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Why you should never take home a free pet from a stranger

Call me crazy, or perhaps called me Southern, but growing up in Texas it was normal to pick up a free pet on the way home from the grocery store. As a child, it seemed like we were giving a pet a good home. As an adult, I’m beginning to question how safe this practice really is.

The free-pet-in-the-parking-lot phenomenon is nothing new, and it probably isn’t unique to my Southern corner of the world. Even with the convenience of Craigslist, many pet owners with an unwanted litter figure they can capitalize on the “puppy in the window” angle. Meaning, if they bring a whole mess of tiny kittens in a box to a parking lot with a sign that reads “free,” bleeding-heart pet lovers (and especially parents of whiny children) won’t be able to resist.

As cute and as needy as these free pets appear, there’s something seriously important missing when you pick up a free puppy from a parking lot: information. There’s no way to tell where that cute little fella came from or what kind of veterinary care he’s had when you participate in drive-thru pet adoption.

Lack of care

“Obviously, if someone is giving puppies away for free in a parking lot, this was not a planned ‘breeding.’ How are the puppies and mother treated where they live? I would be very suspicious that they are hiding the conditions of the place where the puppies were born and raised. The lack of proper care may not be malicious, but you will pay the price,” says Lorna Grande, DVM, veterinarian with 20 years of experience and creator of PupQuest, an educational resource designed to provide consumers with information on where and where not to find a dog.

Grande says she created PupQuest, a completely educational, non-commercial resource, for this very reason — born of frustration after seeing so many of her clients duped by greedy breeders and shady “rescue” adoptions, i.e., parking-lot pets. She continues, “One of our most important tips we share is to always visit where a puppy was born and raised. Otherwise, you may be enabling serious animal cruelty.”

More: 9 Reasons adopting a cat is the absolute best

Health problems

Ever heard the saying that there’s no such thing as a free lunch? This could not apply more to a free puppy in a parking lot. Though the sign on the cardboard box says “free,” that adorable pup is anything but. If the previous owners don’t provide you with details of veterinary care and vaccinations, you can expect to pay big to cover all shots and early health care at your first vet visit.

On the off chance that the free puppy has an underlying health issue, you’ve just made a major investment without knowing it — kind of like buying a used car without taking it to a mechanic first. Ann King of The Local Bark in Sacramento says, “Unless the current owner can show you vet records, assume that absolutely no vet care has been taken care of. Be prepared to get the puppy started on shots, deworming, all the essentials. This can save you a lot of headache (and heartache) down the road.”

“If the puppies appear to be in bad physical shape (goopy eyes or noses, lethargic, skinny or bony but with bloated tummies) and your heart is breaking, take them all to your nearest rescue or shelter. In this situation, feel free to lie to the current owner about your plan to do so. If the puppies have a serious health complication, such as parvo, that’s definitely not something you want to bring into your home and potentially infect your dogs, or dogs in the community,” cautions King.

More: Here’s how much it really costs to put a dog down

Behavioral issues

The last thing on your mind as you stare googly eyed into the face of an adorably free kitty is how its previous owner handled its early development. According to Jennifer Mauger, certified professional dog trainer at L’Chaim Canine, the first eight weeks of life are critical for development, especially for kittens. “This is the period of time they should be with Mom and siblings to learn their social skills. This socialization period basically shapes who they are going to be for the rest of their lives.”

If this time period was disrupted for any reason, or if you are being offered a free pet under 8-weeks old, you could be in for a lifetime of behavioral problems. Mauger warns that puppies taken from their mothers too early may “lack bite inhibition and can be way too rough with their mouths.” She adds, “If either animal was raised in a filthy environment, litter-box and potty training may be difficult.”

More: When does dog anxiety become a serious problem

When all animal care experts say the same thing — don’t do it! — it’s hard to justify picking up a free pet in a parking lot. Grande insists that responsible owners care about their beloved pets and won’t give them away to strangers on a street corner for free. She recommends PupQuest as a resource to “minimize heartbreak and animal suffering.”

If you just can’t resist a free puppy in a cardboard box, at the very least, consider the advice of David Wright, founder of iWorkDogs and resident dog trainer for Zingy, “If you do decide that you are prepared to make the commitment, then you want to try to make sure the dog fits your personality and lifestyle.” Wright concludes, “You are making a 10- to 15-year commitment to another living thing, and you will be responsible for their safety and well-being. Dogs are not accessories. About 3.9 million dogs enter shelters every year in the U.S. as a result of irresponsible dog ownership.”

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