By Erin Katribe, DVM, as told to Stephanie Watson
I've always been an animal lover. I grew up with pets. When I was in high school, I learned that hundreds of thousands, or even millions, of dogs and cats were losing their lives in shelters each year just because we didn't have homes for them. That wasn't acceptable to me.
When I practiced emergency veterinary medicine early in my career, I always took time out to focus on animal welfare. In 2014, I moved into the nonprofit world and made rescuing animals my life's work.
As the medical director of Best Friends Animal Society, I'm part of the solution to ending the loss of life that happens every day in America's shelters. Last year, about 347,000 dogs and cats were killed in shelters. Adoption is one of the ways we get that number to zero.
Why Should You Adopt?
Getting a pet from a shelter also has benefits for the person who adopts. Puppy mills, which are often where pet stores get their puppies, often keep their dogs in unsanitary conditions.
Not only is it heartbreaking for these animals, but the puppies are riddled with intestinal parasites. They're prone to having genetic problems. That can mean expensive vet bills and terrible heartbreak for the people who purchase them.
More than 4 million cats and dogs end up in shelters each year. The reality is that shelters are not the environment these animals were meant to be in. Dogs aren't supposed to be housed in cages with hundreds of dogs around them. They're meant to be with us, in our yards and on our couches.
Are Shelter Dogs Sick or Untrainable?
One myth is that most dogs are given to shelters because something is wrong with them, such as they're sick or can’t be trained. Honestly, we don't often get great information on why dogs are given to shelters. A huge number of them come in as strays or lost dogs, so they're not given up at all.
Health or behavioral issues can be a reason why people give their pets to shelters, but it's usually not the only issue. When pets are surrendered, it's more often related to human issues like financial or housing challenges or because a litter of puppies was too big for the owner to handle.
If there's a problem with the dog you choose, your shelter should disclose it to you. Also keep in mind that what may be a problem for one family might not be a problem for another family. It could just be that the last home wasn't a good fit for that particular dog.
What Are Some Other Myths About Shelter Dogs?
One myth is that you can't find purebred dogs in shelters. Although it varies by the part of the country where you live, you absolutely can find them. Where I am, in Texas, purebred dogs come into the shelter every day.
Another common myth is that cats and dogs should never be given as gifts. The research tells us otherwise. Most people who do receive a pet as a gift actually form a stronger attachment to that pet.
Gift pets are no more likely to be given up to shelters than pets that aren't given as gifts. It's a good idea to give a pet to somebody who is already thinking about adopting, but any opportunity we have to give these pets a home is worth taking.
How Can You Find the Right Pet at a Shelter?
Every dog is an individual, whether it's purebred or a mixed breed. The shelter may know about the dog's temperament and past health. If the pet has been in a foster home, information about how it behaved in the home situation can be even more valuable. But for lots of animals that enter shelters, we don't have that information because they came in as strays.
That's where the shelter staff can be a good resource. The adoption specialist at the shelter not only can help you find a good match, but also tell you how to care for the pet.
If your shelter doesn't know much about the pet you've chosen, have a sleepover. Many shelters or rescue organizations will let you bring the pet home for a night to see if it's a good fit. Even if it's not, you're getting the dog or cat out of the shelter, which reduces stress and gives them a chance to decompress.
What Are the Benefits of Adopting an Older Dog?
Older dogs can make fantastic companions. They're actually a better fit for certain families and lifestyles, such as older caregivers who don't have good mobility. Puppies and younger dogs tend to have a ton of energy and need a lot of training. That can be a big commitment.
Older dogs tend to be calmer. They already have some of the basic training -- things like house training and obedience. And with an older dog, you already know how big they'll get and you have a sense of their temperament.
What Else Should You Think About When You Adopt?
No matter what the breed, every animal has an individual personality. You might be surprised where you find the best fit. Think about your lifestyle and talk with the shelter to find the right pet for your family.
The most important thing is that you do adopt. When you adopt an animal, you save a life. You also create an open space for the shelter to save the next pet.
And you just might find your "heart animal." Mine was named Akasha. She was a husky-shepherd-chow mix. I adopted her from a shelter when I was an undergraduate at the University of Texas. She was so smart. She seemed to really understand my emotions and what I was saying. It led to a strong bond. Akasha was with me for 17 years.
Working in animal welfare has been so fulfilling. It has allowed me to make a difference in ending the needless loss of life in America's shelters. It's also given me the opportunity to connect with hundreds, if not thousands, of amazing animals, and many amazing people, too.