Whether you’re a first-time pet owner or a veteran menagerie keeper, a number of important to-dos can fall through the cracks at a busy pet adoption center if you don’t know what to expect. Here are the basics for both dogs and cats, so you can prepare to get all the vaccinations, prescriptions, and other essentials to help ensure your new pet has a smooth and healthy transition into your home.
When you pick up your new dog or cat, make sure to come home with a pound or two of the food they’ve been eating so they have something familiar to eat as they adjust to their new surroundings. If you do decide to change their food, it’s good practice to slowly mix the new food with the old over the course of a week to ease the transition.
If you’re planning to change your pet’s diet, consult with your vet. If you need more info, petMD’s guide to choosing food is a good starting point. And if terms like “meat by-product” and “grain-free” confuse you further, check out a pet food review site. Dog Food Advisor, which has reviewed and rated more than 4,500 dog food products, walks you through every single ingredient and each item’s recall history. For cats, CatFoodDB has comprehensive reviews of more than 2,000 products plus insights into their ingredient lists and nutritional values.
Make sure to take your new pet to a veterinarian for a wellness check within the first week of adoption. You’ll need to bring a copy of their medical records along so your vet can review it and recommend a vaccination schedule. Vaccines help protect dogs and cats—even indoor cats—from infectious diseases. For dogs, follow the American Animal Hospital Association’s vaccination guidelines; for cats, use the guidelines from the American Association of Feline Practitioners (PDF). Your pet can start receiving vaccines as early as 6 weeks old and continue every few weeks until they’re fully inoculated. (If you’ve adopted an adult dog that is fully immunized, they’ll need only their annual boosters.)
As part of the vaccination protocol, your cat or dog will receive a rabies shot, a collar tag, and a rabies certificate for you to file with your city clerk as part of obtaining a pet license. Depending on local laws, you may need to keep the tag on their collar at all times, and submit a pet-license application with the city clerk’s office or the department of health. Check your local laws—Googling “[location] pet license” should do the trick. Some states’ fees are lower if your pet is spayed or neutered, while in others you can be fined if you delay your license application.
Near the end of the vaccination protocol, your vet should recommend flea/tick and heartworm prevention. Some owners believe that year-round protection isn’t necessary due to location or climate, or because their cats stay indoors, but that’s a misconception.
A tick can hitch a ride in on your clothes and lay eggs in your house that can lie dormant for months at a time, and most people have been bitten by a mosquito indoors because it flew in from a crack in a window or door. As the American Heartworm Society notes, heartworm, a fatal disease transmitted by mosquitoes, can still infect in the wintertime because it takes months for larvae to develop into adult heartworms. Heartworm preventatives work by killing immature parasites your pet picked up in previous months.
Even indoor cats can get heartworm: In fact, the American Heartworm Society reports that one in four feline heartworm cases (PDF) occurs in indoor cats, and recommends year-round protection no matter where you live—as does the FDA. And although cats are much less likely to be infected with heartworms than dogs, there is no approved treatment for cats, says the American Heartworm Society, so their only protection is prevention.
Approximately 3.3 million dogs and 3.2 million cats enter US animal shelters every year. Somewhere between 20 percent and 56 percent of those dogs, and between 21 percent and 71 percent of cats, are euthanized, depending on who you ask. Sterilization, also known as spaying (for female animals) or neutering (for male animals), prevents them from reproducing, which means fewer unwanted animals in shelters and in the wild. Sterilized animals also tend to live longer, won’t go into heat, and may behave better. Many pet adoption agencies refuse to adopt out animals before they’re spayed or neutered, or they require the new owner to provide proof they’ve sterilized their pet within the first few weeks of adoption to avoid a penalty.
If your new dog or cat isn’t “fixed” before adoption, consult your veterinarian. Although the AAHA supports spaying or neutering a puppy as young as 8 weeks old, your vet may prefer to wait until they’re as old as 9 months for health reasons. (Mature dogs can also be sterilized, but the ASPCA says the chance of post-operative complications may increase in older dogs or those with health problems.)
Cats may be able to undergo surgery as early as 6 weeks old, and the AAFP recommends sterilization of cats by the time they’re 5 months old—your cat’s breed, age, weight, and medical history may influence the decision. Adult cats should also be fixed, but your vet might recommend against it for older or medically difficult cats due to the chance of complications.
A name tag and pet license affixed to a collar won’t guarantee you’ll be reunited with your pet should they get lost. Collars and tags can snap off, and the printed or engraved contact information will fade and wear down over time. But microchipping your dog or cat can mean the difference between them being lost forever or quickly found, because a microchip is a permanent part of your pet.
The microchip used for this purpose is an electronic chip contained within a rice-grain-sized glass cylinder. The chip has an identification number that links back to the manufacturer, which has your contact information; there’s no personal information or GPS device on the chip itself. The process injects the chip with a hypodermic needle under a pet’s skin between their shoulder blades, and takes only a few minutes. If your dog or cat is ever lost, an animal shelter or vet clinic can scan the microchip and cross-reference the ID with an online database to reunite you with your pet. To keep your contact information accurate, you can create an account online with one of a number of chip-tracking websites and update your information as needed (just know that some companies charge an annual or one-time fee to edit your contact information).
Many adoption agencies microchip their dogs and cats prior to releasing them to their new owners. If you adopted your pet from a rescue group, a breeder, or a family friend who doesn’t offer this service, we recommend having your local animal shelter or vet inject a microchip for you. When you plan your visit, ask them if they have chips with the ISO standard frequency of 134.2 kHz. This frequency is used around the globe, so it’s scannable by more veterinarians and animal shelters. But if your vet doesn’t carry chips in that frequency, don’t stress too much: The 125 kHz chip is still popular in the United States.
If your dog is a frequent escapee, a dedicated pet GPS tracker can help you find them if they make a dash for freedom. But these devices require regular recharging and a monthly subscription, so be sure you really need one before investing.