Well-Meaning Practices Keeping Animals in Shelters Longer

AUTHOR’S NOTE: I do my very best to write in such a way that’s inclusive and objective no matter what my opinion on the matter. And I do what I can to separate my biases and frustrations from the information I bring to this website. To date, this was easily the hardest article for me to write because of my experience as an adoption counselor and my current experience looking to bring home another dog.

I had the opportunity to work at an amazingly successful shelter. The community appreciated our services, as evidenced by their endless support. People came from all over to adopt our very well cared for animals. Thanks to the tireless efforts of the shelter workers and volunteers, our facilities were pristine and not a single animal went without love and eventually a loving family.

We worked hard to build relationships with each adoptive family by chatting with them about what they were looking for in a pet. From our conversations, we the adoption counselors would fill out their applications for them. We’d give each family room to breath while they met with our animals and were happy to answer questions based on both their intake forms and our own experiences.

The only adopters we turned down didn’t meet our one non-negotiable. That was no “yard dogs,” because all our animals deserved a place in their homes. For all other specifications, like landlord and family approval, we took adopters at their word. That kind of trust is still what makes Greenville Humane Society an amazing place to adopt from and is why they’re a cornerstone of the Greenville community. My bar is high, but it’s not insurmountable.

Practices That Drive Away Adopters

Our family has been looking to bring home another dog for some time now. After bringing home a dog that just didn’t fit in with our family we have been pretty gun-shy and have adopted an even more patient outlook on adding to the family.

In working with different shelters and rescue groups, I‘ve noticed a lot of distrust in the adoption process. Some of the questions that make up the long applications seemed to be rooted in not being able to take the applicant at their word. I started to wonder if I was feeling defensive because of some personal issue, or if the requirements and questions were just plain intrusive. In order to not make a snap judgment, I dug deeper into the issue. I found that the ASPCA actively tries to encourage more trusting adoption processes. I’ve made a list of things I’ve found offensive in our search and I’m relieved to know that the ASPCA agrees with me on many of them.

Landlord Checks

pet-friendly living

I know that on the surface this seems like a no-brainer. You either have permission to have the animal or you don’t. While that can be the case for some renters, it isn’t always set in stone. By requiring a landlord check, rescues give applicants the sense that they don’t trust them. Potential adopters might be turned off to working with this shelter in the future if they feel they can’t be taken for their word. This study found that adoptions were no less successful after this requirement was lifted.

Proof of Veterinary Care

Veterinary care is an important part of being a pet owner, but the vetting of previous pets doesn’t tell a rescue much about the vetting of future pets. The adoption process should be looked at as a way to educate adopters about the importance of the various vaccines and regular check-ups. Most importantly, the love and friendship of a dog or cat aren’t just for people who can afford vet premiums. The cost of veterinary care is on the rise. With exam fees costing $55 or more and sky-high markups on routine vaccinations and tests, it’s no wonder why people struggle to bring their pets in for annual wellness visits. Rescues should promote organizations that offer low-cost vaccinations and low-cost clinics as alternatives to people who may have struggled in the past.

Requiring Dog-Dog Introductions

meetings don't predict behavior at home

I understand why some people do this (strictly on paper), but in practice, it doesn’t give an accurate picture. It’s stressful to both the owner and all dogs involved and gives no picture of how accepting they’ll be of each other when you welcome the new dog home. A better way for shelters and rescues to handle this is to inform the adopters of the best ways to introduce the new animal to their existing pets. The same study I referenced earlier showed no change in adoption success when this requirement was lifted.

Requiring the Entire Family

It’s become commonplace for the entire household to have to be present for an adoption. Like the landlord issue, it is another requirement that instills a sense of distrust between the rescue and the adopter. For many families, this can be nearly impossible without taking time off work. This kind of requirement doesn’t help build a positive and lasting relationship.

Requiring a Fenced Yard

Do fences really make a difference?

Do you know anyone that has a dog that doesn’t have a fence? I do. They take long walks and frequent the dog park a lot more than we do! To keep someone from adopting a certain dog because they lack their own outdoor space limits the number of people who can adopt, especially adopters living in cities. Having a fence doesn’t make owners any better or worse at owning and caring for their dog. Fences are thought to provide a safe place to do business and play, but dogs can easily go under or over them. Rescues also like fences because they keep owners from tethering their dogs, but this still leaves the dog in the undesirable situation of being a “yard dog”.

