Adopting a dog online

The internet makes it easier than ever to find the right companion. But, make sure these online sites have the best interests of the animals at heart.

When John and Ella Olson decided to get a dog, they headed to the local shelter. They wanted a small adult dog, suitable for life in their apartment, and one that would be good with children.

They saw many nice canines, but none that met their criteria. Frustrated, Ella mentioned her plight to a coworker, who pointed her to an online pet adoption website. The couple soon met with a handful of dogs matching their criteria, and within a few weeks, adopted Stella.

“She was at a shelter just over two hours away from us,” says Ella. “We’d never have found her if we didn’t go online.”

Thanks to the internet, potential adopters are no longer limited to the cats and dogs available at local shelters. An online search can yield dozens of adoptable animals across the country.

But there’s a catch. Just as with anything else, there are disreputable pet adoption sites as well as legitimate ones. It’s vital to learn how to tell the difference.

Look at their reputation

One of the most well known online pet adoption services is Petfinder, which has adopted out 13 million animals since its inception in 1995. One reason for its popularity is its strong reputation; Petfinder screens every adoption agency before allowing it to post animals on their website.

“In addition, all our adoption partners look out for one another,” says cofounder Betsy Saul. “If someone gets on there who doesn’t have the best interests of the animals in mind, we’ll hear about it, likely from more than one person.”

The best way to screen a site is to look for the following red flags:

Quick transactions

Any organization looking to find permanent homes for their animals should require applications, personal reference checks, a vet reference, a phone interview or even a home visit. Avoid sites that offer you an animal with little or no questions asked.

No health guarantees

The site should offer proof of recent vet checks and a full disclosure of any known medical information about the animal. If your potential companion comes with no health history, move on. No interest in population control: Reputable adoption centers are committed to ending animal overpopulation, and won’t release a dog or cat that hasn’t been spayed or neutered, or a puppy or kitten that doesn’t have a spay/ neuter agreement. If your dog or cat is arriving intact, find out why.

Too much pressure

Dedicated adoption sites shun impulse shoppers. A reputable site might inform you that other families are looking at the same animal as you are, but they won’t put pressure on you or offer incentives. If the site you’re working.

Making the right match

Reputable online adoption sites offer a number of benefits. They include helping you choose the right dog or cat for you. Many people walk into their local shelters knowing just what they want, yet come out with a completely different animal based on a sympathetic reaction. Sometimes it works out, but other times, the mismatched animal is back at the shelter in a few days. Looking at adoptable animals online can reduce these mismatches. “Our search engine will screen out pets, and show you only those that match what you’re looking for,” Betsy explains.

For example, say you’ve decided to get an adult dog, possibly a German shepherd, within your local area. Entering this data into a search engine will yield only the dogs that meet your criteria, reducing the possibility of a change of heart after the fact. Browsing online from your own home is also a more relaxing experience, enabling you to think clearly and thoroughly before acting.

Long distance considerations

While long distance adoptions are quite common, careful consideration is necessary when an animal is located hundreds of miles away. Whenever possible, always try to meet the dog or cat before committing.

“Keep in mind when reviewing websites that the size of the animal may be different from how it appears in a photo/video, and that it is hard to determine his temperament,” says Gloria Marti, president of Save a Sato, an organization committed to helping the stray dogs of Puerto Rico. Gloria recalls the story of a woman who traveled to Puerto Rico to pick up a dog she fell in love with on the internet, only to discover he was much larger than expected. She ended up with a completely different dog.

If a long distance animal catches your eye, make a phone call to his present caregivers, ask to see video, and discuss his health background. If you’re still interested, make arrangements for a meeting. Perhaps someone will meet you halfway with the animal, or you could plan a road trip around going to see him.

If you decide to go ahead without a meeting, transport becomes an important issue. Find out who pays for the transportation, and make sure there are procedures in place to ensure the health and safety of the animal while he’s in transit.

“All the animals we send out of Puerto Rico have a travel and vaccination certificate and are evaluated by a vet two to three days before traveling,” says Gloria.

Taking an animal across borders raises other considerations. “Those who come to Puerto Rico to bring an animal back with them should always check with their state and city laws for quarantine and other regulations, and call the airline they are traveling on to find out their policy for transporting animals,” Gloria advises.

Like any internet opportunity, research and the right questions will help you steer clear of problems. If you take an educated approach, it may lead you to your new best friend!

No surprises, please

Thinking of adopting an animal around the holidays? Don’t be surprised to find that some organizations close down during the holiday season. This isn’t just to give their staff a vacation, but to prevent a dog or cat from going home amid the chaos of the season.

Other places won’t release an animal unless every family member is present. Again, this wise step is to prevent a dog or cat from becoming a possibly unwelcome holiday gift.

If you have your heart set on giving someone an animal as a holiday gift, ask to purchase an adoption gift certificate (or make your own on the computer). Couple this with a plush stuffed animal and some pet supplies, and present this to your gift recipient. After the festive season ends and life settles down again, go shopping together to pick out the right animal.


Debbie Swanson is a freelance writer living near Boston. She contributes regularly to many animal magazines, and lives with her family and a collie named Duncan.