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Should I Adopt or Shop for a New Pet?

Advice from an animal shelter worker and several animal owners who’ve adopted, shopped or both

Parenting a pet, no matter what kind, can be a frustrating and bewildering experience. Animals can’t tell you what they want and need (directly, at least), so we’re here to help you answer any questions you have about your favorite companion — whether they be furry, slimy, feathered, scaly or anything in between — with insight from the experts. This is “Basic Bitch,” an advice column for pet parents who just want the best for their best friend.

The Very Basic Concern

Long story short, I just spent a week pet sitting for a friend and realized I needed an animal to love and take care of immediately. So I started looking into some options online, and holy cow, the debate about the differences between adopting or purchasing an animal from a breeder is — well, let’s just say “heated.” On one hand, the adamant adopters say breeders are cruel and buying is stupid when there are so many animals in shelters that need a home. On the other, buyers say breeders provide more of a direct route to the animal of your choosing and breeded pets need homes, too. Honestly, I understand both sides of the argument, but I still find myself pretty torn.

Basically: Should I adopt or shop for a new pet?

The Takeaway

Christina Cartwright, a devoted animal owner who’s both adopted and shopped from breeders: There are pros and cons with shopping. One pro is that you get the pick of the litter — i.e., you get to see the different personalities from the litter and pick the one that best fits your lifestyle. Another pro is that you frequently get a puppy or kitten that has some type of certification or pedigree.

One of the cons is that shopping is super pricey — a puppy from a breeder can be thousands of dollars, while a puppy or adult dog is normally less than $150 from a shelter or rescue. You also normally only get a puppy or kitten from a breeder, and puppies and kittens are a lot of work.

Another con (arguably the largest con) is that when you shop for a dog or cat in a store, not directly from a breeder, you’re likely purchasing one from a puppy or kitten mill. These mills rarely treat animals well, instead treating momma dogs and cats like factories. There’s a lot of inbreeding, too, which drives genetic diseases and so many other health problems — think hip dysplasia, arthritis and breathing issues. 

It’s important to note that inbreeding also takes place with breeders, and some breeders are actually puppy mills acting like homegrown breeders, so you should always go to the breeder’s home and facility to see how the animals are taken care of — where they sleep and stay during the day. You should also see how early they’re willing to give a puppy up for adoption — anything less than six weeks old is a clear indicator that they don’t know what they’re doing and they’re only in it for the money.

Many people think adopting a dog or cat means they’re adopting a faulty animal. But in short, all shelters do temperament testing with the animals before they put them up for adoption. Plus, if you go to a rescue, they frequently put their dogs and cats in foster homes so you can get a ton of info on them — energy levels, whether they’re good with kids and other animals, etc. People also believe you cannot get pure breeds from shelters or rescues, and that’s completely untrue. You can find almost any breed of dog or cat in a shelter or rescue, and there are many rescues dedicated to pure breeds. Petfinder is awesome in this regard.

Linda Michaels, a dog psychologist and author of Do No Harm Dog Training and Behavior Manual, who worked at an animal shelter for five years: Dog adoption is becoming not only the humanitarian but also the fashionable thing to do. There’s simply no possible way to describe the feeling of saving a life while supporting your community and being a good role model for your children. Did you know that nearly half of the eight million dogs abandoned at shelters every year are euthanized due to overcrowding?

Consider adoption as a first choice. Today, more than 25 percent of dogs in rescues are purebreds. Local and breed-specific adoption agencies, shelters and rescue groups have thousands of good dogs looking for forever homes. Best Friends Animal Society and Petfinder, the number one facilitator for 13,772 animal shelters and rescue groups, are two wonderful places to find the dog of your dreams. For example, there are 31 breeds to choose from that start with the letter “B,” including Bedlington Terriers, Borzoi, Boston Terriers, Boxers, Bull Terriers et al.

Sadly, puppy mills are big business. You want to be certain that you get a healthy puppy, and you take great risks if you end up with a puppy mill animal. Avoid supporting pet stores that sell puppies and online puppy mills that typically ship a puppy to you. By purchasing a dog from a pet store that doesn’t adopt, we’re not saving lives but perpetuating the puppy mill trade and insuring “the production” of yet more dogs who are born to suffer. The trick for prospective pet parents is to make a plan before you fall in love!

Although puppies are extremely and impossibly cute, a house-trained, manners-trained, already-socialized, vaccinated, micro-chipped adult dog may make an easier transition into your life. Choose a dog that all members of your family like, and a dog that likes everyone in the family and that gets along well with friendly dogs who are strangers. Cross-breeds and pure-bred dogs are often relinquished, orphaned and abandoned when pet parents find their dog’s behavior unacceptable because of insufficient socialization, or a failure to provide basic force-free training.

