Before You Adopt: Planning a Lifelong Commitment to Your Pet’s Health

You’re scrolling Instagram when it happens: the tilted head, the floppy ears. Fluffy or Fido is looking for a home and there’s an empty place at the foot of your bed.

In a couple of clicks you have filled out an application to adopt. Falling in love with a cute pet is easy, but it’s important to think critically about the animal’s lifelong veterinary care and associated costs before you make a commitment and bring a new pet into your home.

Thanks to advancements in veterinary medicine, our pets are living longer and healthier lives. Veterinary care is increasingly mirroring human medicine, with specialists, surgeons, rehabilitation specialists, holistic practitioners and behaviorists available to keep Fluffy feeling her best — but these expanded care options come at a cost. According to the American Pet Products Association, after food and supplies, veterinary care is the biggest annual area of spending for pet owners. In 2018, the most recent year for which data is available, Americans spent $18.11 billion on veterinary care, a 6.1 percent increase over the previous year — a faster rate of growth for any other area of pet spending. And that figure is expected to keep rising.

If you are thinking of adding a new pet to your family, regardless of if it is coming from a shelter, a rescue group or a responsible breeder, it’s important to take the health of the animal into account, think critically about your finances and assess your abilities to provide comprehensive veterinary care on a continuing basis.

Dr. Heather Loenser, a senior veterinary officer at the American Animal Hospital Association, said that “the lives of pets would be so much better if people thought about the cost of health care, the specific needs a certain breed or species has and how to prepare themselves.”

“I’ve seen far too many instances where a lack of preparation or education has cut a pet’s life short,” she said, which leaves a family “heartbroken and guilt-ridden.”

“It cuts my colleagues and I to the core,” she added, “when we are placed in a situation where a pet’s life must end because of poor planning.”

Doing research before adopting a pet is crucial to ensuring that you are able to provide the kind of home and family that an animal needs for its entire life.

You might fantasize about having a dog to take on hikes, but have you also imagined the care your future pup will need over the course of its lifetime? If you’re considering adding a pet to your family, Dr. Loenser advises that you should consider three areas of veterinary care:

  • preventive care like regular physical exams and wellness discussions, vaccinations, and medications that prevent worms, fleas and ticks;

  • emergency care like accidents or sudden illnesses; and

  • possible care for health problems like dental disease, skin infections, allergies, diabetes and cancers.

Having pets means needing to be prepared to deal with each of these three areas of care, and the more you know about an animal’s health and health history, the more prepared you will be. Joel Lopez, vice president of the New York City A.S.P.C.A. Adoption Center, said, “When adopting from a shelter or rescue organization, you often have the opportunity to learn more about the animal, including potential medical needs and their background.”

Slow down, he advised, and gather information about an animal and then make an informed decision if you are equipped to provide the sort of home that it needs. Mr. Lopez said he would encourage prospective adopters to “ask questions and lean on the staff at the shelter for guidance — they’re the experts at making matches and can typically provide a basic medical history to help you decide whether or not the animal is a good fit for your lifestyle.”

Especially with social media advertising, adopting a rescue pet can sometimes feel like a high-pressure sales interaction where potential adopters are afraid someone else will scoop up the pet whose pictures they adored. It’s OK to slow the process down and seek more information about a particular animal as you consider how its needs will align with yours.

If you dream of having a canine running partner or want a dog that can keep up with you on weekend hikes, it’s important to be realistic about a prospective dog’s structure and health. Before adopting a dog, it’s appropriate to ask questions about whether a dog has had orthopedic screenings, and if not, whether the rescue or shelter be willing to check the dog for orthopedic conditions. If a dog does have orthopedic conditions like knee injuries, arthritis or hip dysplasia, that’s not necessarily a reason not to adopt, but it’s helpful information for determining what your life with this dog would be like. It will also allow you to consider whether you have the financial ability to pay for the orthopedic surgeries and rehab it might need.

It’s important to research any breed of dog you are considering to learn about the needs, temperament and health risks. Common breed traits can guide some of your planning.

