Adopting a Pet From a Rescue (And Why the Rules Sometimes Seem Wacky)

Have you ever wondered why pet rescues rules are often so weird? Here’s the reason for all the red tape and how you can navigate it.


Adopting a pet from a rescue is startlingly similar to adopting a human baby from an adoption agency.

In both cases, the groups require a thorough screening process to ensure that the pet/baby is placed in a home where they will not only be cherished for the rest of their life but also receive the appropriate care and nurturing they need to thrive.

If you’ve never worked with a pet rescue, you might be annoyed by some of the hurdles you’ll have to jump over en route to adopting a pet.

But there’s one simple reason for all those hurdles: Rescues want to make sure their babies — many of whom they’ve saved from illness, abuse and death — are placed in permanent, loving homes where they will be spoiled and pampered for the rest of their lives.

Although there’s no way to determine for certain whether a potential adopter can provide the perfect home, rescues try hard — which means they do a lot of work in screening their applicants.

Here’s what you can expect from most rescues (policies and procedures will vary).

Applying to Adopt a Pet From a Rescue

An adoption application gathers the data the rescue uses as criteria for screening potential adopters.

Expect 1–2 pages of basic questions, most of which focus on your home, lifestyle and beliefs on how to properly care for a pet.

They’ll also try to match you with a pet who will thrive in your environment.

For example:

  • If you live in an apartment and work long hours, a rescue will probably balk at giving you a young, active dog but might recommend an older dog or a pair of dogs who won’t mind lazing around all day, provided they have a place to potty.
  • If you live in the city or the suburbs and allow your cats to roam outside, a rescue will probably reject you — it has grown increasingly dangerous to allow cats to live outdoors, and the rescue won’t want to take any chances.
  • If you have infants or toddlers living with you, a rescue will not let you adopt a dog or cat who responds poorly to roughhousing.
  • If you live in a house, the rescue will want to know about the security and height of your fence.
  • If you plan to or have a history of performing “cosmetic” surgery on your animals — cropping ears, docking tails, declawing cats — the rescue will reject you outright, just as they will if you have intact animals (except those who are too old or ill to have surgery). If you want a declawed cat, discuss the decision with the rescue or shelter staff. Be open and honest. There may be an already-declawed cat available for adoption.

The application shouldn’t be too long.

You also shouldn’t be required to provide your annual income, information about your employer or your Social Security number.

Here’s one example of a thorough but fair online application for adopting a pet from a rescue.

Be as honest as possible. Rescues and shelters have many resources to verify all the information you provide. They aren’t looking for a reason to reject you. They’re just looking out for the animals’ well-being.


Phone Interviews for Adopting a Pet From a Rescue

The next step is a chat on the phone, which any potential adopter should have no problem doing.

The rescue will want to get to know you a little better before the adoption proceeds further.

Just be yourself — and be honest! If you make up stuff because you think it’s what the rescue wants to hear, they won’t be able to match you accurately with a pet.

Reference Checks for Adopting a Pet From a Rescue

Although not every rescue checks references, most ask for at least 2, usually from a friend, neighbor, co-worker or veterinarian.

Simply providing the information is often enough.

But if they call the vet clinic you wrote down as a reference, and the tech answering the phone says, “Who?” — it’s not good.


Home Visits Before You Adopt a Pet From a Rescue

The next step — the one that naysayers usually find so intrusive — is the home check.

However, it is the most important step in the screening process, so it’s usually mandatory. The exception would be if you are adopting from a remote area, in which case the rescue might request you email them photos of your home and yard.

Here’s what to expect with a home visit before you adopt a pet from a rescue:

  • A good rescue won’t care if you live in a house or apartment, as long as the pet you want to adopt is suited to your lifestyle.
  • Most home visits take 10–15 minutes and include a brief tour of your home and yard.
  • The rescue representative won’t open your drawers or run a white-gloved finger over your baseboards.
  • They’ll want to meet your other pets and the other family members to make sure the pet’s new home is safe and secure.
  • The rescue isn’t there to judge your decorating style or housekeeping skills. It simply wants to make sure you are who you say you are and not a hoarder, lab, reseller or someone who has lied on their application about their home, family and lifestyle.
  • The rescue probably won’t bring the pet with them for the home visit, just in case it doesn’t work out.


Meeting Your New Pet in Person

Unless you’ve already met the pet at an adoption event, you probably won’t meet them in person until the day you plan to adopt them.

