Pet Connection: Choosing a shelter pet

We are big fans of adopting from animal shelters. We each have two dogs acquired from shelters or rescue groups. They are all the absolute best – not that we’re biased or anything.

But we know that the idea of going to a shelter to pick out a pet can seem like an intimidating prospect. Won’t you want to take them all home? And how do you pick the right one?

To give you some top tips, we drew on our own experiences and spoke to experts on the subject: Elizabeth A. Berliner, DVM, a shelter medicine specialist at Cornell University’s College of Veterinary Medicine, and Aimee Gilbreath, executive director of Michelson Found Animals, a nonprofit organization that’s dedicated to helping shelter pets find homes.

•  The first thing to think about, Gilbreath says, is energy level – yours and the dog’s. Your pet’s energy level should complement your lifestyle. If you love spending time outdoors every day hiking, running or riding your bike, an active “teenage” or adult dog has reached physical maturity and is ready to be your workout buddy. Be realistic about your activity level and your willingness to exercise a dog. “If your ideal weekend is curling up on the couch having a movie marathon, a low-energy cuddle buddy will be a better fit for you,” Gilbreath says. Or even a cat.

•  Speaking of cats and lifestyle, it’s true that in some respects, cats are less of a commitment than dogs: they don’t need walks, for instance, and you don’t have to take them to obedience class (they train you instead). But they do need and enjoy more attention and interaction than you might think. If you work crazy 12-hour days, your cat will be OK with that as long as she gets your attention when you’re home. If you think you’d like to have two cats so they can keep each other company, the best choice is a pair of kittens from the same litter or an already-bonded adult pair. Ask shelter employees for their recommendations.

•  Some shelters use the ASPCA’s “Meet Your Match” program or their own systems to identify different pet personalities to help potential adopters make the best choice for them. When it comes right down to it, though, many of us go by looks.

“As in dating, this can be more or less effective,” Berliner says. “However, there may be some surprises once you get home. Many shelters provide ongoing support to help nurture your new relationship if there are elements that are challenging at first.”

•  Got kids? Keeping them safe is your No. 1 priority. If you’re getting a shelter dog, how do you know which one is good with kids? “When adopting from a rescue or smaller pet-adoption center, many of the available dogs will have spent time with a foster family, many in homes with children,” Gilbreath says. “Talk to the adoption counselor about your concerns. They will be able to tell you which dogs play well with children. It’s also a good idea to bring your children along to meet your potential new pet.”

•  Tell the adoption counselor as well if you have other pets. She can suggest dogs or cats who are known to get along with other animals.

• Take advantage of social media such as Facebook, Twitter and YouTube to keep tabs on available pets. Many shelters have Facebook and Twitter accounts where they announce adoption events and post videos and photos of adoptable pets.

Be clear about what you are looking for in a pet. It can help to make a list of attributes such as weight, coat type and age before you go to the shelter so that it’s easier to narrow your choices.