Sacramento City Animal Shelter.
People often talk about "adopting" when they refer to pets, but it really is a purchase, as heartless as that may sound.
And it must be preceded by more research and reflection than many other major buying decisions. After all, you're talking about a living creature. Important considerations include from whom to buy or adopt and how much owning a pet really costs.
While it can be costly to own cats or dogs, there's more demand for bred puppies - which can cost thousands of dollars - and a greater chance of questionable sales practices. That's why we're focusing on dogs here.
Jay Levine, a veterinarian who volunteers with law enforcement on animal cruelty investigations, says he's seen terrible cases of dog breeders mistreating dogs. He recommends consumers strongly consider shelters and rescue groups but says there are "thousands of very reputable breeders" who care about dogs' welfare.
The "vast majority" of the thousands of American Kennel Club breeders inspected annually comply with its policy on proper care, says AKC spokeswoman Lisa Peterson.
The big decisions:
•Shelter or breeder. Animal shelters and rescue groups have both purebred and mixed-breed dogs, typically for far less than at a breeder. About 3.4 million shelter dogs and cats are euthanized a year, but only 30% of pets come from shelters or rescues, according to an American Pet Products Association survey. That's despite the fact shelters and rescue groups typically provide health care, shots, spaying and neutering before the dogs are put up for adoption. Reputable breeders will usually give puppies at least the first shots but wouldn't spay or neuter.
•Purebred or mixed breed. Adopting a purebred dog doesn't reduce the risk of health problems and can actually lead to more problems than with a mixed-breed shelter dog, says Wayne Pacelle, CEO of the Humane Society of the United States. Levine, a professor at North Carolina State University's College of Veterinary Medicine, recommends researching congenital and inherited problems of different breeds before settling on one.
•Online and pet stores. Breeders who sell dogs to pet stores are required to have a U.S. Department of Agriculture license and are subject to federal inspections. But breeders who sell dogs online are not. USDA is considering new rules that would treat breeders who sell dogs online the same as those who sell to pet stores. The rules would also require breeders with more than five breeding female dogs to adhere to humane standards for care and exercise.
Pacelle warns that dogs sold online or in pet stores sometimes come from big, "inhumane" breeders. Puppies from these breeders, which HSUS calls "puppy mills," can have a host of pricey health issues, including heartworms, says Levine. The codes of ethics for many of the American Kennel Club's 175 breed clubs - including for pugs and Great Danes- prohibit pet-store sales.
When consumers can't meet a breeder in person, AKC spokeswoman Peterson says, they should make sure pet stores or online sellers are selling AKC-registered puppies, because AKC is the only registry with an ongoing inspections program. Also, ask to see AKC registration papers, which would have the breeder's name, and ask about AKC club affiliation or AKC pedigree. Consider other sellers if the store won't provide AKC registration papers, she says.
Even if a dog is registered with the AKC, it might have come from a big breeder who mistreats dogs, according to a July HSUS report. The report documents cases where breeders who sold puppies registered with AKC were convicted of animal cruelty.
Breeders found to have "major kennel deficiencies" during inspections can lose their AKC privileges to register dogs or compete in events, face fines or be referred to law enforcement, Peterson says.
It could also be cruel to disregard the costs of pet ownership before an adoption, especially if there's a chance you might not be able to afford the needed health care. The minimum annual cost of owning a medium-size dog is $695, while the first year alone will cost at least $1,580, according to animal welfare group ASPCA. A cat would cost about the same annually, but about $500 less the first year, says ASPCA. The group warns that pet owners should be prepared to pay far more, as this doesn't include unexpected veterinary bills, boarding or dog walkers. Teeth cleaning alone can cost hundreds of dollars. Retrieving a sock after a dog eats it - far more.
Pet insurance can help with big-ticket medical bills but is costly and won't cover everything.
"It can be a very expensive proposition to own any animal," says Lorin Liesenfelt, CEO of Dog Days Adoption Events in Essex, Conn. "But that presence of a companion animal can be magical."
Before buying a bred dog:
•Meet the breeder in person and ask to see at least one of the puppy's parents.
•Check out how the dogs were housed.
•Request copies of veterinary care records.
•Ask for a guarantee of the health of the puppy for the first few weeks after purchase and a refund if a veterinarian finds a congenital health problem.
By Jayne O'Donnell