The rescue should bring the pet to your home to allow you to get to know them and decide whether or not you’re ready to adopt:

  • If it’s love at first sight, you can probably conclude the adoption that day.
  • If you don’t think the pet is a good match, or if you need time to think it over, you can conclude the adoption another day if the animal is still available.

Adoption Contract

Every good pet rescue will require you to sign an adoption contract before you complete the adoption.

If a rescue doesn’t do this, then they aren’t careful enough with their animals, and you shouldn’t work with them.

Although contracts vary widely among organizations, you’ll probably see these required provisions:

  • You must provide basic care. In addition to food, shelter and water, you must commit to providing the animal with veterinary care, exercise and, of course, love.
  • You are adopting the animal for the rest of their life. If you cannot keep the animal at any point in the future, you must notify the rescue and allow them to help rehome the pet, whether it’s just signing off on a friend or family member taking in the pet or finding a new home altogether. Rescues are responsible for the health and security of their animals, even after they are adopted.
  • You must keep the rescue tag on the animal. Although not every rescue requires this provision, it’s a good idea. If someone finds your pet and can’t reach you, the rescue can serve as a backup.
  • You must spay or neuter the animal and complete scheduled rounds of vaccination. If your pet is too young to spay, neuter or vaccinate before the adoption, you will be required to give the rescue an additional deposit (around $100) that they will refund when you send them a copy of the medical records.

You’ll probably be asked to initial several more conditions, but these are the basics.


Adoption Fees for Pet Rescues

The source of much argument with anti-rescue people, the adoption fee is the donation you give the rescue in exchange for adopting the animal.

It is not a sale price.

Rescues are nonprofit, and I’ve yet to encounter one that wasn’t operating deeply in the red. They need every bit of funding they can get their hands on, and most of it comes from adoption fees.

Very few rescues charge adopters the same amount of money that they have spent on vetting costs. If they did, a 10-year-old dog would cost at least $500, sometimes much more, and people simply won’t pay that much for an older animal.

Unfortunately, the majority of fosters come into rescues sick, old or needing major vet care. Most rescues skew fees for these pets, charging as little as $50.

Occasionally a rescue will get puppies. It doesn’t happen often, but when it does, it’s an excellent opportunity for the rescue to make back some of the money they’ve spent vetting the needy animals.

If you see a purebred puppy, especially a highly desirable breed, like a Maltese or Yorkie, expect to pay $300–500. All those funds will go straight to paying expenses, but, sadly, probably won’t make much of a dent.

If you are working with a registered nonprofit, the adoption fee will be 100% tax-deductible.


Expect to hear from the rescue from time to time, especially the pet’s foster parents.

I love to keep in contact with the people who adopt my dogs! No matter how long they were here, my fosters were a part of my family.

I miss them when they’re gone, so anytime I receive an update or pictures, I get all warm and fuzzy inside.

Watch this delightful video about a pair of Dachshunds who were rescued:

Why Was My Pet Adoption Denied by the Rescue Group?

If the rescue rejected you, they probably had a reason.

It might be a temporary situation you need to resolve — such as building a fence or waiting for a child to get a little older — but it’s probably because of one of these reasons:

  • You lied on your application. Bad move.
  • Your home is unsafe. No rescue will place an animal in a home where their safety is in question. If you don’t have a secure yard, if family members always leave the door or gate open, or if you have dangerous home improvement projects going on, then don’t expect the rescue to approve you. Talk about it to see if you can remedy the problem.
  • It wasn’t a good match. You might think Twinkles is the perfect kitty for you, but the rescue may think otherwise. They know the animal and what they need in term of their perfect home. If it isn’t a good match, don’t get mad. Talk with the rescue about another pet that may be better for you.
  • You wanted an “outdoor dog.” Dogs are not lawn ornaments. They are social animals who deserve to be a part of your family. You don’t have to let them up on your couch, but if you’re planning on chaining up your adopted puppy in the yard, don’t expect that adoption to go through.
  • You’re under 21. In addition to insurance liabilities, rescues don’t like to adopt to young people because they don’t usually know where they’ll be in 5 years. If you go to college, you won’t be able to take your pet with you. If you move to a no-pets building, you’ll need to find a new home for the animal. There are exceptions, of course: If you’re living a stable life, especially if you’re married or in a permanent relationship, and live in your own home, the rescue might bend the age rule.
  • Yours is a military family. Too many pets come into rescues when their families are deployed. If your family has a history of moving around base to base, the rescue will probably reject you, simply because you won’t know the circumstances of your family’s next post. If you are living in permanent housing, the rescue should be fine with it. If it isn’t, look for another rescue.
  • You’re weird. OK, this is the single biggest reason I reject applicants, even though it’s completely subjective. If an applicant argues with me or gets angry with me, that’s it. Other times, my gut tells me no, and I trust my gut. Rescues don’t tell you when you’re rejected because of your poor behavior or attitude, so if you’ve been turned down for unexplained reasons, it’s probably because you’re weird.

