For many kids, the ultimate pal is a companion pet. A dog. A cat. A ferret. A fish. It doesn't matter what kind of pet it is. There's just often a strong tug between children and animals.
But adopting a pet is not an easy decision. It's a huge responsibility, say experts and families – and, also, also one that's immensely rewarding.
It doesn't cost much to adopt a pet – about $175-$300 to adopt a dog from the Michigan Humane Society (check here for most recent rates), whose staff walk adoptive families through the process and include spaying or neutering, vaccinations and a 60-day guarantee in the adoption price to make sure the pet is a fit with your family.
The majority of adoptive pets are cats and dogs, but there are other animals available in varying degrees – rabbits, ferrets, gerbils, hamsters, birds, snakes – even a turtle once, says Kevin Hatman, MHS public relations coordinator.
So where do you begin if you want to adopt a pet? Here's a primer for the process of adopting a pet, which begins with a long hard look at your lifestyle, time and family budget.
First, the thought process
It's not enough that the kids are clamoring for a cute cat or precious puppy. Do you have the time to care for a new family member? Feed it, nurture it, train it (which often entails attending obedience classes with your pet) and walking a dog no matter the weather? Are you prepared to clean up after accidents and deal with shedding and the potential of gnawed furniture or other belongings?
What happens when you go on vacation? Do you have pet sitters lined up? And don't forget the vet – that's an important part of your pet care cadre, whose bills, as your pet ages, won't get cheaper.
Reetu and Will Sanders of Royal Oak adopted a black/brown lab they named Bella in spring of 2010 from Home FurEver Rescue. The pair, who welcomed son Rohan to the family in April of 2011, were rejected twice before receiving approval to adopt Bella because they lived in a condo at the time.
Their search began on PetFinder and "whenever we saw a dog that looked promising, we went for a visit," says Reetu Sanders. They visited the Royal Oak Animal Shelter and three other rescues, including Home Fur-Ever. They attended rescue adoption days at the Troy Petco.
"Our original intent was to adopt a young adult dog, 1 to 3 years old, for a few reasons: They are usually housebroken and trained to some extent, it's easier to see the dog's personality and they cost less at first – adoption fees and vet bills are lower," says Sanders, a grant writer who is also an MBA student. Her husband is finishing his medical residency at Beaumont Hospital.
"Shelters and rescues are packed with adult dogs, especially in Michigan," says Sanders. "So many families have had to cut costs and many surrendered their dogs to shelters." Also, people adopt puppies because they're cute but, when they grow into adult dogs, some lose their interest and give up their pets.
The Sanders found that rescues were wary of letting condo dwellers adopt a dog because they didn't have a fenced-in yard and they lived in a small space. "These dogs have already had one bad experience, and the rescues want to make very sure it doesn't happen again," she says.
"This was disappointing, because we knew that those are the dogs most in need of the loving home we were eager to provide," says Sanders. "We gave up and decided to adopt a puppy."
Home FurEver scheduled a home visit, which the Humane Society does not do. In the end, they were approved to adopt Bella and have been very happy with their pet ever since.
Being flexible enabled the Sanderses to bring home a pet that fits their family. Throughout the process, they reflected on the roadblocks they hit and made sure pet adoption wasn't just a fleeting thought.
Second, really look
The Michigan Humane Society has a great website where prospective adoptive families can actually play with cats online. Talk with friends who've adopted pets and learn from their experiences – adults and children! Read books and understand what's involved. And learn all you can about the pros and cons of pet adoption and where to adopt a healthy pet.
The first dog that the Bean family of Farmington Hills adopted was not a good fit because mom Stacey was allergic.
"We had her for one night," says 13-year-old Blair of the first dog they adopted from Village of Franklin Round Up. Dad Erik did some research and found that a Basenji is a non-allergenic breed that might be OK for Stacey, so they looked around online until they found a part-Basenji friendly-looking dog.
