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The High Price of Animal Shelters

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Two years ago, our oldest cat died. A year ago, so did our second. Both were elderly; their deaths were sad, but not unexpected. They’re buried together in the woods in our backyard.

Four weeks ago, we decided it was time to have cats around again. We visited several local shelters and finally adopted a pair of three-month-old female kittens: a feisty short-hair calico and an affectionate black domestic longhair with extra toes on its front feet.

We believe in adopting from shelters rather than buying purebreds for both humanitarian and economic reasons. While we’ve always been sort of opposed to declawing — my wife calls it “cutting off their fingers at the first knuckle” — we reluctantly decided to have them declawed because we both work and wouldn’t be able to spend the necessary time teaching them not to shred the furniture.

What floored me was the cost. The adoption fee for each cat was $150 plus tax. That included a bunch of veterinary care prior to adoption, plus free microchipping and spaying afterward. Both had colds — a common ailment in shelters, where animals live in close proximity to each other — so a vet visit and some antibiotics cost $50. Declawing was another $200 apiece – no charge for the extra toes. They also got their distemper boosters. Four weeks in, and we’ve invested more than $800 in these two “free” cats.

Declawing was a choice, of course. The fees in the Twin Cities are far higher than those at shelters out in the country, but that’s a staggering amount of money — and it doesn’t even include things like food, litter boxes, or litter.

I understand that shelters need to cover expenses, and I don’t begrudge them or the vets the money. We love the cats — even if they keep us awake at night with their playing or by jumping up on the bed and purring in our ears — and can afford the cost, but it has set me to wondering: At what point does the cost of adoption start interfering with their mission to save animals?

A lot of families that might otherwise make wonderful homes for abandoned animals simply can’t afford to spend that kind of money on a pet. Are the shelters dangerously narrowing their customer base in a pennywise, pound-foolish fashion?

Those thoughts came back to me after reading about research in adoption psychology. This refers to a growing trend among animal shelters to study the psychology of shelter animals, as well as that of people who give up pets and those who adopt them. The idea is to not only match people with compatible pets. The goal includes discovering why owners give up pets (in hopes of reducing the number of abandoned animals) and to develop shelter designs and training programs for abandoned animals that will make them more adoptable. The overall goal: greatly reducing the number of animals euthanized every year.

The article is flawed. It starts out strong, and then devolves into a lightweight story about the author’s decision to adopt a dog from the shelter he’s writing about. It does makes some sobering points:

1. Of the four million dogs that enter animal shelters in the United States each year, half are euthanized.

2. The most heartbreaking scene was the description of the shelter’s “disposition team,” which has the emotionally wrenching job of assessing new arrivals and deciding, on the basis of a few minutes’ interaction, which animals get sent to the adoption kennels and which get sent to the canine Treblinka of the euthanasia room.

3. While the main reasons for surrendering dogs are understandable — biting, aggression, chewing on furniture, inability to house-train, moving, and loss of job — many are downright frivolous and reflect a shocking emotional disregard. Among the examples cited in the article: animals surrendered because they were “boring” or the owners were going on vacation, or the family bought new furniture and the dog’s coloring didn’t match.

The most interesting argument the article makes is that pets are being forced to adapt to a changing human culture that they were never bred for. Most dog breeds were developed for specific outdoor purposes – herding, catching rats, and hunting. These jobs not only selected for energy and intelligence; they were usually performed in the company of people or other dogs.

Our population is far more urban and suburban these days, and in many families the adults all work – and work long hours. Those dogs are now forced to endure long days alone in a house or apartment. Their boredom and loneliness is relieved only by the arrival home of their humans who, after a long day of work, are often too tired or stressed or busy to deal with the needs of their canine companions.

The article cites some successes, including one here in Minneapolis where “socialized” puppies were far less likely to be returned after adoption. Another training program in New Hampshire cut the euthanasia rate in half, while in Ohio an aggressive spay/neuter program has helped cut euthanasia by 40 percent while reducing the number of abandoned dogs by 16 percent.

Still, I was left wondering if there are any real solutions, or if the ethically numbing reality of animal shelters is simply the way things are. As long as adoption is expensive, as long as people have unrealistic expectations of their animals, and as long as substantial numbers of people refuse to have their animals spayed, there will always be more abandoned animals than there are people to adopt them. That means there will always be disposition teams separating the lucky from the unlucky.

It strikes me that there is plenty of room for either states or private foundations to get involved here. I see a two-pronged approach.

1. A subsidy program to reduce the cost of adoption, thus broadening the base of potential adopters.

2. An aggressive education, subsidy and (perhaps) enforcement program to encourage widespread spaying/neutering of pets: working with vets, say, to offer pet owners a one-year discount on vet services if they get their pet neutered (with the state picking up most of the difference); or shelters requiring that anyone dropping off a litter of kittens or puppies must get the mother spayed; or cities requiring spaying as part of their licensing process except for licensed breeders.

The idea is to make spaying the default choice, so that it occurs unless the pet owner is highly motivated to avoid it. Then, perhaps, shelters can do more of the sheltering part of their job and less of the emotionally numbing work that comes from serving as a triage center for society’s carelessness.

