If you're thinking of getting a new dog or cat, here's why you should visit your local animal shelter first.

little girl with dog in front of playhouse

Greg Kwolek found the perfect present for his girlfriend's birthday when he noticed an adorable puppy at a pet store. He swiped his credit card, signed the receipt for $700, and brought home a very special gift. Two years later, the couple, in Sayreville, New Jersey, couldn't be more pleased with their dog, Madison.

But Kwolek regrets his impulse purchase, and wishes he had done more research and perhaps explored other options, such as an animal shelter. He explains his decision that day at the mall: "It's like you are in the mood for a candy bar, and you browse the rack, and just pick one. But I could have saved a dog's life by adopting one from a shelter."

Gail Buchwald, vice president of the American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals Cares (ASPCA), has encountered many prospective pet owners like Kwolek. She says finding the right pet requires patience and the right connection between owners and pets, and shelters are the best place to find that mix. "Shelters are wonderful place for animals," she says. "People say they're too scared to adopt from a shelter. But the animals are being fed and loved and cared for."

Buchwald says even if you end up finding the right pet at a breeder, your first visit should still be a shelter. Here are 15 reasons why.

1. Choices

Step into a pet store, and you're likely to be bombarded with puppies with multiple folds in their skin and kittens with enormous drooping eyes. Such sights are more than enough to convince anyone to rush the cage to the checkout stand. However, there are several important factors to consider first.

A new pet is not like a new car or computer. The dog or cat you purchase can be with you for 15 or even 20 years, which makes it a decision that's right up there with other life cycle decisions like choosing a mate or buying a house, says Buchwald.

The most precious kitten or puppy found at a pet store might not be right for someone who doesn't have time to give the young animal the constant attention and care it needs. Pets, especially puppies, need house training, obedience training, and regular medical attention. An older animal found at a shelter, on the other hand, can be a lot calmer and may not need as much training or attention.

In addition, you are more likely to find a wider variety of animals large and small, energetic and kid-friendly, among other characteristics, at a shelter than anywhere else. On Petfinder.com, the pet adoption Web site operated by the ASPCA, you can search for the exact attributes you are looking for. And with rescue shelters across the country taking in so many dogs and cats every day, sooner or later you'll find a pet that will fit well with you and your family.

2. The Right Pet

"Appearance is what draws you in," says Kwolek. "But I wouldn't take home [a pet] based on appearance."

More important than color, breed, or size, a pet should match your style of living. "Some people think yellow labs are adorable as puppies and beautiful dogs. But a person who lives a sedentary lifestyle and does not like to go running or exercising should not have a lab," Buchwald says.

An important distinction between shelters and pet stores is that shelters are not providing their services for profit, and therefore they are more concerned about other factors, such as finding the perfect match between the pet and owner. Because they've spent time rescuing them and resuscitating them, most shelters know their dogs and cats well. Using various screening methods, they can help you find a dog or cat that fits into your family and lifestyle. For example, they know whether their animals are good with babies and toddlers, are active or more sedentary, independent or just need lots of love. Explains Buchwald, "Every adopter gets a write-up from 'couch potato' to 'marathoner.' And I can tell you which one of my cats are lap-cats or which one has a really high play drive."

3. Test Drive a Pet

Since pet ownership can be daunting at first, the ASPCA offers a fostering program for prospective pet owners. Those who have never owned a pet before can take home an animal and experience the day-to-day situations and problems that arise, like late-night bathroom walks and housebreaking trials. Afterward, the individual can decide if adoption is right for her or not.

"Adopters tend to feel more secure with the fostering program," says Buchwald. "And very often it leads to adoption."

4. Purebreds

A common myth exists that the only way to get purebred animals is through a breeder. This is not true. People might prefer a purebred dog or cat because of family tradition or personal preference. In that case, shelters again should be the first option. At the Animal Rescue League in Des Moines, Iowa, over 20 percent of dogs are rescued purebreds. Other shelters around the country also carry a significant number of purebreds.

Breed rescue organizations are yet another option -- and a better one than a breeder -- for purebred seekers. These organizations focus on rescuing, and sometimes rehoning, a particular breed, and finding homes for the animals.

5. One-of-a-Kind

Certain pet owners feel that owning a rare and exotic purebred is unique, or even a symbol of status. Others feel the opposite is true. "Rather than one particular breed, you can get the benefits of many breeds," says Tom Colvin, executive director of the Animal Rescue League of Iowa. "I have adopted many wonderful pets, in part because they have genetics of several breeds in them. That's a real value."

And today, with more and more people adopting from shelters, the status once associated with purebred is shifting to mixed breeds from shelters, says Colvin. "People generally feel adopting pets is a status symbol," he said. "People like the fact they have rescued an animal."

6. Beyond Cats and Dogs

Cats and dogs may get all the headlines, but if you're looking for a different kind of pet, a shelter can be best place to go too. Many shelters, like the ARL in Des Moines, rescue every type of animal, from rabbits and turtles to iguanas and guinea pigs.

7. Behavior

To certain people, animal shelters, and specifically the term "stray," conjure up feelings of uneasiness and concerns about the animal's behavior. "A lot of people think there is something inherently wrong with pets in animal shelters. Purely for the reason that someone doesn't want them, something must be wrong with them," says Colvin. Buchwald believes the term "stray" is a misnomer. "The word 'stray' just means that an animal has just strayed from home. The animal was either abandoned or it wandered away and got lost," she says.

