Bringing Home a Shelter Pet: A Beginner's Guide

9 December 2021 - 9 min read

This article was written for the United States market and the advice provided may not be accurate for those in the United Kingdom.

If you adopt your four-legged friend from a shelter instead of buying from a breeder, kudos: You've done a good deed. When bringing home a new rescue dog or cat, you're giving them a chance at a happy, healthy life in a loving home. And while buying from a breeder can be perfectly acceptable if you're certain the breeder is ethical, adopting from a shelter fully ensures that you aren't rewarding puppy mills or other abusive breeders.

But there's something crucial to keep in mind when you bring a pet home from a shelter: You can't expect smooth sailing, at least at the beginning. After all, you're bringing a new pet home from a stressful environment. And their pre-shelter environment, whether it was an abusive home or the mean streets of your city, may have been even more stressful. Combine all this with the predictable stress of being relocated to a new home with unfamiliar faces, and it's easy to see why your new pet may be anxious during their first days and weeks in their adopted home.

One of the biggest mistakes adoptive pet parents can make is expecting everything to go perfectly. But if you anticipate challenges — and prepare to address them in your pet's first few weeks at home — you'll have a much better chance of fixing any behavioral problems instead of returning your pet. And returning your new furry friend is traumatic for pets and pet parents alike, not to mention taxing for the shelter.

Dogs in dog house

Ask Questions to Find the Right Pet

Before you even bring your adoptive dog or cat home, you should pose detailed questions to the shelter’s dedicated professionals. You know your needs better than anyone else: Do you have the bandwidth to housetrain a pet that hasn’t been housetrained already? Can your home accommodate a high-energy, large-breed dog? Do you have a plan in place for solving any existing behavioral challenges?

Some shelter dogs and cats are likely to be more low-maintenance than others. Depending on what your needs are, your local shelter professionals should be able to steer you toward the pet that’s right for you.

People with dogs

Establish Roles for Everyone

Whether you’re living alone or living with a large family, it’s wise to draw up roles and responsibilities for everyone in the household. If you live alone, it’s simple enough: You'll do everything yourself. If that's not too much responsibility, congrats on being a super committed pet parent.

However, if you live with multiple people who are up for taking on responsibilities, it’s wise to establish everyone’s roles ahead of time. If you determine who’s doing the feeding, who’s doing the training, who’s taking walks (and at what time of day), and so on, your household will be a well-oiled machine by the time your furry friend arrives. That’ll cut down on the chaos factor, and help reduce your new pet’s anxiety.

Dog on leash with pet parent

Decide Where Your Pet Will Spend Their Time

Before your new pet arrives, make sure you’ve established which areas of your home you expect them to reside in. This will not only enable you to pet-proof your home effectively — it’ll give every member of your family a sense of where they’ll be spending time with their new family member (and where they can go to get a breather).

It's even wise to create gated-off areas in your home ahead of time, to establish where your pet won’t have access, including when you’re not at home.

Have the Right Supplies

You need a lot of supplies on hand to take care of a new pet, and you don’t want to be shopping on the fly.

For a dog, you’ll absolutely need:

  • Food

  • Food bowl and water bowl

  • Leash and collar

  • ID tag, including your phone number

  • Bed

  • Treats

  • Poop bags

  • Nail trimmer

  • Toys

  • Pet first aid kit

  • Crate

For a cat, you should also add:

  • Kitty litter

  • Litter box

  • Scooper

German Shepherd at Home

Your Pet's First Weeks at Home

Your pet’s first week at home is crucial, and you should be prepared for some stress. It’s possible — perhaps even likely — that your pet will be highly anxious they’re introduced to their new home. Just remember that your four-legged friend is entering an unfamiliar environment after a stretch of time in a stressful shelter, before which they might have faced an even more stressful situation.

So give your new family member time. If things do go smoothly from the jump, fantastic! But if there are some initial behavioral problems, don’t panic, and definitely don’t return your pet without giving them a chance.

Keep Things Calm and Smooth

During the commute home on day one, make sure your pet experiences a smooth trip. Leave them safely in their crate, obey the speed limit, don’t take sharp turns, and don't brake sharply if you can avoid it. You don't want to make your pet’s anxiety worse by driving hectically.

Likewise, you should keep the nerve-jangling to a minimum at home. Give your pet their own space — for one thing, you should make sure they’re not crowded by numerous family members looking to meet the new family pet. And you should be ready to give your furry friend their own space, whether in their crate or in a gated-off area of your home.

Don’t take it personally if your pet is too nervous for any extended interactions and prefers to be left alone at first. They’ve just been through a big transition, and hopefully things will change soon enough.

Give Your Pet a Chance to Decompress

When you bring your pet home, don’t overwhelm their senses, and don’t shower them with attention when they’re not ready for it. If your new pet is a dog, you might consider taking them for a walk in the area around their new home before you actually bring them inside.

And once inside, give them their own space. It’s wise to set aside an area of your home that’s just for them — nothing more than some open space, a bed and blankets, and their crate. Leave the crate open, of course — it's just there to give your pet a chance to get out of the action if they want to.

You may be dying to smother your new furry family member with love and attention. But you should let them come to you first, and you shouldn’t get offended if they take a while to do so. It’s very likely that they’ll eventually come out of their shell (or crate), but let them do it on their own timetable.

