If you are one of the 17 million Americans looking to acquire a pet this year, you’re probably considering one of the four most popular options: adopting a pet from a shelter or rescue; adopting a pet from a friend or family member who cannot keep it; taking in a stray (more common with cats); or buying from a purebred source — such as a breeder or pet store.
While you’re making your decision, you have likely heard the phrase “responsible breeder” thrown around, particularly if you are looking for a puppy. “Responsible breeder” is a loose term used to describe a person with good ethical standards for breeding dogs. Typically, a responsible breeders process will include professional health screenings for the parents, an interview and contract for buyers, an adherence to a code of ethics (established by the breed club), a demonstration of love and care for the pup’s parents, and a willingness to maintain a relationship with the buyer from the time the puppy is born, for as long as it lives in your home.
But, let’s say you want to take the adopt-a-pet route, and if so, welcome to the club! Adopting a pet from a shelter or rescue can be a wonderful and rewarding experience. But, are all rescues created equally? The answer is no. Not all breeders raise their dogs in puppy mill-like conditions, and not all rescues have an ethical and professional approach to their work. In fact, the ASPCA now estimates 25 percent of their hoarding cases, began as well-intentioned rescues that got out of hand.
If you are looking at adopting from a rescue organization, there are ways to make sure that you are supporting an ethical group, and the criteria are not so different than if you were looking for a responsible breeder. (For the purposes of this article, it’s important to note we are talking about rescue organizations that choose which animals are admitted to their program, not open-admission public animal shelters.)
A responsible rescue will:
- Be an IRS-registered 501c3 non-profit. If your donations are not tax-deductible, where are they going? A registered non-profit can provide transparent financial accountability for your gifts and details on how they spend donation dollars.
- Provide accurate and honest temperament information on the animals. If formalized temperament testing was done, you should be allowed to review the results with their staff.
- Allow you to see where the animals are housed upon request. Are they in clean kennels? In a foster home? Or in crates stacked up in a hot, shadeless yard?
- Know their limits. No rescue in the U.S. can take in every single animal that comes their way, and it’s a heartbreaking reality that some dogs must be turned away. A rescue with limited resources must have the strength to say “no more” when they are at their limit.
- Have compassionate, responsible intake processes. Rescue is not about high-dollar, quick turnarounds. It is about saving lives within the limits of your resources. This means when a rescue takes a litter of 5-week-old puppies from a shelter, they should also take in the momma dog even if she is a Plain Jane. It also means that, when space allows, they will take in and promptly professionally address, medical or behavioral special needs.
- Provide the “Five Freedoms” to all animals in their care, for as long as they are with them. Freedom from hunger and thirst; freedom from discomfort; freedom from pain, injury, and disease; freedom from fear and distress; and the freedom to express normal behaviors.
- Be adopter-friendly. Adoption applications should be a two-way street towards better communication. A rescue should look for ways to help you find a good match, rather than looking for obstacles to adoption and if you are denied adoption, they should be willing to tell you why.
- Have the animals spayed/neutered and current on vaccines before you take them home. With only rare exceptions for serious medical reasons, an adopted pet should be sterilized and up to date on shots, and this should be included in your adoption fee.
- Always take an animal back if you cannot keep it. Whether it is a problem with the animal or the adopter, communication should be an open-door, and the rescue should honor their original commitment to the dog, even if you cannot, no matter what the reason.
- Provide references. Whether on their social media page, or through phone calls, you should be able to speak with previous adopters and shelters that the rescue has worked with and have a good feeling about the process, the people and their pets.
Bringing home a pet from an ethical rescue is a great way to start a relationship with the animal that’s sure to be rewarding for many years. And it’s a great way to rest easy at night, knowing the same folks who took the time to love and care for your four-legged friend, are still doing the same for many other needy pups and kittens.