In fact, a shelter is an excellent place to acquire a safe and healthy pet because the shelter's main purpose is to tend to and revive lost and ailing animals. Animals may come into a shelter with an illness or a problem, but they are evaluated and cleared before being eligible for adoption. "We are providing state-of-the-art vet care with PhDs in animal behavior," says Buchwald. "Because our mission is to alleviate suffering and prevent cruelty, we are making sure we are giving the best of care."

8. Pet Store Dangers

Dogs have been bred for hundreds of years, and today, the American Kennel Club recognizes over 150 breeds. With so much breeding going on, genetic problems caused by inbreeding are inevitable. "There are all kinds of problems from inbreeding," says Colvin. "People are almost trying to get clones. If someone doesn't know what they're doing from a breeding standpoint, it can accentuate negative traits like aggression, congenital problems, and physical problems."

Breeders of all types face these challenges, but responsible breeders take special precautions to prevent their dogs from carrying on genetic defects. For example, many good breeders limit the number of litters their animals have to one or maybe two each year.

When you buy a pet from a pet store, you have no way of knowing whether your animal will be healthy or not, because you don't know the breeder. Further, to bolster profits, pet stores notoriously buy their animals from so-called "puppy mills" who focus on sheer numbers, not on the health and welfare of their animals.

But the mixed breed dogs you'll find at a shelter are less likely to carry the problems of heredity, simply because they've come from a larger and more diverse gene pool. According to Buchwald, scientific studies have shown that cross-breeds are heartier than purebreds. "With every breed, there is some genetic disorder that is associated with the gene pool in that breed," she says.

If you do decide to go to a breeder, do plenty of research to find a breeder who is reputable and responsible, so you can make sure your new pet is healthy and happy.

9. Health Concerns

Whether you adopt a pet from a shelter or buy one from a breeder, spaying/neutering, vaccinations, and other medical tests are essential before the animal is brought home. Shelters make it easier on owners by covering a large portion of the costs.

The ASPCA's total medical package includes spaying/neutering, vaccinations, worming, a free medical exam within two weeks of adoption, 30 days of free shelter care health insurance, and a microchip inserted inside the animal for tracking purposes, among other benefits. The organization estimates the cost of these services to be $2,000, but they charge $75 to $125 (depending on whether the animal is an adult or a kitten or puppy). Des Moines ARL offers a similar package for $95, and your local Humane Society probably offers a comparable rate.

10. Pay or Free?

It's not uncommon to see a hefty price tag of $700 or more on a dog at a pet store. Breeders can charge much more than that. And these charges don't include any of the medical expenses. Kwolek admits paying $700 for a puppy at the mall was not a good decision. "We plan on having more dogs but never again from a store," he says.

11. Lifetime Support

Raising a pet, in many ways, is similar to raising a child. Just as you would ask questions about parenthood and get advice from experts, you need that same support for your pet. ASPCA offers that service by providing lifetime support for the pet you adopt. You are free to ask any question from: "What do I do when my dog wants to be in my bed?" and "What if my dog chases my cat?" to the very basic, "What do I feed my dog?"

"Things will come up that you weren't ready for," says Buchwald. "Any question is a good question."

12. A Community of Pet Lovers

Once you adopt a pet, you're automatically enrolled in a community of animal lovers and pet enthusiasts. According to Colvin, many people that adopt from the Des Moines ARL later become volunteers. It's a wonderful relationship because shelters encourage and depend on such help, and volunteers lend their time to help the animals and to share their fondness with other pet-loving individuals. "Not only can you adopt your best friend at a shelter, but you'll also be doing valuable community service," says Colvin.

Colvin recommends establishing a relationship with a local vet as soon as you bring your new pet home. For dog owners, getting to know a reputable trainer and taking classes is another great way to enrich the human-animal bonding experience.

13. Setting a Good Example

Taking in an animal that needs a home sets a great example for your children, and teaches them important moral lessons. "Adoption teaches children how to care about those that others may view as castoffs," says Colvin.

This is especially true of children who don't have any siblings or who are very close to their pets. "It's a great way for children to see that they can make a difference in the world," says Buchwald.

14. Time Well Spent

One big advantage pet stores and breeders have over shelters is that they don't require prospective owner to spend any time with their pet before they take the pet home. But the major downside is, you may not always get what you hoped for. "At a pet store, you get what you get. And hopefully you like what you get," says Buchwald.

Shelters invest more time into their services. "I've had people come to me and say today is the only day and now is the perfect time for me to adopt a pet," says Buchwald. "But people have to understand that it takes patience and a few rounds to find a pet with a personality that matches your personality, your lifestyle, and your housing situation. Try a few shelters. Talk to the people there. Let the process evolve."

Kwolek is in the market for another dog to serve as company for Madison. This time, he plans on following Buchwald's advice. "I feel there is no time limit this time. Occasionally, we go to shelters just to see if they have anything. Maybe one day we will find the right match," he says.

In the end, you may or may not find the perfect pet at a shelter. But the important thing is that you tried. And there is nothing wrong with purchasing a pet directly from a responsible breeder. After all, most breeders love their animals just as much as the staffs at rescue shelters across the country love theirs.

15. Save a Life

While it's a common cliche that there are too many animals and not enough homes, it's also very real and dangerous. Homeless animals are at serious risks in the streets. "They can get hit by a car, be abused, even get set on fire," says Buchwald.

Shelters bring in these animals and invest a lot of time, money, and energy to help them recover from injuries and maltreatment they received on the streets. And though more people are adopting pets, the numbers aren't high enough. Nationally, only 20 percent of pet owners have adopted from shelters. "Just think what we can do if we can raise that to 50 percent or 70 percent," says Colvin.