Age Restrictions on Family Members

Age or experience? Stop age restrictions

How many profiles of adoptable animals have you read that have age restrictions on the family they go home to? More than half of the profiles I’ve sifted through weeds out many families before they even get to meet the pet. It doesn’t matter how much experience the family has, the application is dismissed. Age restrictions drastically limit the pool of potential adopters for many pets and end up keep animals in the shelter longer. Longer shelter stays are known to exacerbate behavior problems, furthering the idea that age restrictions are needed. This one really is a vicious cycle. Open conversations with families about the training needs for both the pet and children are a way to highlight responsible care and send pets to loving homes.


Long Winded Applications and Processing Times

Applications are getting longer and longer. These long applications end up replacing  conversation time with potential adopters and don’t necessarily get honest answers. The questions that make up a five-page application can get in the weeds and can feel intrusive on the adopter’s privacy. Asking the same questions in a conversational way can have much better results than handing someone a clipboard full of paper. Asking the right questions is more important than asking a lot of them.

A five-page application can be difficult to process, so it’s no wonder that the processing time for many rescues can exceed 3 (business) days! This delay increases the time animals spend in shelters which adds to their emotional distress, behavior problems, and potential for infection. Reducing the time these animals spend in the shelter should be a priority. These kinds of processing times can limit the adoption pool of their animals by inadvertently sending adopters elsewhere.

Apply Before Asking

This one kills me! Many rescues require that you apply before they’ll answer any questions about the animals. As I just mentioned, those applications can take you upwards of an hour to complete and days to hear back about! Many questions potential adopters have will be the deciding factors of whether or not they pursue adopting the animal! By requiring an application just to answer those questions, rescues lose out on good homes that don’t have time for all that paperwork or just want a bit of entry-level information about the animal.

Outrageous Adoption Fees


adoption-fees-are-breaking-banks-and-keeping-pets-from-lower-income-familiesWhen we adopted Gremlin his adoption fee was $95. The shelter I worked for had an adult fee of $50 (now lowered to $25) and a puppy fee of $95 (now increased to $125). During my search, I saw adoption fees as high as $600! The average, though lower, was still very high at around $300! These kinds of fees limit adoption to people in certain socioeconomic classes and that just isn’t right.

I know private rescues have a hard time getting low-cost veterinary care for their animals which can account for such expensive fees, but I’ve seen similarly high fees at local shelters. I know the idea is if adopters can’t afford the adoption fee they likely won’t be able to afford the proper care of the animal, but an inability/desire to pay a large adoption fee isn’t an indicator of a person’s ability to provide proper vet care. Instead of turning people away with high fees, this is a way to teach people about proper and affordable care.

Photo Credit: wabisabi2015

Photo Credit: wabisabi2015

When people look to adopt, they’re already making a good decision. Rescue organizations and shelters should applaud this decision and do everything they can to work with adopters to help them bring home a new family member. These kinds of restrictions can push potential adopters into becoming buyers and that’s something we should all want to avoid.

Adopters don’t all look the same and we don’t all come from the same background. We are all individuals and we’re all looking to love someone. These policies only serve to harshly question that love. Shelters should look to form lasting relationships with adopters through outreach, education, and respect. These policies and restrictions are negatively impacting adoption.



  1. What an interesting perspective, and it’s great to hear from someone who has had experience in different shelters. It is such a difficult process for shelters because, of course, they want to ensure that their dog or puppy will go to a loving home. Thank you for helping shed a light on various requirements. I agree, some of them should definitely be fine-tuned!

  2. If I start with everything I have to say about this topic I will never get off my soapbox. In my opinion too many shelters almost go out of their way to discourage adoptions, and would rather kill than find them a home. What really pisses me off is this obsession with fenced in yards. Not everyone has a yard first of all, and who cares if there’s a fence. Aren’t you happy knowing people care enough about their dogs to take them for proper walks, rather than leaving them alone in the yard. I have to stop now or I never will. Great article and something I talk a lot about in a new website I’m starting. Thanks for calling attention to this, and nothing wrong with telling it like it is. We can’t always be objective!!

  3. I totally get what are you saying, but I can see both sides. I volunteered in several shelters as adoption counselor for many years. The ones I have worked in fall in the middle in terms of restrictions and length in the process.

    When I first started working in shelters, I took people at their words when they said they were allowed to have pets, wouldn’t declaw their cats, etc., but I was lied to and burned too many times. I also live in Chicago where about 50% of landlords restrict pet ownership.

    I finally got to the point where I had to walk away from doing adoptions because I couldn’t handle it anymore. I definitely think compassion fatigue in shelter workers plays a role in adoption restrictions going overboard. You see one too many horrible things and you do start to distrust people.

    Having said all this, I totally get where you are coming from – and I’m not sure how to balance the two. Definitely a thought-provoking post!

