Recently, a man walked into the Petco store where we have our rescue kittens on display. He was looking to adopt a dog. The store clerk politely sent the man to see me, letting him know that I was the rescue representative. He was looking for a small white dog for his mom. Our conversation soon turned into a discussion about adopting from as shelter versus adopting from a rescue. It became clear to me that he represents the average adopter: looking to give an abandoned or stray pet a home with the common misconception that a shelter is a rescue and a rescue is a shelter. He couldn’t have been more wrong!

I’d like to clarify the differences between a shelter and a rescue. The common belief is that a shelter is a place that protects animals from abuse, keeps them from abandonment and provides them with a good home. After all, according to Merriam-Webster, the definition of shelter is a structure that covers or protects people or things; a place that provides food and protection for people or animals that need assistance and a place to live. While in some instances this is true, the reality is there is a great misunderstanding of what a shelter does for animals in this day and age (including myself prior to getting into rescuing animals), due to our expectations and understanding based on the definition of the word “shelter”.

People believe that there is a difference between a pound and a shelter, when in reality, there is no difference. The common belief is that an animal will be safe in a shelter and will live the rest of his/her life protected until it is adopted, right? Wrong! Depending on the state in which you live, dogs and cats have different expiration dates. I apologize for the term expiration, but “euthanasia” is practiced more often than not, so yes, the pets that end up in a shelter, whether they are surrendered or arrive as strays, have a ticking clock the moment they step into the shelter, and the clock may tick faster or slower depending on the adoptability (temperament) of an animal, it’s health and breed. In addition, surrendered animals have less time to survive than those that arrive as strays, because the strays are given a few more days so that their owners have the opportunity to find them. A sad reality but true!

In Southern California, the rule of thumb for dogs or cats that are surrendered, once processed by the city or county shelters, have one to three days to get adopted. If no interest is shown in the animals, they are put to sleep. If a dog or cat arrives as a stray, they are given 10 days to be claimed and if no one does so, it is given the 1 to 3 days to be adopted prior to being euthanized.

ut all this sadness aside (grab your tissue and wipe the tears), I am here to talk about the happy part of the shelter story: adoption. What is the difference between adopting a pet from a shelter versus adopting from a rescue? As the co-founder of PPITS, you may believe that I am here to vouch for the rescues, but my job as a rescuer is to ensure that the majority of animals are saved from euthanasia in our shelters whether they are adopted from the shelter or from a rescue. So I am here to provide a clear image of what adopting from both entails, so you have a better understanding and can better prepare yourself to welcome you new family member.

Thousands of animals are waiting to be adopted into loving homes during the holidays. Both shelters and rescues offer pets that are up to date on vaccinations, spayed or neutered and micro-chipped. There is no difference there aside from the adoption fee. The shelter’s fee is likely to be less expensive than when you adopt from a rescue organization. Why the disparity in fees? Because rescue groups invest in the animal, rehabilitating the pet’s health, training and psychological well-being, so they can join families and be better pets.

Then again, the real difference starts with understanding the conditions in which your new pet has been living prior to arriving to your home. At a shelter, most animals are living in kennels, some in open air kennels, exposed to the elements, continuous barking, obligated to potty where they eat and sleep because there are not enough volunteers to walk the dogs, or the dogs do not get walked due to exhibiting behavioral issues. These issues are common due to exposure to this stressful environment, fear or prior history of abuse.

Prior to adopting from a rescue organization, the pets either live in foster homes where they have the opportunity to be a part of the home and family and learn how to live in that environment. Or, they live in kennels where they receive frequent walks,, get daily exercise and training as needed. They also have the opportunity to be socialized.

Therefore, the transition of a pet from the shelter to your home is more stressful than the transition from a rescue. So you have to be adequately prepared to welcome your pet according to his or her recent history.

Again, I am not telling you this so you are prompted to adopt from a rescue organization. Animals at the shelter also need to be saved! I am providing this information so you can have a better understanding of what your new pet will need upon being adopted regardless if its from the shelter or a rescue.