"I wasn't so keen on the idea of adopting at first," says Blair. "I was a lot younger and I used the expression, 'I don't want a used dog.' I wanted a little puppy. I was thinking, 'What the heck was wrong with this dog?' We took him home and we loved him. He was the best dog ever."
That's Kramer, a dog rescued while wandering on the east side. A few years later, the Bean family went on the lookout for a new family member, two days after Blair's bat mitzvah, when Stacey found she had time and energy to devote to a new family member.
They rescued another part-Basenji mutt who was 5 months old at the time and named her Jelly to go with the last name Bean. "I love my 'used dogs,' and they love each other," says Blair.
It's important to see if a pet is good with kids, if you have enough space and if you can afford them, say the Beans. "Most dogs for adoption are not hypo-allergenic," warns Stacey. "Temperament is important, and it is very important that the dogs and owners participate in formal training."
And, if finances do get tight, be sure to explore resources available for pet care. "We have a lot of programs that are designed to keep families together – low-cost vaccinations, a free pet food bank," Hatner says. "We try to steer people to those before surrendering their pets."
A word about pet stores
It's plain and simple, experts warn: Don't adopt pets from a store, because 99 percent of the time, they came from a puppy mill more interested in making a buck than in taking care of animals.
So says Pam Sordyl, leader of the Puppy Mill Awareness Meetup of Southeast Michigan.
Every year, more than 118,000 homeless cats and dogs in Michigan are euthanized, due to lack of space, funding or adoptive homes, says Sordyl. And the majority of those are healthy pets.
The term "puppy mill" refers to large-scale commercial breeders who usually sell wholesale to a pet store or broker. In Michigan, there are six USDA-licensed kennels, while Missouri has close to 1,000, Sordyl says. Many of our state's licensed kennels are for hunting and sled dogs.
However, there are innumerable backyard unlicensed breeders, or "mini mills." Many put up fancy websites and appear to be legitimate – but beware, says Sordyl.
Never meet a breeder anywhere other than on-site to see the pet. Never ship a puppy from another state, no matter how many referrals or research you receive. Always witness a puppy's parents and living conditions. But really, it's always better to adopt from a shelter or bona fide rescue.
Also, don't buy animals from pet stores, period. Sordyl has an ongoing campaign to convince pet stores to simply be a resource for food and paraphernalia pets need – but not trade in animals directly. In 2010, she says, her organization convinced 100 pet stores in Michigan not to sell puppies.
Avoid parking lots, trade center booths and ads in the classifieds or on Craigslist. No matter what they say or how legit they seem, they're not.
If you're ready to make the call to adopt a pet, there is no better place to look than a local animal shelter or rescue group. There, you're not just adding a buddy to the family, you're giving a living creature a second chance to have a happy life.
Where to adopt a pet
Here are some places that can get you started in southeast Michigan:
- Local shelters: Here's where you'll find pets of all ages that are well-cared-for. Many are pre-trained.
- Veterinarians: The people who've made a career out of caring for animals are a great resource to turn to find a pet in need of a home.
- Adoption events: Mostly in the summer, a variety of locations host adoption events, from pet stores (in conjunction with a shelter or humane society) to the zoo (Meet Your Best Friend at the Zoo at the Detroit Zoo in Royal Oak). The Palace of Auburn Hills is home to "Pet-a-Palooza," and more than 400 animals find their homes every year there.
- Petfinder.com: Most shelters and rescue groups post available pets here. Type in your ZIP code and you'll find a list of organizations near you. Beware of "for-profit" rescue groups that charge higher than $250 for popular purebreds or designer dogs.
- Purebred rescue groups: Some of these groups keep an eye out for purebreds in shelters and pull them in for foster care before adopting them out. Don't rescue purebreds from puppy mills or auctions – they're often ill and mistreated and bred only for their profit value.
- Leader dogs: The Leader Dogs for the Blind school in Rochester Hills often has puppies that may not have the right stuff to become leader dogs. They usually have a waiting list for adoption of such dogs, but remember that these dogs have good temperaments.