Furry Friends: What it takes to adopt a pet for the first time.


In many states, the number of pet adoptions has risen during COVID-19. But young families considering adopting a pet need to consider a range of factors before allowing a new creature to join the household. People who work to ensure successful pet adoptions say it’s not a life change to be made lightly.

Beware of Puppy Love

Local animal welfare organizations such as Helping Hounds Dog Rescue in North Syracuse and the CNY Cat Coalition do their best to dissuade impulse adoptions. Courtney Armbruster of the CNY Cat Coalition says most families seeking to adopt a pet have given some serious thought to the decision. But there are those who – upon seeing a litter of kittens or a puppy at a rescue center or a pet store – take in an animal without thinking it through. Her advice? Please don’t!

CNY Cat Coalition coordinates foster homes for cats around Central New York with the goal of finding them permanent homes. The cats can be viewed on, at the North Syracuse Petco and at PetSmart locations in Liverpool and Fairmount

“Those looking to adopt can arrange to meet [the cats] to see if it is a good fit,” Armbruster says. “We don’t do same-day adoptions.”

While many young kids are drawn to puppies and kittens, Armbruster says an animal’s temperament is a more important factor than its age.

“Every cat has a very different personality,” Armbruster says. “The good thing about getting them when they are very young is that they get used to your kids.”

With so many rescued cats and dogs available for adoption, Armbruster encourages families to consider those before going to a breeder or a pet store.

“There are valid reasons why someone would want to go to a breeder, but we encourage people to consider rescued animals,” she says. “They make wonderful pets.”

Do Your Homework

In addition to knowing what to look for, experts say it’s important to know what you are willing to do.

“It’s important to make sure that you are ready and that you have realistic expectations,” says Kathy Gilmour, director of Helping Hounds. “The expenses associated with veterinary care can be a big consideration for many people. We see people who think that getting a dog will make them get out and walk more. They don’t. Dogs have a lot of value to add to families. But they are also a lot of work. They have to have exercise and companionship. They also need training. All of that requires time.”

For families looking for dogs, Gilmour suggests doing some research on what breed, size and temperament of dog would fit best. “People forget that this is a commitment that can last for many years,” she says. “Fostering does help with that a little bit. Families have access to more information about our dogs. Our foster families watch the dogs and how they interact in the home.”

Helping Hounds dogs are usually with foster families for about three weeks. Most are house trained before they are adopted. Gilmour says the organization – which opened in 2009 – has a very high success rate. Gilmour estimates that only about 4% of adopted pets are returned within the first 60 days.

While it is often recommended that families with very young children not get a new pet, some families like the idea of pets and children growing up together. Helping Hounds requires that everyone who will be living with its dogs be introduced prior to adoption.

“We have adopted to families with everything from infants to college-aged children,” Gilmour says. “Sometimes a young puppy does see a young child as a great chew toy.”

Armbruster says that for families that have never had a cat before, some of the most common questions involve the litter box. All cats adopted through the CNY Cat Coalition are litter-box trained. Adoption fees through the CNY Cat Coalition are $115 for a young kitten and $75 for a cat over 6 months old. This covers spaying or neutering, rabies and distemper shots and a leukemia test. “It costs us more to get all of those things done than our adoption fee,” Armbruster says.

If it turns out that the cat is not a good fit, the CNY Cat Coalition does have a two-week return policy. “After two weeks, we almost certainly will still take the animal back, but there’s no refund of the adoption fee,” Armbruster says. “I’ve taken cats back after three years.”

A common reason why cats do get returned is allergies. “There are some breeds and some coat types that are less likely to trigger allergies, so we can steer people toward those,” Armbruster says. “It’s a hormone in a cat’s saliva that people are actually allergic to. Siamese and short-haired white cats have the least of it.”

A Family Affair

Jordan Fleischmann, of Cicero, adopted her black Labrador retriever, Abby, when her son, Jackson, was only 10 months old.

“My mom’s friend was moving and she had to find a new owner,” Fleischmann says. “I already knew the dog, so I was confident it would be a good match.”

Jackson and Abby became fast friends. Fleischmann says she specifically chose to get a Lab because she knew the temperament would make it a good choice for a family dog.

“I was nervous about the dog biting Jackson, especially with him being so little,” she says. “But Abby was in love with him. It was good.”

Fleischmann got Jackson used to the rules of dog ownership as soon as he was able to understand. Safety was paramount. “Right from the beginning he had to learn: When Abby is eating or drinking, leave her alone. When she has her toys, don’t touch.” Fleischmann says. “Teaching Jackson the boundaries was the hardest. But I am consistent.”

Jessica and Brett Butler also added a pet to their family while raising small children. They adopted Sebastian (or Sea Bass) – a large, high-energy, longhaired cat – before their older son, Dominick, was 2, and their younger son, Brooks, was just 2 months old.

