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So you want to open your heart to a rescued pet?

There are millions of animals in U.S. shelters waiting for a good home. Are you ready? Adopting a cat or dog is a big commitment, no matter where it comes from. 

Take some time to get to know the shelter and visit or foster the pet that could become the newest member of your household. You may not find the perfect match the first or second time you visit a shelter, so be patient. Making a good choice can help you and your pet have a lifelong, rewarding relationship.

What to Consider Before Adopting a Pet

Look at your lifestyle and means before committing to adopting a pet.

If you don't travel a lot or plan to move, and you have enough money to cover the cost of the pet's care, that's a big plus. 

Think about your living space and whether you have room for a big dog. Ask yourself whether you want an energetic pet or a couch potato. If you can't provide the exercise an animal needs, consider the latter.

Also think about how much time you have to give your dog.

Not all shelter animals will be properly trained, so be prepared to retrain your dog. It will help build your relationship. As for cats, adopt with some understanding of their scratching and litterbox habits.

Finally, if you have a family or a partner, is everybody willing to pitch in to care for the pet? It's a good idea to create a schedule of responsibilities.

What Kind of Shelter Should You Adopt From?

Look for a shelter that does behavior assessments on dogs and/or cats, and has veterinarians who are providing medical exams and treatment, says Gail Buchwald, vice president of the adoption center at the ASPCA in New York City.

"I think it's a great idea for a prospective adopter to go to the shelter and check it out, get a visual. If they see animals that don't look healthy, they should ask some questions," she says.

If the animals seem well cared for, talk to the staff about your needs and get their thoughts about the dog or cat you're eyeing. If a shelter doesn't do any testing of its animals for diseases that aren't obvious, an adoption may be riskier, Buchwald says.

"The biggest drawback is not knowing what you're going to get, but it's the same drawback with breeders and pet stores," she says. "Choosing a shelter that provides as much information as possible about the animal is important."

Keep in mind that you may not find exactly what you're looking for the first time around.

''This is up there with getting a car or a house; expecting to walk out the same day with a shelter animal may not happen. It may require several visits," Buchwald says. "Making the commitment to adopt means you're going to help a homeless animal, even if it doesn't happen instantly.''