All information courtesy of The Shelter Pet Project.

Are all animal shelters the same?
There are three kinds of adoption organizations: municipal animal shelters, private humane societies and SPCAs and rescue organizations. The first two are “brick and mortar” facilities; rescue groups are volunteer organizations that care for the pets in their homes. What does it cost to adopt from a shelter or rescue?
Generally speaking, fees range between $25 and $250. Sometimes pets are free if there is a special promotion going on; occasionally they will cost more.
How long does the adoption process take?
The adoption process can take minutes, more than an hour or even longer. It all depends on the type of organization and the adoption policies of that organization.
I’ve found a pet I’m interested in. Now what? Congratulations! Your next step is to contact the organization listed on the pet’s page on our site or on Petfinder. If the pet is with a rescue group, you’ll probably be asked to email or phone, or even fill out a preliminary application.

If the pet is with a “brick and mortar” shelter, you’ll probably need to go to the shelter during its open hours and ask to see the pet in person. What is the difference between a shelter and a rescue group?
The biggest difference is that most shelters keep their available pets in a single facility, while most rescue groups keep theirs in the homes of volunteers.
Also, shelters usually have some paid staff as well as volunteers, while rescue groups are almost always all-volunteer efforts. The pet I’m interested in is at a shelter; what will it be like when I go to see her?
Shelters come in all varieties. Some are modern and beautiful, while others are old-fashioned. Some are run by private charities (and usually have terms like “SPCA” or “Humane Society” in their names) and others are government facilities and may be what you’d call “no-frills.”
After you’ve selected a pet who seems right for you, most private shelters will let you visit with him or her in their own “dog apartments” or “kitty condos,” or will invite you to spend time with the pet in a special room or fenced outdoor area set aside for pets and adopters to get acquainted. If you are interested in a dog and already have a dog at home, many private shelters will require you to bring in your resident dog to meet the prospective new family member. This is to make sure there will be no future dog-to-dog conflicts. The best municipal agencies will be very like a private shelter. Others will simply give you access to their kennel areas and let you make your own choice. They may not have a special “get-acquainted” area, but you should be able to interact with the pet enough to know if you’ve met your match. What kind of paperwork will I have to fill out at a private or municipal shelter?
All private shelters will ask you to fill out an adoption application. Sometimes they do this before you’ve met any pets, and other times, they don’t have you do it until you’ve selected a pet you’d like to adopt.
Sometimes, the questionnaire is mostly about practical things like your experience with pets, landlord information, and references. Other times, it’s part of the process by which the shelter staff help steer you toward the pet who is right for your lifestyle. Municipal shelters sometimes have the same paperwork requirements as private shelters, but usually it’s far more streamlined. Should I choose a private or municipal shelter? Is one better than the other?
However un-fancy the facility or minimal the staff, the pets in animal control agencies and municipal shelters are just as wonderful as pets in other types of organizations. The adoption experience might be more pleasant at a private shelter, and the adoption fee is frequently much lower at a municipal shelter, but in the end, it’s about finding your special pet, wherever he is!
The pet I am interested in is with a rescue group, and I’ve emailed them about adopting him. What will happen next?
Because most rescue groups are run by volunteers, it can take a little longer for them to get back to you about an adoption than a “brick and mortar” shelter or animal control agency.
The pets usually live in the homes of the members of the organization, and you’ll often be invited to meet them at a central adoption area, such as a weekend event at a pet supply store in a nearby mall. What are the pros and cons of adopting from a rescue group?
Rescue group adoptions tend to be much more personalized. The foster families know the pets very well – they should, since they live with them! – and so they can give you a lot more information about how the pet fits into a family or home than shelters usually can.
This personalization often makes the adoption process more rigorous, and it can take a lot longer. The rescue group may want to conduct a home visit before finalizing the adoption, and will probably contact your veterinarian and references, too. Will I be able to take my pet home immediately?
Usually, yes. Sometimes you’ll have to wait for the pet to be spayed or neutered.
How much will it cost?
Sometimes pets are free if there’s a special promotion going on, but adoption fees commonly range between $25 and $250. But now and then the cost may be much higher. If you feel the cost is too high, ask what it’s based on. Was the pet with a rescue group that receives no outside funding, and pays for all veterinary care, spay/neuter, training, housing, etc. out of their own pockets? Did the pet have extraordinary expenses, such as costly medical care, before being made available for adoption?
What happens if there are problems when I get my pet home?
Some shelters and rescue groups have free or discounted services, such as dog-training classes or veterinary or behavior assistance, to make sure your adoption goes smoothly after you get your new pet home.
Rescue groups usually provide a lot of follow-up to adoptions, and some shelters do, as well. If you’re having health, behavior or adjustment problems with your new pet, call the place you adopted your dog or cat and ask if they have any services that can help things work out! After my pet has settled in and we’re loving each other – what do I do next?
Studies have shown that people are three times more likely to go to a shelter or rescue group if they talk to someone else who has. So your next step is to tell the world about your wonderful pet, and where you found him or her!
And, of course, to live happily ever after!