Health wise, if you adopt from a rescue, the pet is likely to be healthy and has been treated for any illnesses or injury. If you adopt from the shelter, it is very likely that your pet will have kennel cough or some upper respiratory infection (very treatable illnesses) due to the living conditions and the exposure to the elements. Shelters usually provide you with a voucher to use at your veterinarian of choice to obtain a free health exam. Please use this immediately after adopting your pet from the shelter! Why you ask? Shelter paperwork usually lists that you can return the pet to the shelter if it is sick. However, returning a pet to the shelter is an immediate death sentence. Most shelters do not have the resources to adequately treat illness and therefore will opt to euthanize a pet in order to avoid infection from spreading to other pets. Therefore, the first thing you need to do is take your pet to the vet, get it assessed and provide it with the medication it needs to get better. Kennel cough is very common. It is the canine equivalent of a cold and only requires the right dosage of antibiotics. Don’t you think that it is needless to have a dog euthanized over a cold? So do we.

And here is where animal rescues come into play! Since most shelters do not have the resources to treat illnesses or severe injuries, animal rescues usually take on this responsibility along with training and animal rehabilitation by professionals.
Continuing the topic of stress, whether the pet comes from the shelter or from a rescue, it will need time to integrate into your home, and get used to his/her new living environment and any other pets you may have. So provide your pet with a comfortable room away from other pets in the home, where he can rest, get familiar with the new sounds and the scents of the home and calm down for a day or two. This is not the time to integrate your new pet with the resident pets at the home, because fights are likely to break out even if all pets are friendly. This is mainly due to the stress of being confronted with a new environment. If your pet is coming home from the shelter, use this time also as a quarantine time to ensure that your pet is healthy and does not get your other pets sick. Vets usually suggest a 10-day period for quarantine. This is the perfect time to get your pet used to your routine and allow your resident pets to also get used to the new presence in the home.
When adopting from a rescue, it is possible that the rescue will also help you with integrating the new pet into your home. Do not hesitate to ask help as needed. We suggest that you allow your pets to welcome the new pet into the home, which usually occurs after a few days by the welcoming pet wanting to spend time with the new arrival.

Please note that cat integration takes longer and is done differently, so get informed about proper cat integration techniques (perhaps on future blog!).

This is about it when it comes from adopting from a shelter: You fill out your application,, choose your new companion, and pick them up. Be prepared for more due diligence when adopting from a rescue. What does this mean? Rescue organizations put a lot of effort into ensuring that pets are placed in homes that are compatible with their owners in order to minimize pets being returned. It also ensures that the pet is being placed in a safe, loving environment where it can thrive. This involves a thorough screening process that includes checking references, an interview and a home check. Different rescues have different requirements for placing their pets, so please get familiar with the rescue’s requirements. While most people get approved for adoption, keep in mind that those who do not get approved are either deemed to be incompatible with the pet they are interested in. After all, you may not lead the lifestyle that the pet requires (i.e. an active lifestyle for an active and energetic pet; or you want a pet that sheds excessively, while you have an aversion to pet hair, etc.); or you have erroneously expressed the reasons as to why you want to get a pet (i.e. as a Christmas or a birthday present for someone who is not involved in the decision and application process, you are not willing or cannot afford to go the extra mile to ensure the pet is trained and receives proper care, etc).

The bonus you get by adopting from a rescue is you ultimately get to save two lives. You’ve made room in a foster home for a rescue to save another from the shelter.

I hope that this provides you with a better idea of what it means to adopt a pet from a shelter versus a rescue, and it will help you with your decision. There are thousands of animals out there that need you right now! Our hope is that you will find the right pet that is the perfect fit for you and your home. Happy holidays!
Monica L. Sederholm, PPITS Co-founder and animal behaviorist.

Merriam-Webster, 2014, Definition of Shelter,