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Taking in stray dogs and cats is often a noble thing to do, and in the right circumstances can mean a safe home for the animal and an enjoyable new companion. But before taking in a stray, caution is advised. Many stray animals have not truly been “domesticated”, making them more akin to wild animals than to the loyal pets we seek. Even if they don’t show wild tendencies, it is rare for a stray animal to have been “socialized” around other people or pets, which is a key process for making an animal a pet.

All too often, what starts out as a selfless act can turn to tragedy for both the new pet owner, the pet itself and potentially third parties—neighbors, family, friends, maintenance workers or passersby. The stray might appear—and indeed be—sympathetic and needy. But once home, the new owner finds a host of issues with the animal. It hasn’t had its shots. It isn’t licensed. It is dangerous to children or other pets. It isn’t house-trained. It has anxiety issues. It has medical issues.

Sometimes a stray animal brings nothing but headache. At its worst, it can bring serious injury and even legal liability. In many states, there are actually statutes that make a dog owner liable for injuries caused by their dog—sometimes even when the dog doesn’t actually bit anyone. Even if a statute isn’t at play, an owner can be found negligent in caring for and controlling their animal.

To say the least, a stray animal isn’t a free pet and it shouldn’t be treated as such. Just like any animal that you may bring home from a shelter, a pet store, or a friends’ litter, a stray animal will need attention and it is a big responsibility. If you are considering taking in such an animal, take some basic precautions to protect yourself and your loved ones. At a bare minimum:

Have the animal examined beforehand by an experienced veterinarian to find out about any health issues and ensure it is properly vaccinated.

Have a dog trainer work with the canine, have a dog trainer work with the canine to spot and resolve behavioral issues. Some vicious dogs or abused domestic pets will be difficult to train. These animals may be unsafe around children.

Make sure you obtain and keep the proper paperwork and licenses.

Taking in an animal in distress should not unnecessarily increase the danger to two- and four-legged visitors and neighbors.

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