Is Your Rescue Pet Really A Rescue?

Exposing the Dark Underbelly of the Pet Rescue Industry

By Anthony Vercillo

You are ready to add a new member to your family and have decided to use this opportunity to save a life in need.  You already know that you don’t want to get a dog from a breeder because your heart goes out to the MILLIONS of companion animals out there in need of homes. Maybe you already know that according to some estimates, over 4,000 dogs and cats are euthanized DAILY in the US alone.  Stories like these break the internet as well as our hearts.  You can’t save them all, but you will save one, and in doing so will do your part to put a dent in the pet overpopulation problem.  But beware, even in the pet rescue industry, you will need to be on the lookout for abusive, neglectful, unethical and irresponsible individuals – everything you are fighting against when you opt to adopt a rescue pet.  This does not mean that you can’t help by adding a rescue animal to your home, but it does mean that you need to do your homework to make sure that the rescue pet you bring home represents your animal ethics.


While there may be reasons to consider pet ownership from a responsible breeder, there are also terrific reasons to choose a rescue pet instead. Those of us who have been fortunate enough to call rescued animals our dear companions and family certainly recognize the value in this. It is commendable to want to reduce the world’s suffering by saving or improving another sentient being’s life. Fortunately, adopting homeless pets is becoming more and more popular, and has reached a certain element of ‘noblesse’ in many circles propounded by celebrity stories of valor and kindness, yet another reason for my optimism and faith in mankind.


Unfortunately, this rise in popularity of animal adoption means big money, and we all know that where big money is concerned, corruption is usually not far behind, especially in an industry with lack of regulations and enforcement.  The selling of live pets, which can include what are characterized as adoption or re-homing fees, is a multi-billion-dollar industry globally.  Traditionally, the overwhelming chunk of that money would have gone to breeders of one sort or another, both responsible and irresponsible.  But with pet rescue becoming more and more popular and the success of the “Adopt, Don’t Shop” campaign, some irresponsible breeders have taken to unethical means to reduce their losses.


Puppy and kitten mills sometimes set up their own “rescue” organizations to boost income before resorting, as others have done before them, to dumping or killing their unsold bounty of dogs and cats.  For some of these businesses, profit margins trump compassion, especially after an animal is deemed no longer desirable, or has aged and peaked beyond the highly monetizable “puppy stage” desired by many buyers.  These fake rescuers will advertise available pets in all the same places where the reputable and ‘real’ rescuers will, including:  online classified ads, adoption sites, auction sites, social media, and local newspapers and bulletin boards.


Mills and other commercial breeders don’t always set up these fake rescue organizations themselves.  Instead, some will sell to a middle man, a broker who buys a breeder’s rejects, including defected, unsold, or returned animals.  These brokers often pose as rescuers, claiming to have rescued animals from mills, and they likely even believe this Kool-aid themselves as they are well aware that the animals in question would have suffered a horrible fate had it not been for their intervention.  Still, when they fail to acknowledge that their purchase supports the production of more litters and silently backs the unethical breeders who stay in business, the brokers only continue to feed an industry they claim to oppose.


With all the money to be made in re-homing pets, even those individuals and agencies who do in fact pull their pets from shelters sometimes place profit above animal welfare.  Though animal rescue often isn’t a profitable undertaking, profits can indeed be huge when that is the focus.  Even if re-homing fees aren’t exorbitant, and they sometimes are, rescues can make significant money from donations, using the guise of charity to exploit our compassion for animal welfare.


Big commercial operations are not the only bad guys.  The small backyard breeder can often be just as guilty.  Though their numbers are not as large, the issue of profit over welfare remains the same.  Similarly, they may over-breed or in-breed dogs, house them in poor conditions, provide inadequate care, and kill the animals they can’t sell.  Instead of posing as rescuers, they may claim to be the owner of a pet that unfortunately they have to re-home.  They will give you a sob story and expect you to buy it, something about an unexpected family hardship, or their landlord or condo association won’t allow them to keep the animal, or they’ve discovered a pet allergy they never noticed before.  They will advertise that they are seeking only the most loving home for their pet, yet they will readily sell and part with Fido to the first buyer who comes along with a wad of bills in hand. This practice not only works to hurt and discredit legitimate rescues, but also those who genuinely toil over having to part with a beloved pet due to unfortunate circumstances.