By the way, the whole “let-your-pet-decompress” thing only works if the other members of your household follow along. Your family is no doubt looking forward to meeting their new furry friend, but your new pet simply won’t benefit from an onslaught of attention from multiple unfamiliar humans.

Kids, especially, must be cautioned to give the new family pet some much-needed space — and to be gentle when they do show the new pet attention. Make sure that any children in the home don’t try to hug your new pet tightly, touch them roughly or get in their face. This kind of behavior will almost surely worsen your pet’s anxiety.

Just keep things as calm and even-keeled as possible.

Ease Your Pet Into Meeting Other Furry Family Members

Existing pets pose a challenge, though not an insurmountable one. Established pets can be instinctively territorial at home, heightening your new pet’s initial anxieties. It’s good practice to keep your new pets separated from your existing ones for at least 24 hours, giving each their own territory in your home.

And when you do introduce them, you should consider doing so outside of the home — say, during a walk or in the park. This erases territoriality from the equation, allowing your pets to meet on a relaxed, neutral footing.

If you have any problems ratcheting down the tensions, don’t hesitate to keep your pets separate and repeat their outdoor interactions until they’re all comfortable with one another, no matter how long that takes.

Visit Your Vet within the First Week

Shelter pets come with varying degrees of veterinary history and varying degrees of documentation. Your local shelter should share all the history they have when it comes to vaccinations and veterinary treatment history.

Unless your shelter has records of very recent veterinary visits that cover all of your pet’s immediate health and vaccination needs, you must take your pet to the vet within the first week of adopting them for a basic wellness exam, tests and vaccinations. This will get your pet up-to-date on immunizations and help you identify any undiagnosed health conditions.

Truth be told, you should take your pet to the vet in fairly short order even if the shelter says they have a clean bill of health. If nothing else, it’s an opportunity to establish a relationship between your pet and your vet, and to give your vet a copy of your pet’s health records.

You should also consult your vet about what preventive meds your pet will need (like flea, tick and heartworm medication), and buy those from your vet or at the local pet store. Your new furry friend will be happier and more well-adjusted if they’re healthy, and you’ll surely be happier too.

Make Sure Your Pet Is Eating and Drinking

Your pet needs to eat a well-rounded diet, and drink enough water, to remain healthy. But any number of factors, including stress, anxiety, or a switch to new food, can impact your pet’s  eating and drinking when they first get to a new home.

So during your pet’s first week, make sure they’re eating full meals and drinking enough water. Observe whether they’re leaving substantial amounts of food or water in their bowl.

If you determine that your pet is not eating or drinking normally, ask your local shelter professional if they witnessed this problem at the shelter as well. If not, anxiety may be the primary culprit, and your pet may simply need time to adjust. It may also be the case that your pet was particularly fond of the food they were getting in the shelter (no really, this does happen), so if you’ve switched, you might try switching back.

If things don’t improve within a few days, consult your vet to rule out any medical causes for appetite loss.

Create a Routine

If you’ve adopted a new dog, quickly establish how many walks you’ll take them on per day, and roughly at what times. And whether you’ve adopted a cat or a dog, pin down how many times you’ll be feeding them per day, and when.

Pets need schedules and regularity, especially when they’ve been living in chaotic or transitional environments. The sooner you can establish a routine, the sooner your four-legged friend is likely to become a happy, well-adjusted member of your family.

Housetraining Is Crucial

This isn’t really unique to rescue animals, but it must be said anyway: Housetraining your pet is just about the first order of doing business. And if you don’t have the time or desire to housetrain a pet, you should try to find a pet that’s already housetrained.

But keep in mind: Any pet just coming out of an animal shelter — even one that’s already been potty-trained — may forget some of their bathroom habits in the first few days out of the shelter. Anxiety will do that to you.

Here are a few rules of thumb:

  • If you’ve adopted a dog, take them out for regular walks and praise them when they do their business outdoors. Whether you’re dealing with a puppy or an adult dog, rewards-based training simply works.

  • Be sure there are pee pads on the floor, even if your pet is already housetrained.

  • If you have a cat, hopefully things will be simpler — get them accustomed to using their litter box.

Identify Persistent Destructive Behaviors

No one is saying you should ignore destructive behaviors and keep a troubled pet just to be a good samaritan. On the contrary: You should be hyper-attuned to any persistent destructive behaviors so you can deal with them before they become unchangeable.

It’s one thing if your pet is demonstrating problems like aggression, anxiety, or poor bathroom habits in their first few days and weeks at home. But if those behaviors persist after you’ve tried basic rewards-based training and consulted your vet, you may need to consult an animal behaviorist to help your pet develop new skills.

Consider Dog Training Classes

If you adopt a dog that isn’t well trained, you should definitely consider taking them to basic dog training classes. You don’t need to wait until their problems become persistent, either — a professional dog trainer can help you bond with your dog and fix any problems before they become bigger ones.

Senior Dog

Don’t Give Up!

This can’t be said strongly enough: Don’t give up on your new pet unless you’ve tried everything. Returning a pet to a shelter is incredibly traumatic for them. A thinking, feeling animal can only handle so many transitions and so much chaos. If you send your pet back to the shelter, they might have an even more difficult time adapting to their next adoptive home.

If you approach pet adoption with the mindset that it will require effort and patience, you’ll be far more likely to succeed as an adoptive pet parent. So keep at it! Nothing is more rewarding than giving a rescue pet a new chance at happiness.