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Do Fee-Waived Adoptions Devalue Pets?

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By Darlene Duggan

This is part four in a series exploring common shelter rumors and myths. Part one: “Is Black Dog Syndrome a Myth?” Part two: “All Shelter Pets are Imperfect (And That’s Okay!)“. Part three: “The Black Cat Myth“.

We have discussed how important adoption programs are to the livelihood of an animal shelter. In terms of capacity planning, adoption is an integral variable in the equation to move animals quickly through the shelter system. The benefits of good care and husbandry will diminish if a shelter cannot find a permanent placement for an animal.

Understanding this potential roadblock in the equation, many shelters have created unique adoption campaigns to endorse their animals and raise awareness for adoption. In recent years, one type of promotion that is becoming more prevalent is fee-waived adoptions, which is when shelters offer animals to qualified adopters without an adoption fee attached.

One positive result has been an increase in adoptions, but controversy about the programs has been an unintended byproduct. Some animal welfare industry voices question if animals adopted for free can be valued as much as those obtained for some monetary exchange. And because the majority of these programs center on cat adoptions, we are specifically talking about the devaluation of cats.

To help us assess the value of fee waived adoption programs, there is some research suggesting that cats adopted to families without an adoption fee are just as valued as those obtained when an adoption fee was paid. Researchers from the ASPCA and the University of Florida surveyed adopters from three large shelters in different regions of the country. Here’s what they found:

“[P]ets adopted with or without a fee have similar rates of retention in the home, similar lifestyles, and similar [caregiver] attachment. Shelter protocols that use fee waivers to increase adoptions are unlikely to have negative impacts on the quality of adoptive homes”.

The results of this research come as little surprise; for decades now we have known from data provided by the American Pet Products Association (APPA) that most people obtain their cats either as gifts from friends/family (i.e., the result of either an intended or unintended litter), or they take their cats in as a stray from the streets. In both situations, the cats are free. No coincidence, this is also one of the reasons cat adoptions from shelters is lower than dog adoptions from shelters. If I can get an adorable kitten from my alley or my neighbor for free, why would I go down to the local shelter to adopt one?

Shelters offering free cat adoptions are not just getting creative with promotions, but really are being smart in contending with their biggest competition for adoption. The free cats from the streets require some vetting (vaccinations, spay/neuter, exams, etc.), whereas the free cats from the shelters are already vetted. So, from an economical perspective, shelters are giving themselves an edge in competing for free adoptions.

In 1998, the Wisconsin Humane Society ran a test promotion waiving the adoption fees for adult cats. The program was so successful, the shelter decided to keep it going permanently. Not only do they boast that 100% of their adoptable cats find homes, but their shelter length of stay has decreased as well.

So, how does this shelter, or any shelter lifting adoption fees for cats, ensure the animals are going to good homes with caregivers who aren’t just adopting because the cat is free? The answer lies in the adoption screening process. Regardless of the adoption fee, a strong screening process will provide enough evidence for shelter workers to make an educated judgment about the intentions of the adopters and the level of care they will commit to the cat. Many adoption applications ask questions such as “What do you intend to do with the cat if you move?” and “How would you handle any litter box issues that appear?”. These open-ended questions are intended to create a conversation with the adopter so the screener can get to know the adopter, their lifestyle, and their future commitment. Good adoption processes also ask about prior pet history and will follow up (multiple times) with the adopter once the animal goes home.

What about you? Did you adopt your cat (or dog) from a fee-waived adoption program? If so, what was your experience? Share in the comments!

Darlene Duggan worked for many years behind the scenes at The Anti-Cruelty Society in Chicago overseeing volunteer programs, problem solving shelter issues, and laboring tirelessly for the welfare of animals. Her bi-weekly column, The Shelter Voice, explores the complex concepts surrounding animal rescue and welfare usually reserved for discussions amongst those at the very front lines of the industry. 

Related:

The Shelter Voice: The Kitten Dilemma

A Returned Adoption is Not a Failure

Get Ready to Adopt: Adoption ABCs

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