Adopting a Companion Animal

Adopting a cat or dog is not a decision that should be taken lightly. Anyone considering adopting a companion animal should seriously consider the lifelong commitment involved. Don't forget that dogs may live 12 to 15 years and cats even longer -- 15 to 18 years or more.

Do some research about various breeds and species, so you know which ones are best suited to your lifestyle. Evaluate your budget before adopting. Veterinary care (even for a healthy animal: yearly wellness exams, vaccinations, and flea and heartworm control products), obedience classes, pet food, grooming supplies, bedding, litter, and toys add up to a lot more than you might think.

Once you have made a well-informed decision to adopt a companion animal, visit your local animal control shelter or humane society first. Even if you are looking for a specific breed, you may be able to find it at your local shelter. You can also adopt from a breed rescue group. Rescue groups exist for virtually every breed of dog and cat. Your humane society or animal control agency can provide you with a list of rescue groups in your area, and many groups also have web sites on the Internet -- or call API for more information.

Remember that puppies and kittens find homes more easily than older animals, so please consider adopting an adolescent or adult. Mature animals are often house- or litter-box trained, and they may have had some training, or at least have learned some manners. You can avoid the destructive behavior associated with teething. And, you can tell what type of disposition the animal has, since his personality is already fully developed.

Many shelters and humane societies now require surgical sterilization prior to adoption. This strict policy is gradually helping to reduce pet overpopulation, and in the last few years we are finally seeing a decline in the number of healthy, adoptable animals being euthanized. If your new companion is not already sterilized, do make arrangements for the surgery as soon as possible.

Please do not purchase your companion animal from a pet store, backyard breeder, Internet site, auction, or newspaper ad. Instead, save a life by adopting from a local shelter or breed rescue group. Contrary to what you may have heard, even older dogs can learn at least one new trick -- being your loving and loyal companion.

The Problems with Purebreds

Purebreds are man-made, "designer" dogs and cats. Mating animals with similar genetics and bloodlines increases the chance that their offspring will inherit the specific traits that are standard for that breed's appearance. However, to produce the diverse looks of cats and dogs that we see today, the health and well-being of the animals themselves have been largely ignored.

Purebred animals often suffer from genetically-based health problems, which range from annoying to life-threatening. Basset Hounds, Dachshunds, and other short-legged dogs with long bodies often have back problems. Many Maine Coon cats die at a young age from severe heart disease. The female Bulldog's pelvis is too small to give birth normally -- all puppies must be delivered by cesarean section. Persian cats often have difficulty breathing and chronic eye discharges. Giant breed dogs, like Great Pyrenees, Irish Wolfhounds, and Great Danes, are prone to bone cancer as well as heart disease. Hip dysplasia -- and the pain and disability that go along with it -- has a significant genetic component.

Temperament and behavior problems may also result from breeding for a certain look without regard to other traits that may accompany those looks. For instance, Labrador and Golden Retrievers used to be known for their calm, placid dispositions, which were perfect for households with small children. Today, many retrievers are "hyperactive" and can even pose a danger to children because of their unpredictability. (Of course, not all breeders are irresponsible. Dedicated hobby breeders do stop breeding a certain bloodline when they see that their animal's offspring have undesirable genetic traits.)

Pet Stores, Puppy Mills and Backyard Breeders

Most dogs sold in pet stores, at auctions, through multiple breed newspaper ads, or over the Internet come from "puppy mills," where dogs are bred solely for profit. These dogs spend their entire lives in tiny cages, often with wire floors that hurt and deform their feet. Many times these cages are stacked on top of each other, so that urine and feces from animals in the top cages fall through onto the animals below. A typical mill keeps dozens of breeds and hundreds of dogs. There are also "kitten mills" where cats endure the same deplorable conditions (as well as ferret, rabbit, and rodent "mills," where these animals are produced in large numbers).

Dogs in puppy mills receive little, if any, veterinary care. The females are repeatedly bred, and become so fatigued from being pregnant and delivering and caring for their pups that they no longer have the energy to clean themselves. Their coats become matted and filthy, they are depressed and malnourished, and many die young.

The puppies of these pitiful, neglected dogs are usually in poor health from birth. They are often abruptly weaned and sent off to pet stores when only four to six weeks old. These young pups are crammed several to a crate with little or no food or water, and shipped long distances by truck to pet stores throughout the United States. Often these puppies arrive at pet stores weak and sick, and many die in transit. Those that survive are sold at exorbitant prices regardless of their physical condition. Since they receive so little attention at the mill, they are poorly socialized, and many develop behavior problems, such as fear biting and house-soiling.

"Backyard breeders" often sell to pet stores, or by advertising in local newspapers. Backyard breeders are people who keep a few females to breed in order to sell the offspring. Although backyard breeders may breed and keep a smaller number of dogs than a puppy mill, most do it mainly for financial gain, while ignoring the overall health and disposition of the dogs that they are breeding.

A special problem occurs with breeds that experience a burst of fame due to television or movie exposure, like Dalmatians and Jack Russell Terriers. These dogs are quickly mass-bred to take advantage of the wave of popularity, even though these breeds may not be suitable for many homes. Thousands of them will spend their lives ignored, abused, or chained in a yard, be abandoned on the street or in the countryside to die of starvation, injury, or exposure to the elements, or be surrendered to shelters -- all because of undesirable traits or behaviors, even though these may be quite normal for the breed.

Changing the way we adopt companion animals, and being more responsible about how we care for them, is the best solution.

Pet Overpopulation

An estimated 58 million dogs and 66 million cats live in households in the United States. For every cat with a home, a cat lives homeless on the streets. Because irresponsible people -- accidentally or intentionally -- allow their animals to reproduce, an estimated 8-12 million dogs and cats enter shelters each year in hope of finding a permanent, loving home. However, about 55% of dogs and 76% of cats entering shelters are euthanized (killed). More than SEVEN MILLION animals are euthanized at shelters each year. Most of the animals killed are healthy, happy, adoptable animals. Their only crime is that they are strays, homeless, or unwanted -- by-products of the serious problem of overpopulation.

Even if you want a special breed, always adopt rather than purchase. Twenty-five percent of animals entering shelters are purebreds, and there are many purebred rescue groups, so there is a good chance you can get the animal you want and save a life at the same time. And, of course, please, always spay and neuter your companion animals!

Reprinted with permission from Animal Protection Institute (