“When the stray Chihuahua mix was reunited with his owner, the little dog squealed and jumped up and down with delight while his owner cried,” says Stephanie Anderson, development director for the Humane Society Calumet Area in Munster. Anderson was recounting the successful reunion several years ago of a stray dog who was found when his owner discovered that he was a featured pet-of-the-week in the Times of Northwest Indiana. “We knew immediately that this was his person. It was the happiest thing I’ve ever seen.”

Sadly, most animals in local shelters and rescue agencies don’t have reunions like that to look forward to. They need generous people who are willing to open their homes and their hearts to make room for them.

Adopt, Don’t Shop

According to statistics gathered by the Humane Society of America, U.S. shelters took in an estimated 6 to 8 million cats and dogs in 2014. With the variety of breeds, age ranges, and personalities in such a large and diverse population, there’s a pet-adopter match available for every type of family and lifestyle.

“Adopt, don’t shop,” Anderson says. “With so many animals in shelters, there’s no need to go through breeders or pet stores. When you adopt a pet from a shelter, you’re giving her another chance. It’s not the animal’s fault that she’s in a shelter.”

Pet stores are often supplied by puppy and kitten mills, where animals often are kept in tight, overcrowded conditions, go without medical care, are neglected and even live in their own waste. “When you buy from pet stores that get their animals from mills, you’re supporting the people who run the mills and those horrible conditions,” says Kim Berryman, director of Alsip to the Rescue, a rescue organization with locations in St. John, Ind., and Frankfort, Ill. Puppy and kitten mills often sell their animals online, so the warning against buying animals obtained from mills applies to utilizing online pet sales as well.

Berryman, whose rescue organization specializes in saving puppy and kitten litters, pregnant animals, and special needs dogs, also recommends verifying that the rescue organization or shelter you’re using to adopt a pet is reputable. “We had one woman who was acting as a rescue, but she wasn’t who she said she was. She had 30 or 40 dogs on her property when we rescued them,” she says.

Reputable shelters and rescue groups should not only be open to questions from you as a potential adopter but should be asking you questions as well to ensure a safe, happy lifelong match between your potential pet and you. If you’re using a rescue organization, you should verify that it’s a registered 501(c) 3 charity such as Alsip to the Rescue by checking CharityNavigator.org or the BBB Wise Giving Alliance.

The Perfect Match

The adoption process at shelters and rescue organizations is set up to be friendly, yet ensure the best match possible between an adopted animal and his family. “Every animal has a person he belongs with,” Berryman explains. “Our job is to find the family he’s supposed to be with.”

Anderson describes the typical adoption process as beginning with the potential adopter (and any other family members) coming in to the shelter for a visit and to look around. The potential adopter can take the animal that he’s considering for adoption into a bonding room to meet the animal and talk to kennel staff about that animal.

To proceed with the adoption, the potential adopter would then meet with an adoption counselor to confirm that the adoption is a good match between the animal and adopter. If there’s a resident dog at the adopter’s home, it’s recommended that the dog be brought into the shelter for an arranged meet and greet.

Not only is adopting your pet from a shelter an ethically satisfying choice, it’s friendly to your wallet, too. Anderson points out that, with a low medical fee of $35, your adopted pet from the Humane Society Calumet Area is spayed or neutered, has its vaccinations, has undergone a medical exam, and has a microchip implanted (which can be used to identify and locate the pet in the event that it’s lost). The out-of-pocket medical costs for these services is approximately $1,200, which presents significant savings over buying your pet from a store or through a breeder.

Forever Home

The holidays are an ideal time to adopt a pet as long as you realize that, unlike a sweater or Xbox game, a pet isn’t a gift that you return because he doesn’t suit your style or you simply grow tired of him. But, despite the stereotype of an impulse holiday purchase, Anderson has observed that most people who adopt pets during the holidays have thought it out and planned for it. “I don’t find that we have a lot of ‘impulse adoptions’ during the holidays,” she says. “Many people just wait until holiday breaks where families have more time to spend with newly adopted pets.”

“We take care of the animals by feeding them, playing with them, and providing shelter and medical care, but nothing beats home,” she points out. “It sounds crazy, but it’s true that animals are grateful when they’re adopted.”

As Anderson sums up, “The greatest gift you could possibly give an animal is to give one a home.”