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05 September 2012


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Our experience is that "Free" or "reduced price" adoptions simply attract the same adoptors we'd generally get -- only we get them to act NOW -- and 'buy' on our schedule vs their own. I equate it to an "inventory reduction" sale, same people, just trying to lower the number of animals in the shelter. We don't screen out more people on these days -- and actually seem to attract more high-quality adopters because we're getting our message out to more, different people.


A lot of well-off people got that way and stay that way by being frugal.

Also, I have a foster dog, and if I found an awesome adopter loved him and would give him a happy life but who happened to be poor, I'd reduce or waive the adoption fee. Would that person run into trouble down the line if the dog had a catastrophic illness or injury? Maybe. But maybe not. In the case of a shelter pet facing death, I'd say they'd tell us to take the risk if they could talk (and understand probabilities and whatnot).

H. Houlahan

I'm guessing that promotions also end up a financial bonus for the shelter.

A lot of adopters who come in for a promotion are likely to make a donation at that time anyway. And more likely to donate additional money over the life of their pet and beyond.

Evelyn Black

Excellent points! The animal shelter industry needs to utilize this kind of promotion; and figure out how to effectively market their product!


H -- you're excactly right. Most shelters lose money on every adoption anyway (for instance, there is no way a standard $100 adoption fee covers the cost of food, care, vetting, spays, shots, etc at the shelter). The costs then are offset by donations -- and the largest volume of donors tend to come from past adopters. So more adopters = more contributions. It's a complete win.

For the Animals

As long as the potential adopter is "vetted" as they would be if they were paying a fee, then great. But far too often in some parts of the country, you see "Free to Good Home" promotions and the like leading to easy prey and become bait dogs or the like. I'm not talking about grandma and grandpa who can afford the routine vet care and food, or even younger families.

And if you are outside of a shelter situation, reputable rescues have costs for the dog. Vet visits and care, spay/neuter. Many do not fully recoup their costs off of adoption fees and have more limited donations.

Just food for thought.


For the Animals, let me begin by saying this is not aimed at you personally, but is in reference to the overall conversation about this issue in our movement.

A caveat about adoption screening is a variation of what always comes up when we talk about free or reduced-fee adoptions, as is the concern that pets will be acquired for nefarious purposes.

First, what evidence is there that groups that use promotions like this would ever give, or have ever given, pets away without any kind of adoption screening? Why is that the first thing that jumps into our minds?

I'd argue it's because we are so highly resistant to think about using marketing tools to help the pets in our care, that our knee-jerk reaction is to find fault with an idea like this, even in the absence of data supporting our reaction.

Additionally, there are tons of places to get free pets, no questions asked, if you're evil. No one is going to go through the hassle of filling out applications, waiting in line, providing references, etc., just to save a few bucks on an adoption fee. It's just a boogey man or urban legend, that free adoptions at shelters and rescue groups will bring out the bait dog folks.

Second, and I think this is a VERY IMPORTANT point even if it's unrelated to my post, relying on fees as a revenue stream really isn't a good way to run a charitable organization. It's a bad pattern animal adoption charities have fallen into over the years, and it's one I think we need to get out of if we're going to fulfill our missions.

Charities should be funding themselves through development, through grants, donations, bequests, and projects envisioned from the get-go as revenue-producing, such as thrift stores or fundraisers.

By charging a fee for the charitable activity that is our MISSION, we only inhibit the fulfillment of our mission.


I have no problem with "free" adoption events if potential adopters are being screened well. Around here (I'm in Oklahoma) there are a lot of free events where no screening is done. You just walk up, pick the pet you want, fill out some paperwork and leave. There are a lot of people who watch for the free events to get pets that they resell to laboratories for animal studies, and people who get free dogs to train their fighting dogs on. I have a big problem with that. And free kittens? Well, that's just free food for your boa constrictor. That's a problem and why I don't agree with "free." I know a lot of "poor" people who take better care of their pets than the wealthiest of the wealthy. That's not the issue for me. Consider these points.


Mindi, so you're saying they normally screen, but then when they do the free events, they don't?

I find that extremely unlikely. I don't think this has ANYTHING to do with free/reduced fee pet adoptions. It has to do with adoption policies.

I'd also ask you for some evidence to back up what you're saying. I linked to a peer-reviewed study published in the Journal of the American Veterinary Medical Association, plus numerous case studies published by both Maddie's Fund and the ASPCA.

What do you have to back up your claim that free adoption promotions result in kittens going down the maw of boa constrictors, which is particularly looking like an urban legend, given that rodents are not exactly high-ticket items, and that's what most snake owners feed their pets.

Barbara Saunders

I agree Christie. The fee puts up a psychological barrier at the moment of adoption. I was a young, broke person who "couldn't afford" a pet. I overdrew my bank account for a cat I couldn't resist at an outreach event. Had the cat "cost" even $10 more, I wouldn't have been able to do it. I had him for almost 15 years.

I always found the money for vet care. The cat never went hungry. By the time he reached the elderly, sickly years my financial circumstances were entirely different. I believe many people are in similar circumstances. A pet once acquired is a family member, and you do what you have to do to provide.


