Tips and Insights for Adopting a Shelter Dog

In 2005, Hurricane Katrina devastated the New Orleans area and as people fled the storm, hundreds of thousands of dogs were left behind to fend for themselves. The dogs that survived led to an overwhelming number of stray dogs in the following years, and created a severe animal welfare crisis.  Animal welfare groups stepped in to rescue some of these dogs and began transporting them to other parts of the country where people could open their homes and hearts to a homeless dog.  These events, along with the advent of social media, began a trend which continues today.  Most of the rescue dogs we see in our practice are coming from the southern states, arriving by transport vehicles from high kill shelters thanks to an army of volunteers and rescue groups.

If you are considering adopting a rescue dog, here are some things you should know to ensure that your new friend has a happy and healthy start to his new life.

Top 10 tips for adopting a rescue dog:

  • Vaccines: Most shelter dogs have received basic veterinary care, and are required by law to have had a veterinary exam and Rabies vaccine prior to transport.  Many have also had Distemper/Parvo vaccines (and are spayed or neutered) when they arrive, thanks to the shelter and rescue groups. These core vaccines are a bare minimum.  Your dog may also need vaccines for Lyme disease, Leptospirosis, Kennel Cough, and Canine Influenza depending on his life style and where he lives. Also he may not have had the full vaccine series as many immunizations require boosters to be effective.  Make an appointment for a checkup with your Veterinarian as soon as possible and bring any medical records you receive with you.


  • Parasites: Internal parasites (worms) are extremely common in shelter dogs, even if they have been de-wormed prior to adoption. In warmer climates microscopic parasite eggs survive year round and contaminate the environment, especially in shelter situations where there is a high density of dogs.  Bring a fecal specimen to your vet as soon as possible for testing, and pick up stools to prevent your yard from becoming seeded with parasite eggs that could cause ongoing infections.  Fleas, ticks and ear mites may come along for the ride too, so talk to your vet about treatment and prevention options.


  • Heartworm: Heartworm disease is spread by mosquitoes, and it is rampant in the southern states.  Many rescue dogs have had a heartworm test prior to transport (thanks again, rescue people), but this is not the end of the story.   It takes 6 months from the time of exposure for a blood test for heartworm to become positive.  We recommend starting heartworm prevention, and retesting all shelter dogs for heartworm 6 months after arrival.  Heartworm disease seems to be increasing in our area most likely because of warmer weather and the influx of dogs carrying unapparent heartworm infections.


  • Illnesses: Dogs in shelters experience a lot of stress and are highly exposed to various infections. Although your dog will arrive with a state mandated health certificate, this is not a guarantee that he will be perfectly healthy on arrival.   Respiratory infections (kennel cough) and stomach issues are common in the first few days after transport.   Keep your new dog at home (other than  taking him to see your vet)  for the first week or so as he settles in and watch for any signs of illness such as coughing, nasal discharge, loss of appetite, vomiting, or diarrhea.


  • Adjustment period: Arriving in a new home with new people is a big adjustment for dogs, and they need time to get used to their new surroundings. You may not see your dog’s real personality until she gets comfortable in her new home.  Dogs in shelters for a prolonged time may shut down emotionally and can take several weeks or months to come out of their shell and do normal dog things like playing and socializing.  Be patient and observant of what makes your dog nervous or happy. They cannot tell us about their previous experiences and may react differently than we expect to new things or situations. When outdoors, keep him on a leash or in a fenced yard at all times. If he gets away from you he may not know where he lives and may not be trained to come back when called.


  • Identification: If your dog comes with a microchip, make sure to register the chip number so it has your information associated with it.  If he does not have a microchip, talk to your vet about getting one as a permanent form of identification.  Also don’t forget to license your dog with the town, and get him a tag with your address and phone number on it for his collar.


  • Breed identification: Many shelter dogs are mixed breeds of unknown parentage, and rescue workers that pull dogs from shelters are literally guessing at what breed the dog is. Photos posted on line from rescue web sites may be the only way you get to see the dog you are applying for.  You might apply to adopt a chihuahua mix puppy and have it turn out to be a much bigger dog.


  • Application process: Dog rescue groups typically require an application with references, including one from your veterinarian. Once the rescue group has a client’s consent for a veterinary reference, they usually will call us and ask about your other pets. It is wise to make sure your other animals are up to date on their preventive health care prior to submitting an application for a rescue.


  • Adoption fee: Adoption fees are usually a bargain. The cost of feeding, housing, transporting, vaccinating, and spaying or neutering a shelter dog usually far exceeds the adoption fee charged to the new owner. It takes dedicated individuals, many of whom are volunteers, to bring a dog through the process. Be grateful for all they have done, and be aware that situations arise that are out of their control.  Consider making a donation above and beyond the adoption fee if possible.


  • Home visits: Well organized rescue groups may do a follow up home visit in the weeks or months following adoption to make sure everything is working out well. Again, these are volunteers looking out for you and your dog’s best interest.


Rescue dogs are truly the best!  We love seeing our clients come in with a newly adopted family member and we hope this information helps many of you to get your new pup off to a good start for many happy years together.