I remember when my husband (then boyfriend) told me that they had adopted their family dog from their local humane society.
A thought ran through the back of my mind: oh, nobody wanted that dog? Must not be that great.
Because once upon a time, I thought that the humane society (and other shelters) were where you got animals that nobody else wanted. They were the broken, used animals, that people couldn't stamp "return to sender" on.
It's not that I wasn't an animal lover, because I always have been. But I had never been to a shelter, had never spent any time with animals there. I thought that the idea of shelters were great - but I just couldn't see myself adopting from one. I really, truly thought that adopting from a shelter would be a bad idea for me, because I couldn't see myself loving an animal as much if I hadn't raised it from puppy/kittenhood.
Even as Matt and I talked about adding another cat to our family, I thought of it as a "mission of mercy", of sorts. I may not love this animal as much as my other two girls, but I was sure that I would feel affection for it, and be glad that I had given the animal a place to live.
Obviously, my reservations turned out to be completely wrong. I'm not sure I could love Gwen more if I tried! She is just as loved as Mikenna and Aeris, and now that we have her, I can't imagine our little family without her.
Now, most animals come to the shelter because of a change in life circumstances for their owners. They're moving somewhere that doesn't allow pets or that number of pets. They've decided that their children cannot get along with their animals, and it's in the animal's best interest to be rehomed. Or, the owner has died, and the family cannot or will not take care of the pet. Most animals aren't put in a shelter for behavioral or health issues, though some are.
Still, the odds of finding an animal that would work for you are good! If not on the first visit, then eventually. In fact, I highly recommend taking your time and finding a pet whose size and temperament would work well for you. The last thing you want is to promise a pet a forever home and then take them back to the shelter.
I have mentioned before - Gwen has an auto immune disorder that causes her body to attack it's own enamel. So shortly after we got her, we had to have all of her teeth pulled because her mouth was a mess. But the little miss had been in the shelter for two years, and had been a stray for some amount of time before that. (I believe she had a family at some point, but that's another story.) It's likely that nobody knew about her health problems before we did - she probably wasn't abandoned because of them.
The odds of getting an animal with a health issue like Gwen's aren't very high. I believe that most shelters will have their animals looked at by a vet before adopting them out, so you should have some idea of what you're getting into. You should take the age of the animal into account - animals a few years old will probably be less likely to have a pre-existing problem than a senior. (However, this is not a guarantee, and a health issue does not mean that the animal will be a bad pet!)
It's also likely that Gwen's mouth was not nearly as bad when she was brought into the shelter as when she left it. She was there for 26 months, which is really unusual for an animal. Shelters often have high intake and high turnaround - because she wasn't super obvious about her distress, she just slipped through the cracks. Even then, our shelter has a clause in their contract that allows you to return an animal if health issues are found that you can't care for. I believe that Gwen would have qualified, and we could have taken her back to the shelter. BUT, I don't think the shelter would have wanted (or necessarily been able) to pay $1200 to fix her mouth, and unless another big hearted adopter was found, she probably would have been euthanized.
All that to say, Gwen is not your average shelter case! If you do choose to adopt from a shelter, it is HIGHLY UNLIKELY that you will be faced with huge vet bills shortly thereafter. But, if you are, and you choose to treat and keep the pet anyway, you may very well be rewarded with the happiest, goofiest and highly affectionate animal.
I've heard that adopting from a shelter is a great experience because the animal is so incredibly grateful afterwards. I didn't believe it was possible, but lo and behold, it's true. Gwen is not anything like the cat who lived at the humane society. She is vibrant, social, and seems to love us very intensely. She is not affectionate in the same way as Aeris, but if push came to shove, I think Gwen would be the animal who sent anyone packing who tried to hurt me. For many months after we brought her home, Gwen seemed so surprised when we would remember to feed her wet food, give her a new toy, or pay special attention to her. She doesn't look as surprised now, but she still seems very happy. In this respect, Gwen seems like she's a more average shelter case - maybe more grateful because of the length of her stay. I don't know, since I don't have any others to compare her to.
If you want to help animals in shelters, but don't have space in your own home, there are things you can do. Shelters always need help financially, and appreciate donations - whether it's in the form of food, toys, or even old blankets. If in doubt, contact your local facility and ask what they need. Shelters can also use volunteers. But if you can't do any of that, making some time to go and visit the animals is an incredible blessing. They get lonely, and living in a shelter is very stressful on them. You can help them ward off depression and keep them looking "more adoptable" by visiting and lavishing attention on them.