Know what to ask before you adopt

Adopting a new pet is exciting and stressful. You’re about to add another member to your family and your life will be changing.

The adoption process has many variables and requires patience. For example, there may be family members who need to meet the animal, consultations with shelter staff about behavior or medical issues, paperwork to be reviewed and signed, and other steps. But you can navigate the sometimes confusing adoption process by knowing the right questions to ask.

Animal’s history

Ask about the animal’s background if it’s not clear from the cage card. Did the pet arrive as a stray or was she given up by her previous owner? If so, why? How long has the animal been at the shelter?

Medical and/or behavioral assessments

Shelters continue to raise the bar in terms of their testing and vaccination protocols, as well as their behavior modification programs to make animals more adoptable. Inquire about any medical or behavioral evaluations and make sure you understand what type of treatment is required for any problems that have been identified. In addition, you may want to ask about the animal’s behavior at the shelter and how it may be similar to or different from what you can expect at home.

Timeline of adoption process

Some shelters are eager to send animals home the same day adopters visit them. This turnaround enables shelters to make room for new arrivals and is helpful for people who have traveled a long distance to meet an animal. Other facilities take a slower approach (e.g. ensuring that children and/or a spouse have met the animal). Familiarize yourself with the adoption timeline at the beginning of the process so you’ll know what to expect before emotions are running high and patience is low.


Virtually all animal shelters have policies to ensure that their animals are spayed or neutered to prevent unwanted litters. A number of facilities have animals sterilized before they’re available for adoption. In other cases, this procedure is scheduled when an animal goes home, and then the adoption is finalized once the surgery is performed. And some shelters rely on spay/neuter deposits that are refunded when proof of spaying or neutering is provided.

Whatever your concern, don’t be embarrassed to contact the shelter and ask for help. Too often, adopters struggle with behavior issues on their own and decide to return a pet because of an issue that could have been resolved.

What if my animal gets sick shortly after adoption?

Despite robust cleaning routines, animal shelters inevitably harbor germs. Unfortunately, infectious diseases can spread quickly through populations of animals that are housed in close proximity. The good news is that common conditions such as upper respiratory infections in cats and kennel cough in dogs are very treatable.

If your new companion becomes ill, check your adoption agreement to see if it addresses this issue and notify the shelter promptly about changes in your pet’s health. Sometimes a little encouragement and reassurance are all that’s needed as you nurse your kitten through a bad case of the sniffles; other times a visit to the vet may be in order. Some shelters have a vet on staff and others may refer you to a local clinic such as West Palm Animal Clinic.

It’s common for adopters to bear some or all of the cost of veterinary treatment because shelters have such limited medical budgets. Exceptions may include animals with pre-existing medical conditions that are already being treated by the shelter or other special cases. Some facilities may also provide a short-term pet health insurance policy or cover specific conditions that arise within a certain period of time after adoption.

What if I have questions about my new pet’s behavior?

Whether you’re a first-time pet owner or a seasoned pro, there’s no question that the transition period can be bumpy. New surroundings, new people, other animals, and an unfamiliar routine can be stressful for your adoptee.

Whatever your concern, don’t be embarrassed to contact the shelter and ask for help. Too often, adopters struggle with behavior issues on their own and decide to return a pet because of an issue that could have been resolved. Housetraining, chewing, barking, separation anxiety, litterbox issues … these issues and more will be familiar to the shelter’s staff.

Ask about resources to resolve behavior problems at the time of adoption. Some facilities offer behavior help lines and training classes, and most organizations can provide basic troubleshooting. In addition, The HSUS has many tip sheets on dog and cat behavior.