Are Shelter Dogs Healthy?

Dear Dr. Dog: I am thinking of adopting a dog from my local animal shelter, but worry that he may not have been properly taken care of earlier in life. Do shelter dogs generally come with special medical needs? How can I know for sure if my new dog will be healthy?


Congratulations on your plans to adopt a shelter dog! Shelter dogs make great (and grateful) companions. Many are healthy, some suffer from easily treatable conditions (such as kennel cough), and a small number have chronic medical problems. Here are a few things to consider before you go “shopping.”

We are lucky to have many different animal shelters in the Bay Area. “Open admission” shelters are city and county facilities (and some private humane societies with animal control contracts) that take in any animal in need. They receive government funding and often have a large variety of animals available for adoption. Some, but not all, euthanize pets if they are forced to take in more than they can adopt out in a specified time period.

“Limited admission” shelters are mostly private humane societies and SPCAs. They take in only as many animals as they can adopt out and guarantee their safety until they are adopted. In such settings, only animals with untreatable medical or behavioral problems are euthanized. These shelters do not receive government funding and usually have smaller numbers of animals, but are often able to spend more time and money treating each pet.

Neither type of shelter is inherently better than the other. Your choice should be dictated by your personal beliefs and where you end up finding the perfect dog. You can find a great dog at any shelter in the Bay Area!

One of the intriguing things about shelter dogs is that we don’t know their histories. Some have received the best of care early in life; others have been horribly neglected and even abused. Although shelters can be stressful places, most go to great lengths to provide plenty of fresh food, water, and love. It is moving and amazing to watch shelter workers start to undo the effects of any previous improper care by providing regular doses of TLC. 

Medical care is also important. Most shelters have veterinary staff who evaluate dogs when they enter the shelter, vaccinating and deworming them and checking for signs of illness. Ask for a record of all such treatments performed at the shelter when you adopt your new dog.

Dogs typically are exposed to common, easily treatable contagious diseases such as intestinal parasites, fleas, and kennel cough while in the shelter. They are also usually treated there, but because many dogs recover faster in the comfort and quiet of a good home, you may be asked to finish the treatment course. Such conditions have no long-term ill effects on your dog’s health and should not deter you from adopting your new canine friend from a shelter.

A minority of shelter dogs have more serious problems to overcome, such as neglect or abuse, or pre-existing health conditions like dental disease, infections, or traumatic injuries. Providing a loving home for one of these “special medical needs” dogs can be incredibly rewarding. Before you adopt one, however, be certain that you can provide the care and treatment the dog needs. 

The shelter veterinary staff will tell you as much as they know about any existing medical conditions. Some shelters have extensive medical facilities to treat common conditions and others do not. Regardless, you should feel comfortable asking questions to determine whether you can handle any condition a particular pet may have.

It is always possible for a pet to have a medical condition that was not apparent while he or she was in the shelter. Some shelters will agree to treat medical conditions that manifest within a set time frame after adoption (usually two weeks). However, adopting any pet is a for-better-or-worse proposition, and you should be prepared to take responsibility for the inevitable medical needs that will occur over the lifetime of your dog, whether or not he ever lived in a shelter.

In fact, although there is no way to know for sure what health challenges your new pet will have, there are several reasons why shelter dogs may be healthier in the long run than dogs from other sources. First, all shelter dogs are spayed/neutered prior to adoption, which is known to prevent certain health problems. Second, many shelter dogs are hardy mixed-breeds with decreased chances of genetic problems. Third, shelter dogs usually have been screened/treated for common health problems, received vaccines, etc. 

In many shelters, the market value of the medical and surgical care that each dog receives prior to adoption approaches several hundred dollars. So regardless of your new dog’s past history, the care received in the shelter has likely given him or her a head start toward a long, healthy life. 

If you haven’t found your new canine friend yet, he or she is waiting for you in one of our local shelters!

Emilia Gordon is Medical Director of the Berkeley-East Bay Humane Society (BEBHS). In addition to an animal shelter, BEBHS operates a veterinary hospital offering comprehensive, affordable care to the public, the proceeds of which help fund medical care for shelter animals.

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