Returns – The 5 most common reasons and how to prevent them

Unfortunately, returns are an inevitable part of any rescue or shelter. However, there are steps we can take to prevent returns without introducing adoption barriers. In this article, we will cover the most common reasons people state for returns, how to prevent these things from causing returns, and how to identify the top reasons in your own organization.

Most common reasons for returns

There are 100’s of reasons why an animal is surrendered or returned. We are only going to be covering the most common across the industry but if you have a specific problem, don’t hesitate to contact us and we can work through a solution with you.

It’s important to value every person who enters your shelter or contacts your rescue. If they are not a candidate for adoption, they may be a great option for a foster or volunteer.


Arguably the most common reason for a return or surrender is someone saying they are moving and cannot take their animal with them. There are a few ways to look at this:

  1. Do you live in a community with minimal pet-friendly housing? In the short term, you can provide resources to your adopters like these pet-friendly rental databases:

    In the long term, work with your community by reaching out to local representatives and property managers to come up with a solution. If you’re not sure how to start with these, we can help.
  2. Consider asking adopters if they plan to move or if they move often. Owning a home shouldn’t be a requirement because that is a huge adoption barrier, but asking the question often helps people think. If the answer to either of those questions is ‘yes’, maybe fostering is better for them right now.


A family member realizing they have an allergy after adopting the animal can be a difficult conversation to navigate and is often very sad for the family as well. There are two ways we recommend avoiding this:

  1. Ask that the whole family is present when meeting the animal they are hoping to adopt, especially if this is the first time they are adopting this species of animal. If all members are not available, ask whether they have extended time with that animal before. If the answer is no, consider offering option #2.
  2. If you don’t have one already, a foster-to-adopt program can really help give families a taste of adopting while also giving the animal an opportunity to learn what it’s like to live in a home. If they decide not to adopt, you have gained a lot of information on how the animal behaves in a home. If they do decide to adopt, you can feel better about the permanence of the adoption.

Multi-animal household

Introducing a new animal to a home with resident animals can be difficult to navigate. Many organizations find that an animal is returned because “they didn’t get along with” the resident dog/cat. If you find this is something that is happening often, it’s important to take a look at the conversations you are have pre-adoption. Here are some questions to ask for homes with existing animals:

  1. Has your current animal met a dog/cat before?
  2. Has your current animal ever had a dog/cat in their home overnight? More than a week?
  3. Have you ever lived in a multi-animal household before? What did that look like?
  4. What is your plan to introduce your resident animals to your new animal?

As will be the case throughout this article, these shouldn’t be requirements, just guiding questions to help adopters really think about what adoption will look like for them. Just as before, if they feel nervous with some of the possible answers to these questions, maybe fostering is better for them at first.

After someone has decided to adopt an animal with existing animals in the home, make sure you provide them with resources so they are comfortable with integration. If you are not sure what these resources look like, reach out to us and we can help customize something for you.

Kids and animals

Having an animal as a child can be a wonderful experience for both the kid and the animal. However, kids do not instinctively know how to communicate with animals and often miss important indicators of stress before a potential correction from the animal. Unfortunately, animals are often returned because a puppy / kitten was playing too rough or a large dog keeps knocking the child over. Just like with managing a multi-animal household, it’s important to ask questions before adoption:

  1. What animal experience do the kids have?
  2. What is your expectation for how the kids and animals with coexist?
  3. How much involvement will the kids have?

Even more important than asking these questions, providing resources for proper kid-animal interaction can prevent many returns and, even worse, many bites. A great place to start is anything by

If you need more customized resources, reach out!

Not enough time

This can be tricky because it can mean a few different things. An adopter may really actually not have enough time to dedicate to their animal, most often this happens with dogs. Maybe they didn’t realize how much went into the care of a dog, maybe they got a new job. We can ask some questions during the adoption process Often times, this means not enough time exercise or train to the specific needs of a that particular dog. Here are some questions you can ask pre-adoption:

  1. What does your normal schedule look like?
  2. How do you picture your new animal fitting into your life?
  3. How much time are you reasonably able to spend on training and exercise every day?
  4. What activities do you picture doing with your new animal?

Depending on the answers to these questions, you can help provide some education on the time needed to care for the animals they are interested in. If they feel prepared, make sure to set them up for success by connecting them with a trainer or dog walker. If they think maybe it would be too much, fostering could be an option for them.

Why are your adopters returning?

While these are some of the most common reasons for returns across the industry, the reasons that impact your organization could be different. You may have an idea of your most common return reasons, but it’s always better to know for sure. When a return comes in, make sure to ask questions about what went wrong. Some questions that can be helpful are:

  1. What was your experience with animals prior to this adoption?
  2. Did you know about our post-adoption resources?
  3. Did you feel supported post-adoption? If not, how could we have done better?
  4. Can you describe the home you think this animal would do best in?
  5. How were your expectations different from what it was actually like having the animal in your home?

Head over to our article on Collecting Data for help on getting started. If you need help creating a return questionnaire, let us know!


As you may have noticed, a main theme throughout this article is understanding more about the individual adopter. This is because it’s always most effective to explain a concept in terms of the adopter’s actual life. Instead of presenting vague information on how a puppy needs to pee every 2 hours, tell your adopters that since they work 9-5, they will need help 3 times a day while they are at work to make sure the puppy learns to pee outside. This can really help adopters understand the responsibility of adoption. Read here for more ways to set your adopters up for success.

Another theme throughout this article was offering the option of fostering. We were all first time adopters at some point and we all had to learn things on the fly. Fostering is an amazing opportunity to learn with a safety net and also provides a positive experience for a new adopter, preventing a negative experience of returning. It benefits the organization, the animals, and the adopter. Head over to our Foster Resources for more info on foster teams.

Returns are hard. They can be extremely frustrating for a rescue and can be traumatic for an animal. It can be very demoralizing for a team but understanding why returns are happening is the first step to preventing them. Returns are not always a failure, you often gain valuable information to successfully place an animal in their home. Use returns as a way to improve your adoption experience and keep pushing forward. Happy rescuing!

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