There are millions of reasons to adopt a pet — 6.5 million, to be exact. That's how many dogs and cats are surrendered to animal shelters each year. Every one needs a family, and they can bring loads of joy to yours. But first, consider these basics.
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Adopting a pet, instead of buying one from a breeder, has its advantages - and not just for the dog or cat you bring home. Most shelters will let you meet and greet as many as you like before you choose one, whether it's your first or fifth visit. You can often bring pets you already own to mingle with potential roommates. And you can ask the kennel staffers who know them best to fill you in on their personalities, says Sylvia Ottaka, senior director of operations at North Shore Animal League America, in Port Washington, New York.

While rescue animals may not have papers (though about 20 percent of the dogs are purebreds), you can learn more about them than you might expect. Gathering that information is one of four ways to allay any fears you may have about a prospect's past and ensure a happy future with your new family member.

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1. Do a Background Check

Say you want a frisky jogging companion - or a chill couch potato. Ask to meet animals that meet your criteria, and try to resist all the adorable ones that don't. "That's the most common problem," says Jennifer Barg, an associate certified behaviorist and director of operations of the Larimer Humane Society, in Fort Collins, Colorado. "People fall in love with a face before they find out about an animal's personality." Behavior screenings help prevent those mismatches.

Many shelters give full medical and behavioral workups. Request the actual results; don't rely on the description on a kennel card or online ("loves to cuddle!"). If the place you visit doesn't do those kinds of assessments, consider that your cue to head elsewhere.

2. Know the Costs

Adoption may have a comparatively low price tag, but it's still a long-term financial investment - 10 to 15 years of food, medical care, grooming, and boarding. Shelters' fees often do cover initial shots and spaying/neutering, and some provide extra benefits, like affordable medical care and training classes. Ask about those when you visit.

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3. Give Older Pets a Chance

Rescue organizations take in not just kittens and puppies but also adolescent and older dogs and cats. If you're at work all day, short on time, or unable to commit to a period of around-the-clock puppy training, a mature pet may be better for you. Plus, "adopting an adult animal takes away more of the guesswork, since what you see is what you get, personality-wise," says Gail Buchwald, senior vice president of the ASPCA Adoption Center in New York City. Older dogs and cats, like older people, tend to be more set in their ways, while a puppy or kitty's temper- ament is still a work in progress.

4. Set up for Success

You'd want to designate a safe space in your home, such as a crate or a small room filled with creature comforts, for any new dog or cat. But it's vital for a rescue animal, which will need extra time to adjust to the surroundings. She may have had several different homes (including a noisy, stressful shelter) before you found her.

If you have kids, making an adopted pet feel comfortable also means showing them what it means to respect her boundaries; for example, they need to understand why it's important not to take toys away from her, hug her when she doesn't want to be hugged, or enter her safe space without you. Don't worry: Once she's settled, the snuggle-fest can begin.

Ready to bring home your furry new friend? First, watch how to properly clean a pet bed:


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