1. Get to know your shelter. Some shelters and rescue groups have lengthy questionnaires, required home visits and expensive adoption fees. Others are animal control units—you pay $8 and you can walk away with a pet. Most shelters fall somewhere in between, charging an adoption fee of $100 to $200. "It can be anywhere from an intense relationship to no relationship with the shelter, so check out the policies, fees and attitude of the place you're going to before you make a commitment—because sometimes, it's almost like you're adopting the shelter, too," says Betsy. The choice is yours.
2. Think about your lifestyle. Do you come home from work and just want to veg? Or are you going to be ready for a run? "Most people have an image of the dog that they want, but sometimes our perceptions of our own life do not match reality," says Betsy. You might love the outdoors, but how often do you really go hiking? "That hiking dog who will only go hiking once a year will need more exercise than you can give him."
3. Consider an older pet. You may think you want a young dog or cat because the baby stage is so cute. But older animals can be much easier. "They've seen a lot, and when you spring them from a shelter, they love you because you're the person who got them out of there. And they're often already house-trained," says Betsy, who generally only adopts older animals. When it comes down to it, there is no perfect age. It's all about your own time commitment.
4. Consider the breed. Petfinder advocates mixed breeds—although 25 percent of the animals on the site are purebred. Though it's a bit like stereotyping, you can use breeds as a general guideline. Labs tend to be affable. Jack Russells tend to be high-energy. Basset hounds tend to be lazy. And purebreds tend to have health problems from years of overbreeding. (Visit the site's breed directory at to learn more.) Though remember, those rules are made to be broken, so meet and really spend time with the animal to figure out if they have the characteristics you're looking for.
5. Get away from the mayhem. "Remove the cat or dog from the chaos of the other animals, whether that's a private room for a cat or a long walk for a dog," says Betsy. That's when his or her real personality will begin to shine through.
6. Take the whole household into account. Have another cat at home? Go to Petfinder.com and watch their video on how to introduce two cats. For cats in general, the most successful adoptions happen in pairs. If you had a pet who recently passed away and have another one still at home, it's not a bad idea to get a new pet fairly quickly so the remaining pet has somewhere to direct its love. "It's not replacing your dog—it's honoring that amazing life by saving another one," says Betsy.
7. Foster to adopt. Many shelters and rescue groups have foster-to-adopt programs, where you take the animal into your home for a period of time. It's sort of like test-driving. It helps you assess if this pet fits into your lifestyle and gives everyone time to adjust and get to know each other.
8. Give it time. A surprising number of animals are returned to the shelter, so know ahead of time that there will be an adjustment period. "You'll need a couple of weeks for integration, and at the 3- to 6-month mark, they'll realize that this is their home. I had a dog that didn't bark at all. I thought there might be something wrong with him, then one day, I was standing at the stairs and all of a sudden, he was talking about a squirrel. He'd finally gotten comfortable enough to be himself," says Betsy.