One of the most powerful tools out there? Social media. Using Facebook, Twitter, YouTube and even Pinterest can help animal rights organizations, rescues and municipal shelters spread the word about critters available for adoption. A simple retweet, Facebook "share" or email chain could help a scared, lonely animal find a new home, says Phiphi Gavalas, spokeswoman for No-Kill Los Angeles, a campaign to reduce the number of animals euthanized in L.A. city shelters from 17,000 to zero within the next five years.
Stop the overpopulation of animals:
• Spay and neuter all animals as early as possible, says Stephen Zawistowski of the American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals. "That is the single most important thing you can do," he said. Animals that are not fixed are more likely than neutered animals to run away. Moreover, it's cheaper to get your dog fixed than it is to deal with the cost of delivering a litter of puppies, followed by the cost of taking care of them and the responsibility of finding homes for them all.
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• If you cannot afford the cost of spaying and neutering, the Humane Society of the United States offers suggestions for low-cost alternatives. Also, talk to your vet: He or she might have some suggestions too or might be willing to offer a discount or payment plan.
• Think twice before becoming a breeder. Even if you manage to find homes for all those puppies or kittens, "they are taking the slot that could have been filled by an animal who is now sitting in a shelter and might die," said Ingrid Newkirk, author and co-founder of the People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals.
Suggestions for keeping your pet out of a shelter:
• License and microchip your pet. "When a dog with a tag or a microchip shows up at the shelter, everything stops," said Ric Browde, a retired Beverly Hills music producer turned author turned animal rescuer at the Baldwin Park Animal Care Center. "We stop and call that number immediately."
• Make sure your pet is always wearing his or her collar and tags, which should include contact information. This will help you get your pet back sooner and could help you avoid costly pound fines.
• Don't leave dogs in the backyard for extended periods. Dogs are social creatures, and they will look for ways to escape if it means being closer to people or other dogs.
• If you buy a dog for security, consider keeping it inside rather than outside. A thief could injure the animal or let it loose in a bid to get inside your home. A dog kept in the home is best for keeping bad guys out, Browde says.
• Make sure your pet has all of its vaccinations. Vaccinations are a relatively cheap investment, experts say, because they can ward off costly problems. Shelters often take in pets because their owners could not afford the subsequent veterinarian bills.
Adopting a pet:
• Adopt from a shelter or rescue, and don't assume that all dogs at the shelter are mutts. "If you have some patience and you look around, there's a good chance you can find the breed you are looking for," said Brenda Barnette, general manager of Los Angeles Animal Services.
• Consider adopting an older pet instead of a puppy. Older dogs are often content to sleep away the day while you're at work, and are past the destructive puppy stage.
• Determined to find a specific breed? There are rescues for nearly every one. Reach out to them, even if they are not in your neighborhood. They might be able to help you find someone in your area who has an animal waiting for a new home.
• If you buy from a breeder, here are some suggestions to make sure you're not buying from unscrupulous puppy mills.
Going beyond pet ownership:
• Can't adopt a pet because you travel too much? How about adopting a shelter or rescue? Shelters need volunteers to walk dogs and play with cats to keep them socialized, happy and ready to charm their prospective new owners. They also desperately need volunteers to help clean out pens and take animals to vet visits.
• Consider being a foster parent. Rescues and shelters always need foster homes for tricky cases like a cat that needs to take medication every few hours, or a dog that just had surgery and needs to wear a cone for a few days so that he doesn't start nibbling at those stitches. Foster parents can offer that detailed care and then return the animals to the shelter or, ideally, their new home.
• Shelters also need supplies. Some shelters want newspapers to line cages. Others want machine-washable blankets and detergent to keep their kennels clean and comfy. Find out whether there's something small you can do to help your local shelter or rescue. Perhaps you can encourage your workplace, neighborhood or church to join you.
• Don't put yourself in danger trying to rescue a resistant dog or cat. But you can help get many animals off the streets by carrying a leash, some blankets, disposable bowls, water and self-opening cans of cat food in your car. Southern California animal rescuer Caroline Pespisa uses those tools to get a scared or injured animal off the street. Then she takes it to a shelter. "It's better than suffering and dying on the street," she said. If the animal is resistant, you can leave food and water for the animal, and then alert animal control to its whereabouts. Why cat food? Pespisa says few animals can resist a bowl of wet cat food. And she uses the leash to create a lasso to put around the animal's neck if it doesn't have a collar.
• Keep a copy of the local animal control office's number handy. This will help you quickly report an animal you see running loose. And let's repeat: Never put yourself in danger trying to help an animal. When in doubt, leave it to the experts.
Problems with pets:
• Get help. Many people take a pet home and have no idea what to do with it. They also don't know how to correct bad behavior. They might get so fed up that they no longer want the animal. Trainers advise not to strike an animal or yell at it. That contributes to bad behavior. Instead, seek out training methods that employ positive reinforcement, and it will make it much more likely that you'll end up with the perfect furry companion. Who knows, maybe you'll even end up throwing a dog party.
• If you have an unwanted pet, do not abandon it. Domesticated animals have little chance of surviving in the "wild" and can even pose a safety hazard to others if they dart out into traffic. Turn the animal over to a public shelter or rescue and give it a chance to find a home.