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About Sean Aqui

  • http://www.noface4film.com/ Kaonashi

    You didn’t have to get your cats declawed. There’s a product called Soft Claws (also called Soft Paws), which are vinyl covers you glue on your cat’s claws. They come in different sizes and colors, and stay on for about a couple of weeks or so, depending on how active your cat is and how fast their claws grow.

    They can be expensive, but I get mine on eBay for a great deal. Putting on Soft Claws is not that much more difficult than trimming your cat’s claws. It’s a shame that no one at the animal shelter told you about them, because it would have saved your cats unnecessary surgery.

  • http://www.noface4film.com/ Kaonashi

    By the way, I only spent $60 at the shelter for my kitten. This included spaying and microchipping. However, the bulk of the costs went to the subsequent visits to the vet to treat her cold (as you said, it’s a very common occurrence among cats in shelters), and all the necessary shots.

  • Lura

    There is just never a good enough reason to declaw your cat. It is always human-selfish. Cat comes with furniture wrecking, there’s tons of other solutions to it. If you don’t like it buy a stuffed animal rather. I despise the vets who do it, even more those who decide to deprive cat of its most valuable asset.
    Shame.

  • Lindsay

    First of all, I got my cats for $80 each from my local Humane Society. This pittance of a fee included spaying, microchipping, two bags of food, their first vet visit, a grooming visit, and all their prescriptions for the first ninety days.

    This fee is incredibly nominal compared to what goes into providing these animals everything they need to make it to adoption and to care for the animals that will never be adopted. Even $150 is more than reasonable, when people often pay twice that at a pet store without any of the freebies included at the animal shelters.

    If somebody is not willing to put a small investment towards their pet, then they are likely not prepared to put the further investment of care and maintenance toward it either.

    As for your own situation, declawing your cats is something you chose to do, so this cannot be remotely factored into the sunk cost of the cats. Furthermore, it is something you chose to do knowing that it is cruel simply because you do not have the time to train the cats. If you are willing to subject them to something that you consider cruel because you are not willing to expend a bit of time initially, then perhaps you should have thought your adoption through a bit further.

    Animal shelters are money-pits full of amazing people who give a great deal emotionally every day to save the little lives that you just adopted. How can you begrudge them the tiny fee they charge to cover a fraction of their operating costs?

  • Brianna

    I HIGHLY agree. I remember when animal shelters used to only charge 50 dollars for cats and 70 dollars for dogs. And yes, I also have respect for the whole thing how the shelter needs money for vet bills, pet food and stuff. But a local shelter near me charges 200 dollars for a dog mix breed or not, 300 dollars for a puppy and 150 dollars for a cat. Half of the animals there have been there for a year now because of how high the prices are! Ever since then, I never will adopt from an animal shelter since when I was so close to adopted a Malamute from there, the people wouldn’t let us because we noticed an elder dog there was LOADED with fleas. Go figure.

  • Brianna

    P.S
    Normally, the price wouldn’t bug people, but with this horrible econimy (Sorry, Spelling error), people cannot afford to pay that much. Ok, maybe some shelters are not like that but a lot are recently. Since when does money greed enter into helping animals?!?!

  • Melissa

    This is crazy, I work at a shelter and we LOSE money on every cat! Our most expensive price is for kittens $125, but that includes A LOT. County shelters that are funded by the government can offer lower prices because they have FUNDING. Also I would worry if someone cannot afford $125 for a cat, how could they afford to take care of it if something happens? I want our cats to go to QUALITY homes!

    Also, SHAME on you for de-clawing your cats, how selfish and CRUEL of you! It really does remove from their first knuckle down. It is legal MUTILATION. So if your couch you wanted to protect from claws gets peed on and ruined, you brought that on yourself, as that is a behavior problem directly associated to de-clawing.

  • Michael

    Sorry for your two passed cats.

    Cats in a shelter are expensive, sometimes, but you can get a great cat out of it. So it is worth the money.

    regards, Michael.

  • Laura

    The cost of a shelter pet is much less than you would pay from a breeder. Shelters need to money to cover expenses already paid out to help that pet and to keep the shelter open to help others in need. I am a volunteer at my local shelter and think these beautiful pets are worth every penny. They are lucky to have us, but we are far more lucky to have their love and loyalty.

  • Michelle

    I attempted to adopt an 8 week old puppy from the shelter this weekend… $700 a piece! The mother needed medical assistance to deliver but I do not know any vet birth and post birth care (shots, etc) that costs $4,900. The puppies were purebred and I have a strong feeling they wouldn’t have been so much if it was a mixed breed dog. Price gouging much?

  • Dan

    Gee buddy, $150 adoption fee is a bargain. Try getting a kitten from an individual and pay all the first round of shots, spaying, dewoming, etc. yourself and see how much you spend. I used to think shelters charged too much too… until I took in a feral cat and had to pay all those initial fees myself. Then I realized what a bargain a shelter animal really is. As for the on-going costs, did you think having pets would be cheap? Think again. This is one reason so many pets are turned in to shelters. People don’t think first. I personally think shelters should charge a lot more for dropping off an animal, but then they would just have un-caring fools tying their pets to the door in the middle of the night.

  • RG

    $400 to adopt two cats is very inexpensive considering the amount of services your cats were given. To get a cat spayed alone can be upwards of $100.

    Sqwish.Org