fee. Consider the following:
- Adoption fee: “Adopting a pet from a rescue can be anywhere from totally free to upwards of $1,000,” says Sara Ochoa, DVM, a small animal and exotic veterinarian in Texas and a veterinary consultant for DogLab. “Usually, it depends on what the [pet] has had done and what is included in the adoption. Dogs that are on the high end of the scale usually come fully vaccinated, spayed/neutered and microchipped. The free dogs, none of these services are included.”
- Annual vet checks: “If you’re adopting an animal younger than six months of age, you will need to visit your veterinarian more often during the first year [for vaccinations],” says Andersen. “After the first year, plan on at least an annual visit. Vaccines and well-check visits vary, depending on what part of the country you live in but range between $50 and $150.”
- Emergencies/pet insurance: “I would advise pet owners to put away some money every check until they have at least $1000 for a pet emergency,” says Jim D. Carlson, DVM, holistic veterinarian and owner of Riverside Animal Clinic & Holistic Center in Illinois. “The best way to keep costs low is a pet insurance policy that minimally covers emergencies. Those small monthly payments provide peace of mind in an emergency situation.”
- Walkers and/or daycare (for dogs): “If your work days are long, dog walkers and daycare can relieve some of your guilt and keep your dog busy at the same time. These can cost anywhere from $10 - $30+ per walk and daycare can average from $12 - $38 per day, depending on where you live,” says Andersen.
- Pet sitters: “The price of a sitter can really vary,” says Andersen. “If money is less of a concern, hiring someone to stay in your own home is always easier on your pet than going elsewhere.”
- Training (for dogs): “Like human children, dogs need to be taught how to live within the boundaries of our world,” says Andersen. “You can choose ‘private’ school for your dog, which means having a private trainer come to your home to teach you how to teach your dog. This can be pricey but worth it. It can cost anywhere from $50 per hour to $300+ per hour. If you choose this route, get references,” says Andersen. “Then there are ‘public’ school or training classes that help your dog learn how to behave in a crowd. These are typically far less expensive and can be just as worthwhile.”
- Food: “Pet food has undergone an enormous transformation,” says Andersen. “You can choose anything from basic kibble to holistic, individually tailored fresh/raw meals. Depending on the size of your pet, the cost can be anywhere from $100 per year to $1000+.”
- Accessories: “Leashes, collars, beds, sweaters, car mats, scratching posts, litter boxes, etc — depending on how indulgent you decide to be, these can set you back very little or a whole lot,” says Andersen.
5. Does my housing situation permit a pet?
The aforementioned study by the NCPPSP found that the number one reason people relinquish their pets is because of moving, while a disallowing landlord is the second.
Sadly, even the most pet-friendly apartments can have pet size and number restrictions, and sometimes even prohibit certain canine breeds such as pit bulls. Make sure to double check your lease and be prepared to pay for the privilege of having a pet.
“You most likely will need to put down a pet deposit and get an updated lease,” says Stephanie Mantilla, a professional animal trainer and former zookeeper. “Some apartments charge a monthly pet fee per pet.”
Rescue organizations may want to speak directly with your landlord to make sure the dog or cat is allowed before letting you sign off on adoption. They may also require a home check as does Catmosphere Laguna, a feline rescue with a cafe located in Laguna Beach, California.
“Reputable rescues want to match the right pet with the right adopter, in order to provide a safe and secure forever home,” says Gail Landau, founder of Catmosphere. “If a renter does not have their landlord’s permission, often these pets are returned, or worse, left to wander with no home.
6. Do I have any pet allergies? What about my significant other or roommates?
“If you have allergies or other health issues that may play a factor in pet ownership, be sure to check with your doctor before adopting about what breed or animal is right for you,” says Robin R. Ganzert, CEO and president of American Humane, an organization that promotes the welfare of animals.
Make sure you also know if your significant other, roommates, family, children or anyone else who spends time in your home has allergies.
7. This creature might destroy my stuff. Am I cool with that?
Another thing to consider on the home front, is the fact that pets can create a mess simply by existing. Most dogs and cats shed not just in summer, but throughout the year, meaning you’ll have to sweep more often. They may scratch or chew furniture, have the occasional “accident” and just generally destroy stuff. My cat shredded the window screens in our apartment because he loathed being held hostage indoors. He also used to knock over the contents of any available shelving when I stayed out past his dinner time. I’ve lost more shoes than I can count to my terrier’s nerves and have busted my chihuahua for peeing in the house for no reason other than to get my attention, it seems.
8. Will neighbors complain at the noise?
“Keep in mind of potential noise your pet could create,” says Mantilla. “If you're away at work all day, will your dog be barking the entire time you're gone? Will you need to hire a dog walker to come in mid-day and take your dog out? How does noise travel through the floor? Will [their] running around the apartment cause the people in the apartment below to complain?”
9. Want to adopt a bird, lizard or other ‘exotic’ pet? Consider these points.
An exotic animal, Ochoa points out, is anything that is not a farm animal or dog or cat. These can be great pets, especially if allergies restrict you from living with a creature of the canine or feline variety.
“I see reptiles, amphibians, birds, small mammals, monkeys, fish and wildlife,” Ochoa says. “When adopting an exotic animal, make sure you know what that animal needs. Most exotic animals get sick because people do not have their habitats 100 percent correct.”
If you’re considering an exotic animal, Ochoa recommends first finding an exotic veterinarian and talking with them about next steps.
10. Can I make a 10 to 20+ year commitment today?
Perhaps the most important question you can ask is whether you can commit to this pet for the long haul. You should even have a plan for where the pet will go should you pass away or be unable to care for it, morbid as that sounds.
“A dog can easily live 10 or even 15 years; cats often make it to their twenties,” says LaFontaine. “What might your life look like over the next decade or two? Maybe you can see yourself traveling for work more often than not, or adding a baby to the family, or moving or living abroad. Cats and dogs are loyal, sensitive creatures who connect deeply with you and rely on you for everything. Are you willing to consider them and their needs through the years, while you wrestle with your own? Are you ready to fully commit to being there for them for the rest of their days?”
If you are unsure about the answer to these questions, then you should consider yourself not ready to adopt right now. Instead, “express your compassion and love for animals by volunteering or donating to your favorite rescue charities,” says LaFontaine.
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