Virtual adoption explained: How to find a pet online and bring it home

Clear the Shelters

AUSTIN (KXAN) — Adam Markoff always wanted a dog, but he traveled too often for a pet to be realistic. When the COVID-19 pandemic spread, it kept him at home and gave him the time he needed to devote to a new puppy.

Adam Markoff’s puppy, Kona, that he adopted through the online process. (Courtesy Adam Markoff)

“I started looking online,” Markoff said. “I knew I wanted to go with a shelter because we live in Austin, and that’s kind of what you do in Austin.”

Markoff found Kona, short for ‘Corona,’ while browsing Austin Pets Alive’s website. But bringing her home was a different process than it had been before the COVID-19 forced the shelter to move all of its adoption operations online.

“It’s not like you can just go to a shelter and say ‘Oh, I want that dog,'” Markoff recalled. “You had to figure out which ones looked like the type of dog you might want and then request info on them.”

Markoff learned to adjust to a process that many other potential adopters also have to navigate: finding the perfect pet online before getting the opportunity to meet it in person.

KXAN talked to staff at Austin Pets Alive to get a better understanding of virtual adoptions and learned that it’s a little bit different, depending on the animal you’re trying to bring home.

If you’re looking for a dog, the first step is to browse the pictures and biographies of available animals listed on the shelter’s website. If the dog you’re interested in is at the shelter, click the “adopt me” button to get in touch with a staff matchmaker.

Their job is to make sure the dog is a good fit for its potential new home.

Adam Markoff with his puppy, Kona. (Courtesy Adam Markoff)

“The first thing we’re doing is having a conversation to sort of get a feel for their home set up, what they’re looking for in a dog, and how those two things line up.” Ashley Nesseler explained. She’s a dog matchmaker at Austin Pet’s Alive. “If somebody’s just wanting a dog that’s just going to watch Netflix with them all day, they’re probably not looking at the same kind of dog that’s going to run 10 miles with them every morning.”

That initial conversation is usually conducted by email or over the phone. Once matchmakers determine which dogs are a good fit, they schedule an appointment for potential adopters to visit the shelter and meet the animals in person.

“When they come, they have the opportunity to spend time with them in the yard and they can continue that conversation in person,” Nesseler said. “We’re still in the yard with them. We wear masks and keep our distance. We’re there to answer any questions about what they’re seeing or about the dog.”

If the dog is not in a shelter, like Kona, potential adopters set up a meet and greet directly with fosters before filling out an application and interviewing with shelter staff.

The process is similar for anyone looking to adopt a cat from Austin Pets Alive: find one online, contact shelter staff or the foster to set up a meet and greet, and then join the waiting list for an adoption appointment. The key difference is that cat meet and greets are conducted online, rather than in-person.

There are also cat matchmakers, like Allie Wassel, on staff to help with the process. Although it’s not designed to take more than a week from the time potential adopters find pets to when they take them home, sometimes cats get picked up before other people interested in the animal are able to get off of the waitlist. That’s when her team gets involved.

Cats wait for adoption at Austin Pets Alive! (KXAN Photo/Frank Martinez)

“If someone wants to adopt a cat, and someone else has already got on the waiting list, our adoption schedulers will look me in and say ‘We’re sorry, Fluffy got adopted, but we’re looping in our cat matchmaker. Just let her know what you want and we’ll give you a couple of suggestions.'”

They’re also looped in when adopters are looking for pets with specific characteristics.

“Maybe you need a dog-friendly, cat-friendly black cat who only has three legs,” Wassel said with a laugh. “People get really specific, and that’s what makes it fun. I can do all of that searching on the back end. I promise that we have a cat for everybody.”

Both Kesseler and Wassel say they’ve noticed pros and cons to the virtual adoption process. One advantage is that they’re finding homes for pets that otherwise would be stuck in a shelter.

“We have a couple of dogs who don’t necessarily show super well in their kennels,” Kesseler said. “In the past, when people would be walking through the shelter, you might see dogs who are super scared or just sort of hiding in the back or be super stressed. Or they might be out for a walk and might not be in their kennel when the adopter passes, so they might miss dogs that might be a good fit.”

The same goes for cats.

“When people come to us, they have a couple of things they’re looking for, and then we give them three to five suggestions,” Wassel said. “We always try to suggest one cat that’s even harder to adopt or it’s been waiting a long time, and those cats are getting adopted.”

One of the big cons is that potential adopters miss out on making a connection with animals in person.

“On the flip side of that, we’d see pretty often when we were open to the public people would have a connection in a kennel with a dog they were really drawn to, but then we’d sit down and have a conversation about the dog and their lifestyle and the dog wouldn’t always be a great fit,” Kesseler countered.

Austin Pets Alive staff said putting information about the animals online helps improve efficiency once potential adopters initiate the process, but the time it takes from start to finish can still be a drawback.

“We are a tiny team,” Kesseler said about matchmakers’ response times. “We’re working on getting them in quicker, but it’s obviously not as fast as same day as if you’re in person talking to staff.”

But staff said they’re committed to making the process as smooth as possible.

“Reach out to us and we’ll talk you through it,” Wassel said. “Don’t let anything be a barrier. We will work with you on what you need.”

It took Markoff several days before he was finally able to find Kona and bring her home. But in the end, the virtual adoption process actually helped him make a decision.

“I’m pretty indecisive,” he explained. “If I would’ve gone to a shelter, I would have been walking up and down the aisles like a kid in a toy store. This kind of helped narrow my focus.”

Adam Markoff adopted his puppy, Kona, by going through the online process. (Courtesy Adam Markoff)

He does have advice for anyone looking to adopt right now.

“Just be persistent,” Markoff said. “Look for the dogs you want, send out requests for as much information as possible. That way you have a better shot of actually being able to get a dog.”

For him, the persistence paid off.

“She’s a very sweet dog,” he said of Kona. “She’s very inquisitive, she’s calm. She loves other dogs. She wants to play with everyone and everything. She’s perfect. She’s everything I could’ve wanted.”

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