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Buying a pet online
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Due diligence
Once you've narrowed down your search to a particular type of dog, cat or other companion animal, the Internet offers still more resources to aid in your search. For example, virtually all breeds of dogs have clubs affiliated with the American Kennel Club where you can find detailed information about a breed and registered breeders.

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If you are set on purchasing a purebred cat or dog, make sure that you limit your search to qualified breeders affiliated with reputable organizations. The American Kennel Club offers classified ads that match breeders with registered puppies with prospective pet owners looking for a certain type of puppy; the Cat Fanciers' Association follows the same practice with registered kittens.

It's best to buy as close to home as possible. If there are problems later, you might have a hard time getting help from a dealer or breeder hundreds of miles away.

"If there is a way to get the type of pet you want locally, that's a better way to make sure you have the right match between you and the pet than going farther away," says Gail Golab, DVM, associate director of the animal welfare division of the American Veterinary Medical Association.

"You don't just order an animal like you would a dress or a book," she says. "You need to see that animal in person, to see the people who are retailing that animal as well as the conditions the animal is raised in."

Lisa Peterson, director of club communications for the American Kennel Club, notes that responsible breeders will ask you lots of questions before agreeing to sell a pet in an effort to ensure that the pet and customer are a good match. Peterson agrees with Golab that a visit to the breeder before buying a pet is vital.

"You need to see the conditions in which the puppy is being raised, how the puppy is being socialized and the conditions for the puppy's mother."

Look for red flags
Be aware of potential red flags when searching for a pet and finalizing a pet purchase. Red flags include:

Cash and carry. Be wary of Web sites that offer to ship you a pet immediately in exchange for a credit card number. "You want to establish a relationship with a breeder or a store," Peterson says. "The person who sells you a pet should be available 24 hours a day, seven days a week to answer questions, and should be willing to take a puppy back if there are any problems."

High prices. A breeder or retailer may have a beautiful Web site and charge high prices, but that doesn't guarantee the quality of the pet or the reputation of the breeder. "Just because an animal is expensive doesn't mean anything," Shain says. "Lots of times a surge in prices is linked to the popularity of a breed." She also points out that dedicated breeders are in the business because of their love of pets, not just to make a huge profit.

Lack of paperwork. If the Web site you're dealing with promises to send the paperwork documenting a pet's purebred status later, don't proceed with your purchase. "Some breeders will say they have American Kennel Club puppies and that they will send you the papers later, but in that case once the sale is made you have little recourse if the papers don't come," says Peterson. In some cases, breeders who promise that puppies or other purebred pets have the approved certifications don't actually have them, and if you are planning to show your pet, you won't be able to get into the best shows.

Next: How to find a pet
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