Remember, rescues don’t exist to supply people with pets.

Their function is to find homes for needy animals. If it isn’t yours, they’ll find another.

You always have the option of adopting from your local shelter.


A Note About “Bad” Rescues

Most animal rescues are great, but a few are miserable to work with.

If you see any of the following red flags, choose another rescue:

  • No one gets back to you. Not only do rescue volunteers juggle work and family life, but also they spend a great many hours every week — sometimes every day — saving animals’ lives. This includes arranging to bail the animals out of the shelter, getting them vet care, nursing them into good health, working with behavior issues, taking them to adoption events, interviewing potential adopters and doing lots of laundry. That said, if you submit an application and don’t hear back within a week, even when you follow up, you aren’t working with a good rescue.
  • The animals don’t seem healthy. Not all rescues can afford extensive veterinary care, but they do need to make sure their fosters don’t have kennel cough or a respiratory infection, both of which are common in shelter pets. Also, if the animals are dirty or look neglected, it’s a sign that they aren’t being treated well.
  • The paperwork is odd. A good rescue will require you to complete an adoption application and contract. If they don’t, or if they don’t provide the shelter paperwork or spay/neuter and vaccination paperwork, something isn’t right.
  • The rescue turns down qualified applicants. If you have had pets all your life, have a stable life, live in a house with a huge, safe backyard, don’t have any boisterous young children, and have at least one other pet in great health and the rescue rejects you, this kind of scenario can be a sign that the rescue is hoarding animals because they don’t think anyone is good enough to adopt them.

Another way in which you might have problems with a rescue is that the people who staff them might be extremely unpleasant.

Sadly, this is not uncommon. When people work with shelter animals year after year, they see the worst that humans can do.

Once you encounter these types of situations over and over again, it eats away at you. Many volunteers begin to dislike people categorically, especially after having to deal with grossly under-qualified adopters, many of whom make a big stink if their application is rejected for legitimate reasons.

If you run into a cranky rescue volunteer, try to be compassionate and patient. Keep in mind that the volunteer is probably exhausted.

Always remember that if you have a bad experience with a rescue, all you have to do is go to a different rescue. You’ll find hundreds listed on Petfinder.


Try a Shelter First

A question I frequently get is, “Why should I jump through all these hoops when I can go to the shelter and get any animal I please?”

First off, please go to the shelter!

Pets in rescue are no longer in danger of being euthanized — but pets in shelters are.

But keep in mind that adopting through rescues does offer a few benefits over adopting directly from the shelter:

  • The pet will be healthy. Animal shelters will spay/neuter, vaccinate and usually microchip the pet before they send them home with you — but that’s it. Shelters don’t have the budget to treat sick animals. They’re often put down immediately. A rescue will make sure the animal will get any necessary veterinary care, including medication, dental cleanings or surgery. If they can afford it, they’ll pay for blood work and a urinalysis.
  • You’ll know the pet’s temperament. When animals in the shelter, they are not themselves. How could they be? It’s loud, they’re scared and they don’t know what’s going to happen next. When a pet is in foster care with a rescue, the foster parents will have the chance to assess their personality and determine their needs, especially regarding children, strangers and other animals.
  • You can specify the kind of pet you want. If you want a dog or cat of a particular age, personality or breed, you might not have luck at the shelter. A rescue can help you find the pet you’re looking for, even if it takes awhile.
  • The pet will probably be trained. Although there’s not much time for formal training when pets are in foster care, they are usually house-trained and leash trained.

By adopting from rescues, you’re not only giving a home to a pet who truly deserves it, but also you’re opening a spot for another needy animal.

Final Thoughts on Adopting a Pet From a Rescue

Sometimes adoptions don’t work out. That’s why groups state clearly on the forms that the pets are to be returned to them.

Beware of any group that doesn’t have that clause. This is one time when a take-back is not just a good thing — it could be a life-saver.