In order to provide a proper “forever home,” choose a dog or puppy that fits your family, home and lifestyle as closely as possible. If you opt for a bred puppy, you should insist on visiting the place where the puppies are bred and take careful note of the temperament and personalities of the parents. The adult dogs should not be fearful or aggressive. If possible, visit your puppy regularly from weeks four to eight to nurture the human-animal bond. Responsible breeders provide health guarantees and raise your puppy indoors around a variety of people and dogs outside of the immediate family. Good breeders simply won’t release a puppy under seven weeks old.

Whatever dog you choose, remember that you’re making a lifelong promise to not only care for your dog but to meet their emotional and social needs.

Peter Quinn, owner of two adopted cats and an adopted dog: We’ve adopted a dog and two cats from rescue places — our dog was over the limit and just about to be killed. We went to get a cat from a place when we lived in the suburbs of Vancouver, and we ended up taking two home — we brought them down here on the plane when we moved to California (one of them shit in the carry case). They were at a no-kill place, so it was pretty crowded. My wife was in tears because they had a feline HIV section. I had gone to get one weird-looking cat I saw in a Facebook ad, but I had a nice time petting another black cat. Then, a volunteer there said the black cats don’t get adopted very often, so we took her just to prove them wrong.

Most places will let you start off by fostering for a week or so — they lend you the basics and give you a bit of the food they usually eat. They typically have all the shots and neutering, so it’s straightforward. Failed fostering is how a lot of folks end up with permanent pets. We’d heard our dog was too difficult and “skittish” for two previous owners, but we were determined to train the bullshit out of him.

Fostering lets you dip your toes in the water, and you can return the animal with no guilt. It’s important to get a good match, so a try before you buy is essential. You need to assess that the energy level is right, and that they’ll slot into your life. I was worried that I couldn’t add dog walking into my routine alongside commuting over two hours a day, so I knew I wanted to see how that went. Some people are serial fosterers who just like giving animals a break from the shelters. There are no fees until you choose to fully adopt.

Ryan Trontz, owner of two rescued dogs: If you can, adopt. If you’re looking for a dog in a pet store, you can probably find the same breed in a shelter. Shelters are already overcrowded with dogs from pet stores, puppy mills and backyard breeding operations.

But the reason shelters have become this way is because people give up their puppies. Sure, in some situations, I understand the extenuating circumstances. But overall, what I would tell new puppy owners most is, they should only do it if they’re keeping the dog for life. It’s really a commitment, and that’s more important than adopting versus shopping.

You’re bringing a creature into your home that will never “grow up” to fend for itself, like a human child eventually (or at least, probably) will. You’re saving its life. You’re its guardian, and it’s your companion until it’s time for the “rainbow bridge.”

Once you’re there, though, I’d again suggest adopting. You’re bringing a creature into your home that has been through some shit. One of my dogs, Maximus, was an owner surrender [when, for whatever reason, the owner surrenders their pet to a shelter] after one and a half years. Imagine living through early childhood, getting to middle school and then having your parents drop you off at daycare but never coming back. He was well-trained and didn’t seem to have any terrible trauma, but he’ll never know what he did wrong, and neither will I. The only thing I know is that he’ll always be my first dog, and he’s always the first one to rush over to me when things are tough. We’ve moved from Vegas to L.A.; he had to spend three months with my parents in Orange Country when I was changing careers to become an engineer, and he had a new little brother, who is kind of an asshole, come home and take all of his toys. But he has a family and a home forever.

The same goes for my second guy, Julius. He was a stray who was on the verge of death when a friend from the dog park, who worked at a shelter, found him and nursed him back to health. She was socializing him at the park, and trying to find a taker before putting him up for formal adoption. He was different — untrained, scared, possessive and had all of the stray dog traits. Now he’s my shadow, and I can’t imagine a life without him.

To me, those parts of the story — the known and the unknown — are a crucial part of the bond between a pet and their parent. The fact that we’re helping to repair a wasteful system is great, too.

Trent Hamilton, a long-time dog owner who’s both adopted and shopped from breeders: Personally, I always say adopt, largely because there are just so many pups in shelters that can literally die in there. Also, it’s almost always noobs that shop — my first guy came from a breeder because I didn’t know any better, and what happens is, people don’t know what absolute terrors little puppies can be, so they go spend all this money on a puppy for literally no reason, realize they can’t handle it and their puppy winds up in a shelter.

Adopted dogs, meanwhile, are possibly (probably) housebroken already, or at least on the way, and probably crate-trained. They might have some general training, too. Also, all of the shots and spaying or neutering will be taken care of already, so it’s way more cost-effective out of the gate. My first pure-breed Rottweiler cost $1,500, and as a pure breed, he had hip dysplasia developing by the time he was three. He could barely walk during his last couple years. Meanwhile, both of my rescues are older or nearly as old, and they’re as fit, healthy and active as ever. Leo cost a whopping $25, and Daisy was free through a rescue program.

My potentially unpopular opinion is, people who shop don’t do it for the dog; they do it for themselves. So they’ll be hell-bent on, “Oh, my purebred (whatever) cost $2,500! Look at me! I’m fuckin’ cool!”