Past residents of the Oregon Humane Society. These puppies are some of many the shelter cared for until they found a home. Photo by Clara Johnk.

There’s nothing like the feeling of adopting a dog. Whether it’s a two pound Chihuahua or a 200 pound English Mastiff, people everywhere know the excitement of bringing home a new furry friend. While pet owners can all agree on that universal joy, some elements of adoption can spark controversy, namely, the “right way” to adopt. People find new pets in a variety of ways, some of the most popular being shelters and breeders. Many favor the former when considering the ethics of adoption, but the best choice a potential adopter can make is always an informed one, where they take both their lifestyle and the practices of the adoption organization into account.

Because the idea of a new dog is so exciting, and puppy-dog eyes are very persuasive, it’s not uncommon for people to jump into adoptions without getting to know the animal first. Whether it’s a dog that they’re not able to take out on runs every day, or one whose grooming appointments are an unanticipated cost they can’t afford, new adopters can often get stuck with dogs they’re not able to properly care for. “People just get kind of caught up in the moment and later realize, hey, you know there’s more medical [attention required] than I want, or this puppy takes much more time than I [can manage],” said Ben Graham, a Customer Care Representative at the Oregon Humane Society (OHS). “My biggest [recommendation] for people is to not get too caught up in the looks of the dog, and really pay attention and listen to what [OHS staff] are saying about the animals. Make sure that you’re not biting off more than you can chew.” While Graham emphasized that there’s no shame in needing to return a dog that isn’t the right fit, adoption isn’t something to be taken lightly. With the care that OHS takes to screen dogs, both behaviorally and medically, and the effort they put in to assist in finding a good match, it’s important that adopters do their part to be informed about the animal they take home.

Additionally, while OHS is a shelter that provides the option to surrender an animal, as well as an abundance of resources for pet-owners, not every organization operates like they do. In fact, devoted pet owner Bentley Walker’s experience with adopting her cat Frida from a shelter was much less positive. Frida had feline immunodeficiency virus (FIV), and with that, Walker explained, came “very special needs.” Because FIV weakened Frida’s immune system, she was vulnerable to secondary health conditions, including oral infections, meaning her teeth needed to be cleaned often. “[Frida] was at a shelter, but they were poorly funded,” said Walker. “They did not treat their animals well, so she ended up losing a lot of her teeth.” Her story serves as a reminder that, no matter what type of organization it is, there’s no guarantee that their practices will be safe and humane. Often, the argument over how to adopt is reduced to whether you choose a breeder or shelter, but just picking one or the other without further research presents its own issue. Finding a reputable place that truly cares about their animals can be extra work, but it’s an important step in adopting responsibly.

Despite this, many people believe adopting from breeders is always the wrong choice. Perhaps the largest contributor to this mindset is the fact that, unlike dogs at a shelter who are taken in because they’re in need of a home, puppies from breeders are born for the purpose of making a profit. This means breeders will sometimes resort to exploitative practices in order to produce and sell as many puppies as they can, a type of breeding called a puppy mill. Conditions in puppy mills are typically cramped and filthy, and female dogs are forced to birth litter after litter. Because puppy mill breeders aim to produce purebred puppies as efficiently as possible, those litters often come from inbreeding, where genetically similar dogs are bred, which lowers the genetic diversity of the offspring and increases their risk of certain defects and diseases. With the number of dogs already in need of a home—a staggering estimated 3.1 million in the US—adopting from breeders begins to appear unnecessary, if not selfish. 

However, in the world of breeders, there are many reputable ones that can serve a purpose much beyond appearance. Over her life, Walker has adopted from both shelters and breeders, and she described her choice to go with a breeder as, “finding a dog that suited [her] needs.” Walker was looking for a puppy with specific traits that she could train to serve as an emotional support animal for her post traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) and anxiety. The task of finding the right animal would have been almost impossible in shelters, so through research she discovered a transparent, supportive breeder who treated the dogs as treasured pets, and from there, found her dog Malcolm. “If we’d been told we couldn’t go into the home to see how the animals were treated, or that we couldn’t see the puppies before we bought one, I would have said no,” she affirmed. Ultimately, Walker’s success came largely from knowing what she needed, and committing to only buying from people who she knew put the animals first. 

In all, once someone has truly considered their lifestyle and the operations of the organization they’re adopting from, the debate over breeders versus shelters loses some significance. Shelters can be an ideal choice for some, while breeders present an alternative for those who need it. When they’re the right fit for a household, dogs become cherished family members and friends. What’s most important is that people get new pets having done their best to responsibly find that right fit, and are excited to welcome and care for their new dog.

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