Are You Sure You Want To Adopt That Pet?

Pandemic puppies are an extremely cute trend, but adopting an animal in quarantine could be a dicey proposition

A cute orange cat naps while its paw lays on its owner’s hand.
Photo: Ann Schwede/Getty Images

It seems like every time I scroll through my social media feeds, I see another friend who’s fostering or adopting a pet. They’re romping with rescue pups on grassy lawns. They’re cuddling with kittens as they binge Tiger King.

I’m a little jealous, but I’m also a little skeptical. I grew up with a beloved family dog that I often miss. But because I know how much work they are, I’ve held off on getting my own pet, even as adoptions and foster care applications have surged with the country in lockdown.

This odd new phenomenon of animal shelters running out of dogs is, broadly, a good thing — especially when the pandemic has forced many shelters to reduce their hours of operation or close entirely. At the same time, while bringing a pet home right now can make people less lonely, it can also be uniquely challenging, from having to take your rambunctious puppy on socially distant walks to being hit with a steep vet bill right as you get laid off. Here’s what to consider before you hop on that animal shelter waitlist.

Looking for love

First, the pros. It’s fairly obvious why so many people want a furry little body to snuggle with right now: We’re living through a very difficult, unprecedented time that is pushing us to find new coping mechanisms. Getting a new dog or cat can feel like a natural salve, so much so that our brains push right past the fact that it’s also complicated and labor-intensive.

“One of the things that I’ve learned from studying human-animal interactions for 30 years is our decisions about animals are often not very rational,” says Hal Herzog, author of Some We Love, Some We Hate, Some We Eat. For one, Herzog notes, humans evolved from creatures much like chimpanzees, which bond by grooming and touch. With so many people missing hugs right now, petting an animal very quickly fulfills that primal need for touch.

There are also emotional benefits. “[Having a pet] makes us feel needed. It alleviates boredom,” Herzog says. “It takes your mind off yourself, your own problems.” As the days blend together and it gets harder to remember to get fresh air or put on non-PJ bottoms, it helps to have an urgent responsibility, a living thing to care for and temporarily ground you in a period defined by uncertainties.

And our current circumstances can heighten the joy of an already joyful moment: If you’re ready for pet ownership and rapidly fall in love with that big-eyed pit mix, all the excitement you’d feel bringing a pet home for the first time will probably be magnified.

But there’s the (belly) rub: You have to be prepared to keep up the stellar pet ownership long after quarantining is over, when commuting to work and having tangible weekend plans are factors again.

Thinking long term

“It’s important to think about how the pet will fit into your life once this is over,” says Zazie Todd, author of Wag: The Science of Making Your Dog Happy. “Will you still have the time, money, and energy for a pet post-lockdown?” Aside from factoring in the average costs of things like food, vaccinations, training, pet sitters, and emergency vet visits—all of which might be even harder to pay for in a depressed economy—you also have to prepare to commit years and years (up to 15 or more, depending on the pet) of properly caring for the animal you just brought home.

Todd also emphasizes the importance of being able to adapt to the very specific constraints of pandemic pet-owning. While she says that the influx of adoptions and fostered pets can help shelters in a positive way, “at the same time, it raises some issues.” Properly socializing a puppy, Todd notes, means exposing it to a wide range of positive experiences between three and 12 weeks old, “and that is really hard to do right now.”

And just because you’re home all the time with the pet does not, by default, mean it’s getting everything it needs to be content. If you take in a more active dog of any age, you might be finding more limitations on where and for how long you can walk it. That might mean looking into other ways to burn up that energy around the house, such as playing games or putting food in toys.

Staying realistic

Having a dog or cat around more often won’t necessarily fulfill your emotional needs, either. “People generally have an exaggerated view of the impact of pets on human physical and mental health,” says Herzog, who looked into about 30 studies on pets and depression and found that the majority indicated no real change in mood. That is to say, if you’ve never had a pet before and impulsively got one to feel happier, there’s no guarantee the feeling will last. If you haven’t asked yourself the tougher questions and pondered the sacrifices you might have to make down the line, fully adopting an animal might make you more stressed and miserable in the long run.

None of this is to discourage anyone from adoption or fostering. And as is the case with most major life changes, you’ll never be as prepared as you want to be. But pandemic pet ownership requires some extra planning.

Anna Lai, marketing director at Muddy Paws Rescue (which reported a 30% increase in adoption applications), advises “setting your dog up for success beyond the pandemic [by] creating an environment that will be similar to the ‘real world’ as much as possible in terms of exercise, structure, and time spent alone for the dog.” This, according to Lai, means taking socially distant walks without your dog, continuing regular crating, and training regularly. Since no one’s going to puppy class right now, she recommends using free online training videos and the CDC’s guidelines on pets.

Especially for first-time pet owners, the uncertainty we’re all facing might make fostering a safer bet. “The beauty of fostering is that it can be temporary. So as long as everyone gets along for the weeks or months the pet will be in the home, there is less pressure to find the perfect fit,” says Julie Castle, CEO of Best Friends Animal Society. Even so, she recommends “doing some homework and considering a dog’s breed, age, size, activity level, and hair length,” as all of those things will greatly affect how well you mesh together.

But the nice thing about fostering, Castle says, is that both parties learn something. You might realize that you’re better off with a smaller dog. A shelter might discover that the dog you fostered was more energetic than they thought, making the animal easier to place in the right permanent home.

The best part about all of this, as Herzog notes, is the larger, growing pattern in people adopting rescues and reducing pet overpopulation in the United States. “Having a foster is seen as a cool and trendy thing right now,” Castle says. “So our next steps are to find out how we can hold onto that positive energy and keep people engaged long term.” Hopefully, the trend will long outlast everyone being stuck at home.

freelance writer with work in VICE, BuzzFeed News, Glamour, Cosmopolitan, Insider, and more.

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