You've seen that doggie in the window and fell in love — but you've never raised a dog before. Or a cat. Or a hamster. You've never even had a bowl of goldfish as a kid.
Like any other major life changes — and adding to the family is a major life change — aspiring pet owners-to-be have a laundry list of considerations and preparations that need to be made before Fluffy can come home to stay. Rachel Maso, the senior manager of behavior at the ASPCA Adoption Center in New York City, breaks down what you need to know before, during and after adoption for anybody thinking and wondering "...now what?"
I'm thinking of adopting a pet, but I've never owned a pet before. Help!
If you are thinking of adopting and raising a pet for the first time, Maso recommends taking a hard look at your lifestyle and budget to see what type of pet companion would be the best fit for you. Larger dogs may cost more to raise than smaller dogs; cats may be better companions for a frequent workaholic with little time to spend walking a pet around the block.
"Consider your activity level, amount of time spent at home and the types of activities you would enjoy doing with your new pet," Maso says. Flexibility and an open mind to other pets can help ease first-time pet owners into the adoption process.
The size of a pet does not have to stop you from adopting if you, like many other pet owners, live in an urban shoebox. The amount of space a pet needs depends more on its energy level and personality than its size.
"Some dogs may benefit from living two streets down from a great dog park; others may show no interest and will prefer a nice, quiet walk around the block followed by a long day of napping," Maso says. For cats, plenty of spaces to climb, jump and leap will make up for a lack of square footage in your home.
What else do I need to know before I adopt?
Sudden allergies are just one of several reasons why pets are turned over to a shelter by their owner. And pet allergies are common — they hit approximately 5 to 10 percent of the population, according to the Asthma and Allergy Foundation of America.
A visit to the doctor to determine any pet allergies is a must for first-time pet owners that have had limited access to animals before adopting. Don't think you're safe from allergies if you adopt hairless breeds either. Reactions can develop in the presence of saliva, urine or dander.
Surprise bills and unexpected costs are another reason that owners might surrender their pets. Use the tool below to get an estimate of how much a pet might cost to raise over its lifetime, and if that number is within your or your family's budget.
Note: Prices are adjusted for 2020 using the Consumer Price Index for non-food and energy consumption, and reflects a national average — prices will vary dependent on location.
Data: ASPCA, Consumer Price Index
What are some myths to know about as I decide on the kind of pet I want to adopt?
Glad you asked. Here are four:
- The age of a pet does not determine how affectionate it will be with you.
- Shelter animals are not necessarily given up because of a troubled past. Ask the shelter for a pet's background or known issues if you are unsure.
- Species does not determine energy level. Cats play just as much as dogs do.
- The space of your home does not determine the size of your pet. Large dogs can be happy with smaller backyards and homes depending on its (and your) personal needs.
What are my first steps to becoming a great pet owner?
Your home is pet-proofed, your budget is sound and your pet is ready to start a new life with a new family. Make sure you check off the following:
- Get your pet spayed/neutered, vaccinated, and microchipped. Most shelters will do this as part of the adoption process with the fee you pay, Maso says, but for pets that aren't, this is a great time to...
- Get to know your local veterinarian or pet clinic (and get your pet those booster shots.)
- Designate a short-term pet caregiver in case of emergencies. Think of them as the godparent for your pet.
- Stock enough emergency pet food and supplies to last for two weeks.
- Research and prepare a plan for severe medical emergencies. Keep a list of phone numbers and addresses accessible in case your pet gets sick.
What should I do once they're here?
The most important thing right after you bring your pet home is to give it some space and time to get used to its new home and new surrounding. Maso recommends setting up a safe, quiet space in your home or apartment for your pet.
Dogs should have a kennel or crate with its door left open.
Cats should have a box or carrier on a shelf, cat tree, or any space that's elevated in your home.
"For the first few weeks, focus on relationship building and establishing routine," Maso says. "Try to create a consistent schedule and have everyone in the household participate in activities that your new pet loves."
What if it doesn't work out?
Things happen. Surprise bills, health concerns, barking, hyperactivity, aggressiveness and personal emergencies are all reasons that an owner might have for giving up a pet. Shelters around the country took in over 3 million pets alone in 2018, according to Shelter Animals Count.
But don't be quick to get rid of your new pet early on over behavioral bumps that could be fixed with some time, space and support. "Animals, just like people, need time to adjust to new surroundings and environment," Maso says. "It may take some animals months to settle in completely."
Rehoming – having another family take your pet in – is another humane option if an adoption does not work out. If all else fails, check in with the originating shelter.