For example, a Lhasa apso (a breed first bred to be a lap dog) is unlikely to become your running partner. Similarly, a Malinois with a strong working drive is not going to be happy cooped up in your apartment while you work long hours. Brachycephalic breeds, those with shortened or flattened faces like pugs and French bulldogs, are predisposed to breathing issues and other serious health conditions. Giant breeds of dogs require more expensive veterinary care because not all clinics have the space needed for surgeries, and they require larger doses of prescription medication. Similarly, exotic animals like ferrets and birds need to see specialized veterinarians. Knowing ahead of time that you are bringing home an animal that is predisposed to various conditions or that requires specialized veterinary care can allow you to prepare yourself emotionally and financially.

Not all dogs have the same likelihood of being healthy. Dogs born to “backyard breeders” — people who casually breed a litter of dogs — as well as dogs born in puppy mills, which are large-scale commercial breeding operations, are particularly at risk for health complications. Conversely, responsible breeders “are committed to bettering their breed,” said Gina DiNardo, the American Kennel Club’s executive secretary. “They do the applicable health testing for that breed so they can produce healthy, well-adjusted animals who look like the breed is supposed to and have the correct temperament.”

You can expect that a responsible breeder “will provide official health screening results for the parents of litters,” Ms. DiNardo said. Responsible breeders are dedicated to producing mentally and physically healthy puppies and have long-term goals for bettering the health of the breed. Prospective puppy buyers can expect that “responsible breeders do health testing in accordance with the recommendations of their breed’s A.K.C. breed parent club, such as the Orthopedic Foundation for Animals for hip dysplasia and eye testing.”

Ms. DiNardo advises that prospective puppy buyers familiarize themselves with the A.K.C. Bred With H.E.A.R.T. program, which has breed-specific testing requirements as laid out by each of the A.K.C.-affiliated parent breed clubs. Research the tests recommended for the breed you are considering and ask breeders whether these tests were done, and how they factor into their breeding decisions.

Whenever you add a pet to your family, it’s a good idea to establish a relationship with a veterinarian as quickly as possible.

“We always recommend that new adopters take their pet to see a veterinarian within the first two weeks of adoption,” Mr. Lopez said. “This allows for the veterinarian to establish a relationship and baseline examination of the pet, which will help inform a monitoring schedule to ensure lifelong quality health care and disease prevention.” The adoption fee or purchase price is only a small part of the overall cost of a pet, and quality veterinary care can be expensive, but you don’t have to be wealthy to share your home with pets.

“If there are financial concerns regarding health care for the newly adopted pet, we recommend that the adoption family familiarize themselves with available low-cost services in their community prior to adoption,” said Dr. Felicia Magnaterra, a manager with the A.S.P.C.A.

You also can look into pet insurance, which may provide savings for you and your family. Dr. Loenser said: “For pet insurance, just like for human health insurance, consider if you want a plan that reimburses you for preventive care, like yearly wellness examinations, along with more emergent problems like accidents or complicated diseases, like cancer. Some employers offer pet insurance as a benefit, so be sure to check with your H.R. department.”

It’s also important to inquire about an animal’s mental health and behavior. For cats, some common behavioral issues, like inappropriate peeing, might be caused by an underlying health issue like a urinary tract infection. But bad behavior might just be a problem that you can improve but not eliminate. Similarly, if you are adopting a dog, ask about its temperament and behavior, and be realistic and honest about what you are prepared to manage. Do you want a dog that can accompany you outside the home? If so, then a dog that is uncomfortable, reactive or aggressive toward other dogs or people probably isn’t the right choice. “Just like with humans,” Dr. Loenser said, “behavior issues like fear, aggression and separation anxiety can be due to trauma sustained when a pet was young, so your veterinarian may recommend working along with a board-certified behavior specialist.”

It isn’t a sign of failure to admit that you aren’t ready or able to take on a pet that comes with a pre-existing physical, mental or behavioral health issue. Not everyone is in a position to make the significant time, financial and emotional commitments for a special needs pet. At the same time, these pets have a lot of love to give and can be rewarding companions, so don’t write them off completely. “By adopting a special needs pet, including a senior or an animal with a chronic illness, you could give a cat or dog an enjoyable life that they may not have had otherwise,” Mr. Lopez said. Dr. Loenser agreed, saying that “the financial and emotional toll may be higher, but there is something very rewarding about helping a pet in need.”

Sassafras Lowrey is a Certified Trick Dog Instructor and author of “Tricks In The City,” “Bedtime Stories For Rescue Dogs,” and the activity book “Chew This Journal” forthcoming in Summer 2020. Follow Sassafras on Twitter @SassafrasLowrey and at SassafrasLowrey.com.

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