Why Do Pet Rescuers Ask Such Nosy Questions?

For most rescue groups, you can't just walk in and walk out with a pet without answering a lot of questions. Africa Studio/Shutterstock

Daisy, my sister’s miniature schnauzer, made quite an impression on me during an extended visit. I even found a schnauzer rescue group and submitted an online application, hoping for a feisty fur kid of my own.

No one ever called.

I remember being disappointed at the time, but regular outings with Daisy helped ease my bruised ego. Eventually, I crossed paths with a precocious pooch named Lulu who changed everything. Our escapades inspired this column, and my quest to help other frazzled, first-time pet owners. I also took solace in a hilarious book called "What the Dog Did: Tales from a Formerly Reluctant Dog Owner," by Emily Yoffe. Stories about Sasha the beagle helped me realize that I wasn’t alone in lamenting my Lulu’s penchant for chewing shoes, rolls of toilet paper or brand-new dog beds.

In Yoffe’s Slate.com article, she writes about being rebuffed by a rescue organization, after suffering through a litany of probing questions. Eventually, her family gave up and purchased their next pet from a breeder. Yoffe’s column reminded me of that fruitless schnauzer application all those years ago. Perhaps my own answers took me out of the running.

“People who rescue animals can be reluctant to believe anyone deserves the furry creatures,” Yoffe says in the article. “Applicants are sometimes subjected to an interrogation that would befit Michael Vick.”

Why all the drama? Rescue organizations relieve overcrowded animal shelters by placing animals in foster homes and actively promoting them on sites like Petfinder.org. As rescued pets adjust to family life, volunteers gather information that will help them find a love match. If things don’t work out, most rescue groups allow you to return the pet — no questions asked — which makes the vetting process even more important on the front end.

But questions such as "Do you plan to have children?" or "How much would you spend on a sick animal?" can rub some well-intentioned pet lovers the wrong way. Representatives from three rescue groups offer a little insight on some of those probing pet questions.

How much are you willing you spend on a pet?

bulldog recovering at the vet
You'll be asked how much you're willing to spend on a pet to make sure you have realistic expectations about animal care. Andi Berger/Shutterstock

“That’s just our way of making sure they have no problem taking the dog to the vet if it's hurt or sick,” says Janice Brooks, director of Rescued Unwanted Furry Friends Rescue (911ruff.org).

Based in Fort Walton Beach, Florida, Brooks’ nonprofit organization struggled to place dogs after the Gulf oil spill. Rather than take in more pets from animal shelters, Brooks and her team focused on finding homes for the remaining 34 pets in her care. Owner surrenders, due to military deployment or a battered Gulf Coast economy, make the adoption process even tougher. But her goal is to avoid making a bad match. “They’ve been through enough already.”

The issue of pet expenses also becomes a factor when people select high-maintenance breeds. Bulldogs are notoriously allergic to grains. These short-snouted dogs also tend to have breathing issues, placing them at the top of the "do not fly" list for most airlines. But the popular breed generates plenty of adoption applications for Georgia English Bulldog Rescue (GEBR).

“I turn away a lot of people who have unrealistic expectations,” says Ruthann Phillips, director of GEBR. She notes that a typical vet visit for one of her bulldogs can top $200. Annual veterinary bills for poorly bred English bulldogs can easily cost 10 times that amount.

In 2011, dog owners spent $248 on routine vet care and cat owners spent $219, according to a survey by the American Pet Products Association. Like people, pets also get sick from time to time, adding to that bill. Rescue groups look for applicants who will commit to routine vaccinations, along with preventatives to fight fleas and the threat of heartworm, a life-threatening illness transmitted by infected mosquitoes.

Do you have a veterinarian?

“We contact [the vet] to make sure they bought heartworm preventatives, flea preventatives, that they kept the pet up to date on shots,” Brooks says, noting that vets provide clues to a pet’s care. “When I called, [one applicant] hadn’t taken dogs to the vet in years. I would hate to know [a dog] was hurt and they did not take them to the vet.”

Her rescue will accept first-time pet owners, even without a veterinary referral. In those cases, Brooks provides a pet primer, filled with information about flea and heartworm preventatives, foods to avoid such as chocolate, and other key information.

Do you plan on having children?

rescue dog with child in stroller
Rescue groups will ask if you have kids or plan on having them. maplegirlie/flickr

Kids and pets can peacefully coexist, but some little ones have trouble resisting the temptation to pull ears or tails. My nephew’s first steps were quickly followed by mad dashes around the house in hot pursuit of Daisy. My sister quickly had to introduce the word, “gentle,” during playtime when he tried to tap rather than pet the poor pooch. Most rescue groups also have stories of owners who surrendered pets because they couldn’t handle the work involved with raising kids and pets.

“We would get owner surrenders from young people who got bulldogs as their first child — then they had children — and were unable to afford both,” Phillips says.

Brooks adds that the question helps them determine a good fit for the pet. “We know which dogs do and do not like children,” she says. “I don’t want a child to get hurt.”

Do you own a home or rent?

“We received a form last week, an owner surrender, because the person didn’t check with their landlord first,” says Dianne DaLee, vice president of Atlanta Boxer Rescue (ABR). “The landlord said you are not allowed to have dogs over 45 pounds, and the dog had to go.”

ABR requires prospective clients to secure a letter from their landlord as part of the adoption process. Brooks also recommends that all family members visit prospective pets, and agree to the adoption. If living conditions change, it helps to have other members of the household who will take responsibility for the pet.

Do you have a fenced backyard?

“When people go to work, let’s say they have an 8 to 5 job, they have to leave early to get to the job, then they are late coming home. That’s nine to 10 hours before the dog can go out,” Brooks says. “If you have a way for dog to go out, potty and come back in, there’s generally no problem with the new home. The people are happy; the dogs are happy.”

While DaLee admits that questions on adoption applications can resemble the Spanish Inquisition, honest answers help volunteers find the best fit. Some rescued dogs have never seen the inside of a house. Others require extensive training or veterinary care before they are ready to be adopted. Myles, a 7-month-old new addition to ABR, arrived with such severe mange that it had caused secondary skin infections on about 40 percent of his body. After receiving medical attention and a little love from his foster family, he is slowly beginning to heal and even play.

“These dogs come from rough backgrounds,” DaLee says. “We want them to have a permanent home, and not be turned back in to a rescue or hop from home to home.”