  4. Great post and I have heard many complain about adoption fees, etc. I remember when I was looking and I wanted a 4 year old plus, fluffy and good with kids and this one rescue organization told me a about a Yorkie, so my first words were is she good with kids and the woman replied no she snaps at them, so I turned her down, This rescuer emailed me twice a day for a week till I blocked her. It’s rescuers like her that gives others a bad name and in the end its the pets that suffer.

  5. Some of the rules really make it hard or impossible to adopt. Such as the yard. We didn’t have a yard. A dog does not need a yard, a dog needs time outside. Totally different thing.

  6. I do not like the APPLY BEFORE ASKING clause. I DO however agree with the NO YARD DOGS clause. I have seen far too many wonderful dogs suffer outside in the dead of winter. Fur or not they need to be kept warm too. Plus why have a dog if you are not going to want it involved with the family INSIDE all the time!? Some of the vetting process is annoying and I disagree with. Great post!

  7. Interesting. I think it can feel intimidating to fill out a lengthy application, have home visits etc. but I do feel they are necessary. I’ve been in the dog training field along with 2 jobs working in shelters and the state coordinator for a breed rescue group and it’s so important that these issues are addressed. Obviously, groups can be or put out “we don’t trust you vibes” but that hopefully isn’t the norm. As far as adoption fees, I can say it depends on the rescues cost. For example, we not only did routine vet care on our foster dogs, we also provided extensive specialty care when needed. Our breed (the cavalier king charles spaniel) is notorious in needing to see a hear specialist. Our average cost to vet each dog is around $600 I just think people need to realize that rescue groups aren’t out to do bad or to turn a profit, just to make good choices. JMO

    • Amber

      I agree that there’s a lot to talk about between an adoption coordinator and the potential adopter, but wouldn’t it be nice to be spoken to in a conversational way instead of being interrogated? Conversations are a great way to build relationships with people that will ultimately bringing them back or recommending the shelter to friends and family, and maybe even inspiring them to donate.

  8. This is such a great article! I hope people who run shelters and rescues see it. I had the opposite experience volunteering in a municipal shelter, you didn’t have to provide proof of anything and you could often take the dog/cat home that day if they had been spayed/neutered already. I think there’s a fine line between requiring too much vs. too little information. I wish there could be a good, solid standard around requirements to adopt a dog or cat. Our shelter was close to a college and I learned that many younger students would adopt a dog at the beginning of their time at school and then surrender the dog back to the shelter upon graduation, when their parents wouldn’t allow them to bring the dog home with them! How utterly irresponsible and cruel is that?! After that whenever a college student came to adopt I asked a ton of questions, I once even made a guy text a photo to his mother and ask if he would be able to bring the dog home upon graduation. She actually said Yes! When I adopted my cat I later referred a co-worker who was looking for a kitten to the rescue. They refused to let her have a kitten – why? Because she lived in Brooklyn!! This foolish Long Island lady felt that a Brooklyn apartment wasn’t good enough for one of their kitties. She apparently wanted every one of their cats to have a big home in the suburbs to live in! How ridiculous! I wish shelters & rescues could all get on the same page about what it really requires to be able to provide a safe home and adequate care for an adopted pet.
    Love & Biscuits,
    Dogs Luv Us and We Luv Them

    • While I think it is a shame that the dogs were returned to the shelter, it might be better than the alternative. I like to think that a pet is forever, but the reality is, 4 years with one person and then 6 years with another is way better than years in a shelter or worse.

      The Long Island cat rescue story is hilarious, and also unfortunate.

      • Amber

        I appreciate your perspective on the reality. The Long Island story is just another example of how shelters and rescues want everyone who adopts to fit a very specific picture of what they think an adopter should be.

  9. Great post. I’ve had several friends lately that said trying to adopt a dog was almost impossible. I do understand the position of the shelters, but I too, think they are deterring adoptions of dogs who could have a wonderful forever home.

  10. While it was difficult for you to write I really appreciate that you did. I’ve not been on the side of the Shelter and have just completed my orientation to begin volunteering at our local shelter so I cannot speak for that side. As someone who has rescued, almost every point you made has occurred. At the time of our last rescue, the two my husband mentioned, “Why is it so expensive to rescue?” I explained about the fees paying for the next shelter dog but as the manager of our finances, he was a bit put off though he did not block the adoption and loves Shasta dearly. He also asked, “We are rescuing a Yorkie, why do we have to have a 10 foot fence?” Great question for which I didn’t have an answer but we did have the fence so no harm done….

