12/27/2012 12:49 pm ET Updated Feb 26, 2013

Meet Before You Leap

'Tis the Holiday season again, when friends and families gather, memories are made and the spirit of giving is ever-present. It's a time for people -- and pets -- to come together. The gift of a new home for an animal in need can be a great way to embrace the holiday spirit. But before you stick that shiny red bow on your new puppy's collar and snap next year's Christmas card photo, there are some critical steps when adopting a new pet which must be considered.

The most important step in the adoption process is research. In any case, meeting a potential new pet in person and making sure they are a good fit for you and your family is crucial to the adoption process.

Adoptions happen for a variety of reasons. Some people have a particular type of animal in mind -- a certain size dog or hair color, for instance. Others want to give a second chance to a special-needs animal. In any case, meeting a potential new pet in person is crucial to the adoption process.

That's why shopping for a companion animal online is never a good idea. Just like in the dating world, photos can help, but can also be a bit deceiving. We have found that many would-be adopters look on the Internet for their new pet and are sometimes far too willing to order an animal based solely on a photo and brief description. This type of purchase inevitably lends itself to a handful of questions: Is my new pet healthy? Does it have chronic behavioral issues? Will it have long-term psychological damage? Who am I even adopting from? And most importantly, did I purchase this dog from a puppy mill?

We conducted a survey last year that showed how effective puppy mills are at duping people, even in a city as savvy about animal welfare as San Francisco. Of 426 dogs owners we surveyed, nearly 30 percent said they had had their puppy shipped or delivered after an online purchase or from a breeder who never interviewed them. Online customers make it easy for puppy mills. Responsible breeders will not sell a dog to someone they haven't met and interviewed. Yet of the guardians who said they had bought their dog online, 51 percent of them said they wouldn't want to support puppy mills, and 19 percent said they didn't even know what a puppy mill was.

By now, it's no secret how puppy mills operate. It's hard to imagine that anyone who knows about the cruelty of this tragic industry would choose to support it. Meanwhile, unscrupulous pet dealers have learned to co-opt shelter and rescue language to try to blur the differences between mass-producing animals and saving them.

So while we encourage potential adopters to look at rescue websites to help find their perfect match, you should never, ever adopt or purchase an animal without meeting him or her first. By doing so you could easily end up with an animal that's not a good match for your household, or you could be funding the puppy mill industry. Your local animal shelter is still the best (and most humane) place to meet face-to-face. It's a place where encounters are honest, and you know who you'll be taking home.