Adopting a pet is a major life decision. Although not conceived in a moment of passion like a human child, a pet is often adopted in a moment of compassion. Hopefully it will be easier to convert that moment of compassion into a realistic decision than converting that moment of passion into a logical decision. The result of either decision is an obligation that will typically last at least 10, 20 or in the case of a bird, like a child, even more years. Since this decision is so important to you (and us), at Gentle Vets we offer pre-adoption advice to help set you on a path to a happy family.

The definition of adoption by Webster is “to take by choice into a relationship; especially : to take voluntarily (a child of other parents) as one’s own child.” Initially we used this term for human members of our fdocpuppyfaceamily but as the pet began to adopt many characteristics of human family members we have included 4 legged (and 2 legged feathered) members into our families.

When you adopt a pet, whether obtained from a pet store, a breeder, a backyard litter or a shelter, as Webster states, you have a choice. A human adopted baby is going to be very much the same, whether brown, black or white, whether Asian, African or European. Unlike that child conceived in passion, you can logically choose what kind of four legged “child” you wish to adopt. You first get to choose the species – canine, feline, avian, piscine or other. Just as there are significant differences between a dog and a guinea pig, there are significant predictable differences between breeds. The Great Dane and the chihuahua, a pitbull or a maltese, a Borzoi or a pug, a Weimeraner and a Labrador, a pekingese or a Jack Russell terrier are vastly different in size, shape and behavior. No pet species has more variation in body and mind than the dog.

You can also choose the age of your adopted family member. You can adopt a 10 week old puppy or a 10 year old senior with white hair. Although it would seem to be not so important, age at adoption actually makes a huge difference. Many behavioral traits of dogs are basically hard-wired in the brain between the ages of 6 and 16 weeks. That age is earlier in cats at about 2-6 weeks. If you adopt your pet at this early age, you will have the opportunity (and responsibility) to get it “right”. If you adopt a pet older than this critical age, you will get what you get. Just as you can put vanilla icing on a chocolate cake, if that canine cake is chocolate at 16 weeks, it will be basically chocolate forever. Behavioral problems can be modified but they will typically last to some extent for long periods or forever.

On the flipdoc and snoopyside of that great opportunity, if you don’t do a proper job of training through that critical period you may create permanent problems. Because this period is so important for the rest of your pet’s life, Gentle Vets offers free puppy kindergarten to our clients so we can help you get that cake baked properly and you will have a wonderful life with your new “child”.

For some people, the challenge of early pet parenting may prove to be too much. For example, that young puppy will be having accidents in the house until house-trained. If you adopt a dog that is already house-trained you won’t have that problem. If you can’t handle any accidents, adopting an adult pet may make more sense. It just becomes far more critical to select exactly the right pet since you will have a very limited opportunity to mold that pet. If that well house-trained pet suffers from separation anxiety or destructive behavior, or even major health issues you will have other problems which may be more difficult to deal with than a stain on the carpet.

The key things to look for when adopting a pet are:

  • Behavior or behavioral tendencies
  • Lifestyle
  • Children/Elderly
  • Home type- small vs large
  • Activity level of parents
  • Time availability of Parent
  • Pet Knowledge
  • Pet Ability of parent
  • Financial Ability
  • Breed health issues
  • Acquired health issues

As we look at this list of requirements we listed behavior first. We are ADOPTING these ANIMALS. As such, we are inviting them into our human homes and lives. If they are going to live in HUMAN homes, they need to learn as many human manners as possible. The most critical human trait to learn is to not BITE each other. Even our human children had to learn this and this training was typically accomplished within the first year of life.teeth

Although dogs are the most domesticated of all animals, they are evolved from a predatory wolf ancestor. This trait will lead to the ability and even likelihood of biting. Biting is not tolerable in a human environment so it is critical to suppress this natural trait. This can be largely removed during that critical 6-16 week period with proper training. If the puppy did not learn to not bite during that period, that trait will remain indefinitely. This is probably the biggest drawback to adopting an older dog.

Breed selection has a significant effect on biting and bite severity. The tendency to bite has been suppressed genetically in certain breeds and enhanced in others through centuries of selective breeding as we created breeds for specific purposes. Breeds such as the maltese or the golden retriever have been specifically bred to reduce aggressive and biting tendencies. Others have a much stronger tendency to bite.

In addition to the tendency to bite is the severity of the bite. Although there are over 4 million dog bites in the US every year, most are minor. There are “only” about 27,000 severe bites or maulings each year. The difference between minor bites and maulings is dependent on two things. First is a behavioral trait called gameness. This is the behavior which has been intentionally bred into the fighting type dogs over centuries of selective breeding. It is the increase of predatory behavior defined as chase, bite, shake, kill. Although these type of dogs are typically no more aggressive than other dogs, once the predatory behavior is triggered it is very strong. With the massive jaw muscles, once they do bite, they can inflict severe damage and even kill. (There are about 30 people each year killed by dogs in the US.) These fighting breed dogs should not be in any household with children or older people who may accidentally trigger the predatory sequence. Even with very good parenting the risk of an accident is simply too high. Mom may need to go to the bathroom for a minute. That is all the time it takes for disaster to strike. A child may crawl or run away. A stooped older person will appear weak and may fall. Any of these actions may trigger a predatory behavior response ending with a severe mauling. There are plenty of dogs which do not present this risk and one would be wise to select a gentle breed.