    • Amber

      I’ve seen shelters that would have made your Yorkie cost $300 while a bigger dog cost $95. I’m glad you were able to bring someone home 🙂

  11. I’ve fostered, done home checks and applications before. While some rescues can be over the top, the landlord and vet checks are more than standard. If an adopter was turned away by them, then maybe they don’t have the patience to adopt. :/

    • Amber

      Standard or not, choosing to not take people at their word isn’t how to build lasting relationships within the community. For non-profits, those relationships are everything. To your second point, proper vetting isn’t something everyone just knows. Working as a vet tech taught me a lot about what the average pet owner knows to do and that isn’t much. People who work in animal care should use every opportunity to tell pet owners the best vetting practices instead of writing them off as impatient or incompetent pet owners.

  12. What an interesting take on this subject especially loved the tag line “no yard” dogs!!. I wish more and more people chose to adopt . It is also important to match the right kind of dog with the family to avoid them giving up the dog all over again

  13. I’m sorry to hear you had a frustrating experience. I understand why you, as a responsible pet owner would find the above points limiting and agree that your concerns are valid. However, these policies might weed out people who are spontaneously adopting, or getting an animal for the wrong reasons. I always worry about organizations that almost ‘give’ animals away without practicing due diligence. Of course, it would be better for all animals to be well cared for, in loving homes instead of being locked away in a shelter. Or worse, euthanized. If I had my wish, we would live in a world where no one would feel the need to question the welfare of animals.

  14. Very interesting article! For myself, if I’m adopting a dog, I am not intimated by the regs and application process. That said, however, I do know of many who are. The age restriction I hope is open for discussion as my mom, a lifelong dog lover, adopter, and parent, was 88 when she adopted her last dog! We were fortunate that the shelter was very friendly and open to her age. After a home visit, which we were fine with, the adoption went through and a little dog with some trust issues now had a home and my Mom had a new best friend! The yard point I’m on the fence about (pardon the pun!) as with Huskies, a yard and super-duper fencing is truly a necessity. I do know of a few folks who have a Husky in an apartment or small yard and do see to it they get proper exercise in a dog park and on walks and runs. But, I have seen a far larger number of Huskies get turned back in to shelters for being destructive when they are cooped up on a small space, so for this particular breed, I personally feel it’s necessary. You bring up some excellent points and I do hope folks will take the time to accept the adoption process and feel confident that it is in place for the welfare of the pet to ensure it is going into a loving forever home. Great post!

  15. I understand that rescues have their reasons and the importance of not just giving the dog to anyone, but at the same time, I think some make people jump through a lot of hoops that aren’t necessary. I have a friend who tried to adopt a dog but was turned down because of not having a fence. She ended up buying a puppy :(.

  16. This is really interesting! I think it is important that rescues (like all organizations) go back and re-evaluate their policies on a regular basis. People change, society changes, and new research comes out all the time. You have to keep your eyes on the prize – getting pets into loving forever homes. Thank you for highlighting these new ideas! I will have to share them with my local rescue.

  17. I have mixed feelings on this. When I adopted my first dog, we had to do two in person interviews, a home visit, and a long application. Her fee was $350, which at the time I thought was pretty expensive. It was a pain, but it also made me feel a lot more prepared and confident that the rescue genuinely cared where their dogs found homes. In fact, we had some issues with separation anxiety and destruction in our first few months and a volunteer actually came out to help us find some solutions and provide support, months after we had finalized the adoption. If I hadn’t had that support, then I might have had to return her.

    I also think it is important for an entire family including pets to meet a possible new addition. My dog is a bit particular, so when we added a second dog we knew it had to meet her approval. Some dogs also react differently to children, men, etc. and the only way to find that out is if they meet. I’d rather go through that early to make sure a new pet is the right fit.

    And as far as high adoption fees, I think they should be designed to cover the average cost a shelter or rescue puts into each pet. That will vary based on prices they can negotiate and the cost of living where they are located. Maybe it’s because I live in an area where everything is super expensive and most people are generally well off, but an adoption fee of $300 really doesn’t seem so high to me.

    Adopting a new pet is a commitment, so should it be easy? It’s important that people are prepared for the amazing parts as well as the challenges – including affording vet care, food, and dealing with possible behavioral issues. I think it’s a balance of finding as many pets homes as possible and making sure they are quality homes.

    • Amber

      Thanks for reading. I appreciate your comments but I this is exactly the kind of thinking that creates a prejudice against adopters who don’t fit the “mold”.

    • Amber

      Thanks for reading. I appreciate your comments but this is exactly the kind of thinking that creates a prejudice against adopters who don’t fit the “mold”.

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