Another unethical tactic used for profit that has become more and more common is “animal flipping.”  The flipper obtains free or cheap animals, either by theft or from people re-homing their pet, under the falsehood that he or she will be giving the pet a good “forever home”, only to turn around and sell it for a quick buck.  Knowing the demand for rescues, some flippers will claim that the animal is indeed a rescued pet.


Unfortunately, deceit, theft and corruption are not the only problems we have to look out for.  The nature of pet rescue attracts many well-intentioned but irresponsible players, the support of whom often perpetuates the cycle that results in the pet overpopulation problem itself.  A good example of this are pet hoarders, people who may have started out well-intentioned but whose obsession with saving “just one more” life has led to a hoarding problem, thereby compromising the very lives of the animals in question.

Anyone who houses more animals than they can properly care for is doing a disservice to those animals.  Many “rescuers” have good hearts that often get in the way of better judgment.  They pull pets from shelters at higher rates than they can adopt out, resulting in a lower quality of care.   With each addition, space becomes more crowded, conditions less sanitary, and time devoted to each pet more limited.  The end results?  A lack of exercise, grooming, socialization, behavioral modification and training, as well as a lack of understanding of each animal’s personality for proper matchmaking with a potential family.  With the number of animals piling up, these rescuers are pressured to place them in any home that will take them, often resulting in mismatches that ultimately land the animal right back at the shelter from which it arrived.  This considerably diminishes the animals chance of finding a home since it’s return history doesn’t look attractive.

It isn’t just emotional attachments that accidentally turn a good rescue operation bad.  Rescuers may run into other problems in their lives that compromise their ability to properly run the rescue.  For example, they may fall ill or suffer an unexpected financial downfall.  Such fates can push a formerly responsible rescue operation into sub-par conditions and ultimately poor procedures.  When that business was the only means of income for its operators, corners will be cut, and animal welfare will ultimately suffer. This is how many rescuers who once had respectable reputations end up convicted of animal cruelty charges.

Another arena sometimes ripe with procedural disparities and dishonesty in the pet rescue industry rests in the adoption process itself.  The rescuer may have genuinely rescued the pet from an adverse situation, but in adopting the animal back out and thus saving as many lives as possible, he or she will hold back on the full truth about the pet’s background, health, behavior and personality to potential adopters.  They may not disclose that the pet has a bite history, for example and this is crucial information that any new owner would want to know.  This type of misinformation leads to improper matchmaking between pet and adopter, and can sometimes result in yet another owner-surrender in a shelter, as well as a hesitancy to rescue next time around.


There are many ethical and responsible rescuers out there and they are probably in the majority.  These individuals take the positive steps necessary that show a concern for animal welfare and a clear understanding of their role in helping solve the pet overpopulation crisis.  The best rescuers check off all or most of the following boxes:

  • Rescuer carefully vets potential adopters, asking probing questions about their lifestyle, their background with pets, whether they are permitted to have pets where they live, their expectations of the new pet, their plans with it, their financial situation, etc. Rescuer uses this information to ensure the adopted animal is a good match for the individual.
  • Rescuer has an extensive adoption process in place, including a legitimate application, interview, reference checks, and a home visit.
  • Rescuer has done a formal evaluation of each pet to understand its personality and any known behavioral issues. He or she communicates this to potential adopters, as well as the pet’s background and any health concerns.
  • Rescuer works within his or her means and does not take in more animals than they can properly care for.
  • Rescuer cooperates with other rescuers or points adopters to shelter pets, demonstrating that he or she cares more about saving an animals life than profit.
  • Rescuer does not adopt out un-spayed or un-neutered pets, unless they are too young for such surgery, in which case rescuer requires a spay/neuter contract that ensures the adopter will spay/neuter as soon as the pet is of age.
  • Rescuer doesn’t place sick or dangerous animals without careful vetting and clear communication of the health concerns or associated issues.
  • Rescuer does not obtain pets from irresponsible breeders.
  • Rescuer is active and versed in behavioral modification and training of their animals, and positive techniques are employed. They understand that behavioral issues are one of the top reasons people surrender pets to shelters.
  • Rescuer enables adopters to succeed by offering resources, such as recommendations for trainers, caretakers, vets, etc.
  • Rescuer micro-chips and tags all pets before adopting out.
  • Rescuer encourages or even requires adopters to stay in contact.
  • Rescuer includes in contract that adopter is required to return pet to rescuer in any cases or instances where the pet is not working out (or deemed a “good fit”), thereby ensuring that the adopter not give away or sell the pet to a third-party without the rescuer’s permission.


If you see an animal you’re interested in adding to your family, or a rescue agency that you are considering adopting through, don’t be afraid to ask questions. In many cases, the age-old adage that there are no stupid questions holds true, especially when it comes to animal rescue.  A good rescuer will be happy to answer you and content that you have done your homework and are taking the adoption process seriously.  Some questions you may wish to pose include:

  • What is the rescuer’s background? How did he or she get into rescue work? How did he or she learn and grow in this field?  Is this a full-time job for them?
  • Where does the rescuer obtain his or her pets? How does he or she choose which pets to save? Do they take older pets?  Sick ones?  Aggressive ones?
  • How many pets does the rescuer currently have and how are they housed? How many at the primary location and how many in foster homes?
  • What is the rescuer’s commitment to the pets he or she adopts out? What is the rescuer’s availability should the adopter need help with anything?
  • Is the organization a registered 501(c)3 non-profit (or registered charity, if in Canada)? This is public record and must be presented if requested.  501(c)3 status doesn’t necessarily mean an organization is in good standing, but it does let you know that it’s somewhat serious and committed because such structuring can be time-consuming and costly.
  • What enrichment and training does the rescuer provide the pets before adopting out?
  • Can the adopter visit a rescuer’s premises and meet/view all the available pets?
  • Will the rescuer provide the adopter with all veterinary records and the animals medical history?
  • If interested in an animal, what is its background (this includes age, when and where it was obtained, prior lifestyle)? Has it had thorough and regular health screenings and if so, what were the results?  What is the pets’ personality, and does it have any known behavioral issues?  How does the pet interact with people, children and other animals?


Going through a rescue organization is not the only way to save a pet’s life and put a dent in the homeless animal population.  You can also adopt directly from a shelter.  Instead of getting on that long wait list for the cutest puppy out there, consider the older or “uglier” animals who are often overlooked, or the ones on the shelter’s soon-to-be-euthanized list.  These make just as good companions, sometimes better.

Another way to rescue is to get your pet from an honest private party who needs to re-home their loved one.  There are many understandable reasons why some people must give up their pets, including terminal illness of the owner or financial hardships that inhibit proper care of a pet.  Having to give up a beloved pet may be an extremely difficult decision for these people.  With so many available pets out there to compete with, they are often unable to find a home for their pet and they agonize over having to resort to a shelter.  Be the shining light in someone’s life and come to the rescue of his or her beloved pet.


This article is not meant to scare anyone away from rescue – rather to encourage genuine rescuing to take place. Take the time to investigate whether your potential new pet really is a rescue.  This way, you not only save an animal’s life but also contribute to the solution of our pet overpopulation problem rather than unknowingly working against it.  Once you have decided to add a pet to your family and begin looking around at all the adorable ones out there, it will be hard to exercise patience over prudence.  However, by putting a little extra time and effort into being a conscious adopter, rest assured that the rewards will be well worth it.  You’ll get the right dog or cat in the end and you’ll sleep with a clearer conscience and feel honorably justified when you brag to the gang at the pet park about how your pet was a genuine rescue.