I personally am not a fan of these events at my local animal shelter. I have the same problem as Mindi. Just anyone can walk in, fill out paperwork and walk away with a pet. I had to beg my director to do follow-up calls and some of the people that adopted animals from us should not have been allowed to! One of the adopted cats went missing and they guy could have cared less! If home checks, better screening, etc. were all in place I would be all for it. I want these animals in homes but not just any home.


Roo, isn't that a separate issue ENTIRELY from free or reduced fee adoptions? What is the connection you see?


What a terrific discussion. I'm a veterinarian who works with a large number of rescue people and this is probably the most well written and genuinely informative commentary I have seen on this topic. There is generally- hopefully?- an enormous difference between an established rescue group or shelter using this type of marketing vs someone trying to get rid of a litter of accidental pups or kittens on craigslist or in the discount store parking lot. For one thing- at least in AZ the animals up for adoption at the county shelters and by reputable rescues are STERILIZED AND VACCINATED. Offering a free, intact female pitbull for adoption on craigslist here is just going to contribute the problem...

H. Houlahan

I've had the care of a boa, and can assure kitten-lovers that no diligent snake owner is going to feed kittens to his pet.

Captive boas and pythons can be so slow to eat that they get chewed up by live rats and mice if not well-supervised.

A live kitten could really damage an expensive snake.

And as Christie says, it's not as if rodents (live or frozen) are expensive.

I call urban legend.


It's about removing barriers; both physical, and mental.

While it is important that adopted pets get good food and proper vet care, it really is more important that they have a loving home.

I adopted a four and a half month old kitten who had been under vet care for three weeks; and he wasn't thriving. In just three days in a loving home, he'd made healthful strides.

The important thing is getting them a good home. Everything else, like the fee, is negotiable, isn't it?


We just completed a successful reduced rate adoption promotion. So I do appreciate the up side. But I do fear that some people are drifting in the direction of "as long as animals are out of the shelter, it's cool" with a lot of talk of lowering fees and cutting back on screening. It's not like this hasn't been tried before. Back in the 60s and 70s, you could plunk down $5 or whatever and walk away with the animal of your choice. I'm not feeling nostalgic for those days and I hope no one else is either. Initiating a MORE rigorous screening program has cut down dramatically on returned dogs and other problems at my shelter. That and a policy of spaying and neutering before adopting out, a critical and not inexpensive practice that is subsidized by adoption fees, has cut our dog intake by about 25% over the past several years, a period during which foreclosure and other economic hardship surrenders caused a spike in intake at a lot of shelters. Yes, we can learn some from retail practices. But we aren't part of the retail industry and have missions that we can't undercut in the name of more gross adoptions for their own sake.


Thank you for writing this post! Two of my three pets were free, and that does not mean I love them any less.


Well, I certainly want to see more and more (all) animals adopted. However, Christie, I think the reason people are so concerned about proper screening at all adoption events is the very chance of an animal being adopted for nefarious (horrible) reasons is just unacceptable. So, I think in any discussion of free or low cost adoptions screening (and follow-up too) is a very important part of it. Personally, I am all for people - poor or rich - to be able to have companion animals to love and care for. But we do have to be sure it is a loving home, or we will have made things worse for the animals we love so much.


More rigorous screening is needed. At the famed Memphis Animal Shelter, any fool can adopt a dog for a fee. You fill out ppwk that isn't checked or screened, sign a sheet stating tat the MAS isn't liable for anything, pay a fee and BAM, you've got an unaltered dog to call your very own. And you get to take him home that day! Same with MOST of the shelters in this area. If they offered free pets, I can't imagine the backlash.

Look, it isn't that I'm against it, but if any Tom, Dick or Harry can get a dog or cat from a place for a small fee, the shelter certainly isn't going to suddenly require a more stringent application process with free adoptions.

You must also consider animal research centers. Think it doesn't happen? Think again. I have a friend who used to work for one (she quit because she couldn't stand the daily horror of mutilating innocent animals) and it was a frequent occurrence for "free to good homes" animals to be brought in. The center paid a small compensation for the animal, but I'm here to tell you it DOES happen. There are people sick enough to make $5 off of a free animal.

If the adoption guidelines are strict, I say go for it. If not, it absolutely does not need to be done.


I said nothing in this article about SCREENING. You should do appropriate adoption counseling/matchmaking regardless of your fee structure. This is a completely separate issue.


What I see in a lot of the comments I hear from rescuers is the same. They throw out war stories and horrible events that they have undergone and put their stake in the ground. Sadly, there are creeps and opportunists out there but with well trained adoption counselors, this can be avoided. I have worked with some people who were closet hoarders and have been fooled. Most know how to dress and how to answer all the right questions to secure a pet. All of my failures paid over $175 per animal to adopt which did not matter as each of my fosters paid in the end. The point remains, you do the best you can with what you can and gain experience so as not to make the same mistake again. Fee or no fee, predators will get an animal..

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