In years past it was normal to obtain a puppy from a friend or neighbor who’s dog had had puppies. If you wanted a specific breed of dog, you could search out a breeder from yellow page ads or head down to the pet store where there were puppies of numerous breeds available. Today that choice of source is far more limited. There are fewer people breeding purebred dogs. There are fewer dogs of desirable breeds having unexpected litters thanks to responsible pet ownership. Even the shelters and “humane societies” on the mainland are running out of dogs and have started importing dogs from places like Mexico, Central America, Africa or Southeast Asia to fill the “shelters”. The limited number of dogs they are able to obtain from domestic sources are mostly fighting dog breeds which are still being widely bred by irresponsible breeders.

In Hawaii where most of our dogs are obtained locally due to necessary quarantine issues our supply is even more limited. Most of Hawaii’s puppy mills have been closed and few people are breeding. There are a few swap meets at some of the pet stores such as Petland in Kahala. Craigslist has occasional puppies. For specific breeds, Australia or New Zealand remain good sources as the supply of good dogs is much greater. Gentle Vets has excellent contacts in New Zealand and can help you source a puppy there. The Humane Society has some dogs but the majority are fighting dog types and there are very few puppies available so it is essential to be on the lookout for behavioral issues. If you get a dog from the Humane Society bring them by during your free exam period for a free Pet Aptitude Test where we will perform a behavioral analysis as well as a physical ecats in shelter

xam to help detect most latent behavioral issues. Gentle Vets has seen good puppies and dogs come from the Humane Society so it is worth a look.

When choosing your dog, after breed tendencies, the most important issue is existing behavior. One may think it would be size, but a tiny super high energy Jack Russell might be more difficult to maintain in a small apartment than that mellow giant Great Dane. Other than condo rules, size is usually not a crucial factor. (Large dogs will be more expensive for food and veterinary care.) It is hard to find a sweeter dog than a maltese or a golden retriever. Many of the smaller dogs such as Maltese, Bichon Frise, Pekingese, Silkies and Yorkies, King Charles Cavaliers, Miniature Poodles, Brussels Griffon, Dachsunds, Havanese or Boston Terriers have incredibly sweet personalities.

Energy level is another consideration. Jack Russells or Fox terriers vibrate their way through life while many Pekingese or Lhasa Apsos sleep their way through. Energy levels of dogs vary widely and we at Gentle Vets will be happy to discuss various breeds and their traits with you. Be careful about going to breed sites online as nobody wants to emphasize the downsides to their breed. For example the golden retriever sites will mention the beautiful long silky hair, not the hair around the house. Another breed may mention loyalty which actually may mean “will bite strangers”.

In the large dog spectrum there are also great differences. Most of the large dogs have been bred through the generations to enhance certain behaviors and these behaviors can be very intense. Probably the sweetest large dog is the golden retriever. He was bred to have long silky hair, a very soft mouth and to be very gentle. Not far behind is the labrador retriever and he carries the benefit of a shorter haircoat. However, you better be prepared to spend some time throwing a ball. No matter what large breed dog you adopt, it is always better to find out what the parent’s hips look like on radiographs. Hip dysplasia is common in many large breed dogs and is strongly hereditary. If the parents hips are good, the puppy’s hips are likely to be good. Total hip replacements are the maximustreatment of choice for this condition and you can count on spending well over $10,000 to replace both hips if needed. Hip Xrays of the parents are an excellent way of avoiding this problem.

Brachycephalic or short nose breeds have become very popular. These include the Pug, French Bulldog, English Bulldog, Boston Terrier, Brussels Griffon, Pekinese, Shitzu, Llhasa Apsos, Their smushed in nose makes their faces very “babyish”which is very attractive to most people as the image resembles a human baby face. Anyone wishing to adopt a brachycephalic better be prepared for problems. The more smushed, the more problems. The biggest problem is the ability to breath. This will frequently require surgery to correct the nose, the palate and the larynx. If you can hear a dog breathing, he has a problem. In addition diagnosticImage3to this are the problems created by the bulging eyes. This will also often require surgery to correct. If the breathing is not corrected, your dog will spend his life choking. If bad eyelids are not corrected there is a good chance your dog will end up blind. It is easy to read “expensive” in all this and that is absolutely correct. If you spend several thousand dollars on a brachycephalic dog, your expenditures have just begun. Expect to spend thousands more to make life livable for your pet.

No matter what pet you adopt, get insurance. Pets are a big responsibility. Just as you would not let your child go without health insurance you should not let your four-legged child live without health insurance. It is not unusual for health issues to run into the thousands of dollars and it can happen in a flash. We usually recommend Trupanion Insurance. Pre-existing conditions are not covered so get it right away – before problems strike. Be prepared!

Adopting a pet is a wonderful thing. With the correct choices they will bless you with wonderful life additions. They will lower your blood pressure. They will pick you up when you are down. Choose well and enjoy the numerous benefits of adopting a pet!