“It was really hard with Dom because he hadn’t had a pet before,” Jessica says. “It was a kitten, and it wanted to play, but we had to teach him not to pick it up, or pull its hair. Occasionally, we do have to remind him not to throw a toy at the cat. With Brooks, we’ve never had an issue with him pulling his tail or anything like that. He grew up with the cat.”

The decision to add a cat to the family stemmed from Dominick’s love of stuffed cats and other feline toys. “One day he asked if he could get a real cat, and we were like, ‘Sure!’” Jessica recalls with a laugh. “We were doing Chats with the Cats at the SPCA during the summer (a program where visitors can read to sheltered cats), and I saw him there.”

As Sebastian grew, the family set some ground rules for playtime; hand-to-cat contact is very limited. Dominick has had a few scratches here and there, but Sebastian has never hurt Brooks.

“Brooks could rest his head on him or touch the cat and he sensed that he was a baby,” Jessica says. “But we were still trying to adjust to the new norm. So, it was quite a change.”

“Trying to keep them supervised was tough,” Brett adds. His advice for new cat owners? “Get a spray bottle!”

Armbruster says it’s important to understand that adults in the household are ultimately responsible for a pet’s care. “When your 6-year-old says they’re going to clean the litter box every day, that doesn’t mean it’s going to happen. And what happens if she doesn’t? Are you going to keep the cat? It’s not a toy and it’s not a disposable thing.”

While adult cats are significantly more independent than a puppy, families have to consider how busy everyone in the household is. “Some people have kids who are involved in travel sports, and they’re gone every weekend,” Armbruster says. “It’s not just a part-time pet; it’s an all-time pet. Just check your lifestyle. Is it conducive to a dog or a cat? How often are you going to be available to play with it, snuggle it?”

CNY Cat Coalition will not adopt out a kitten under 6 months old unless there is an adult at home during the day, or another animal to keep it company. “Young kittens don’t thrive as well without a friend, or a lot of attention. If you are looking for a very young animal, you should get two,” Armbruster says.

In it for the Long Haul

Surprisingly, Abby the Lab was quick to adjust to the unfamiliar place. “It only took Abby about a day to get used to being in a new home,” Fleishmann says. “That night, she was sleeping on my bed.”

Like all young dogs, Abby benefits from consistent behavior training. Fleischmann says this is the most difficult aspect of having a young dog and a young child in the house together. “Disciplining a dog is hard to do with a little one,” she says. “But we’re learning.”

For the Butlers, a cat has been a good choice of pet because they are rarely home on weekdays. Since he is still so young, Sebastian has tons of energy. When the family is home, Sebastian can be found right there with them, hanging in the family room as the boys play, or snuggling with Jessica at night.

In addition to requiring companionship, cats (like any pet) also need veterinary care.

“They need vaccines and they need to be seen regularly by a vet. We recommend that cats do be indoor only, but people don’t know that it is the law in New York State for cats and dogs to be up to date on their rabies vaccines,” Armbruster says. “Even more concerning is the distemper vaccine..You can carry it into the house on your shoes from the soil, and if your cat is not vaccinated, it can be exposed. Distemper can remain in the environment for two years.”

Families with a new pet should select a veterinarian and bring the animal in for an exam as soon as possible, recommends Dawn Counterman, who was a certified dog trainer and operations manager at Liverpool Village Animal Hospital when this story was written.

“We like to do it within a few days,” Counterman says. “Many pets come here from other states, so we like to get a good baseline assessment on them.”

Dogs are given a heartworm test; cats get checked for feline leukemia and feline immunodeficiency virus (FIV). Flea and tick prevention is vital for both.

Counterman also offers puppy socialization classes – a toe dip of sorts for the behavioral training she hopes all pet owners get for their dogs. She loves to see children attending the puppy socialization classes with the dogs. “I think it is really important that the kids get a little bit of that basic training,” she says.

New pet owners can be overwhelmed by issues as basic as what to feed an animal, “because there is so much information out there,” she says.

“I would like new pet owners to know that there are services out there to help with many situations,” Counterman says. “We want to treat the whole patient.”

By taking the long view regarding pet ownership, more families – like the Butlers and the Fleischmanns – can build happy, healthy relationships with their animals. There are plenty of animals looking for good homes, and there are many resources to foster successful matches.

Tips for New Pet Owners:

• Adopt a rescued animal whenever possible.
• Consider older pets.
• Know what you are willing to do with and for a pet.
• Consider the potentially high cost of veterinary care. Even indoor cats need regular vet visits and vaccinations.
• Expect that your kids will do far less to care for a pet than they say they will.
• Make sure everyone in the house is on board.
• Always spay and neuter your pets.

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