What Price Would You Put on Adoption?

High or low? Here’s how fees correlate to forever homes.

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As consumers, we often equate the cost of something with the perceived value we receive. If you pay a premium price, you expect a premium car or home or meal. But when it comes to adoption fees, the price you pay might range from zero to hundreds of dollars.

A dog adopted from a tax-subsidized city shelter, for example, might cost less than one adopted from a private rescue group relying on donations and adoption fees. Even shelters based on similar models (such as small private rescue groups that rely on foster homes) might charge differing fees depending on factors such the local economy and the extent of community support.

Fees might also vary within any one organization for different animals. Kittens and puppies, for example, often cost more than cats and dogs. Cats typically cost less than dogs.

One reason for different prices is differing philosophies about what the adoption fee represents. Some believe that offering low or waived fees encourages adoptions. Others believe that offering animals at low or no cost devalues the animal and reduces his chance of good care.

Do fees cover costs?

The short answer is no. The starting point for any discussion of adoption fees is the understanding that fees only contribute to the animal care costs incurred.

“Not-for-profit private rescue organizations generally depend largely on donations,” says Marc Peralta, executive director of Best Friends Animal Society — Los Angeles. “Smaller groups, or new groups without an established donor base, may rely more heavily on fees than larger (or more developed) groups, but as a general rule, rescue groups stay open because of donations more so than fees.”

In Helotes, a small city in Texas, the Helotes Humane Society, a private group that receives no government funding, provides a foster-home-based program for rescued animals.

“Some families wonder why we charge $150 for a puppy when the San Antonio city shelter charges about $80 (and offers regular $25 specials), but city shelters are subsidized by tax dollars,” says Janice MacRossin, Helotes Humane Society founder and director. “We rely heavily on both donations and adoption fees to cover the significant costs incurred providing vaccinations, medical care, spaying and neutering, supplies, and support and education to fostering families.”

At the privately funded Seattle Humane Society, a larger and more established group, CEO David Loewe considers an adoption fee as essentially an application fee. “As a blended average, adoption fees probably cover 25 percent of the cost of each animal’s care,” Loewe says.

In the windy city, PAWS Chicago estimates the average cost per animal is $800 for medical care, vaccines, microchipping, spaying or neutering, and daily care. “We also incur extra costs offering a lifetime guarantee for adopters to return animals if they can no longer care for them,” explains Paula Fasseas, founder and CEO of PAWS Chicago. “With costs approximately four times more than fees collected, generous donations are a necessity,” Fasseas adds.

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Calculating a fee

When the Helotes Humane Society decides on adoption fees, we start with calculating average costs for each animal’s basic care,” MacRossin explains. “We then add a small amount to help fund incoming animals, especially those with significant medical expenses.”

Larger rescue groups might work with bigger dollar amounts and more animals, but the factors for fee calculation remain similar. In addition to the starting formula (costs must be covered by fees and donations), other factors contribute to fee decisions.

“At PAWS Chicago, we researched extensively to find a competitive fee that places value and importance on each animal, encourages adoption, and discourages people from going to pet stores or breeders,” Fasseas says.

A reasonable fee must also correlate to the local economy. “For years we had a set fee of $150 for dogs and $75 for cats, but a few years ago when our economy dwindled, we had to reduce the fees,” says Pam Perez, president of St. Francis Animal Sanctuary in Tylertown, Miss.

According to Perez, by lowering fees to $75 for a dog and $50 for a cat (and offering two cats for the price of one), they were able to increase adoption rates. “Although we’ve kept the fees at the reduced rates now, we notice that if people can give a little more, they generally do,” Perez adds.

In 2007, the Seattle Humane Society reduced the fee for an adult cat down to $25 to attract more adopters. “After a year of increased cat adoptions, we decided to make the lower fee more permanent,” Loewe says.

Extra for pups and kittens?

Adopting families often pay a higher fee to adopt a puppy or kitten than a grown dog or cat. Many rescue organizations have variable fee schedules; the fees reflect supply and demand.

At Helotes Humane Society in Texas “puppies are in high demand so their adoption fee is $150, compared to $125 for dogs over 1 year old and $50 to $70 for senior dogs,” MacRossin says. “Asking higher fees for puppies helps support care for the older dogs.” Similarly the Helotes Humane Society asks an adoption fee of $85 for kittens in comparison to $50 for cats over 1 year old.

Along similar lines but with an even higher variance, the Seattle Humane Society asks for a $25 fee for a cat, but a kitten costs $125. Fees for dogs range $199 to $275. “For senior dogs we have a reduced fee, and pups and purebred dogs have a higher fee,” Loewe says. “We find that the lower fee for adult animals encourages potential adopters to consider bringing one of them home, even if they originally came in for a pup or kitten.”

Other organizations, such as the St. Francis Animal Sanctuary, have set fees for all cats and all dogs. At PAWS Chicago, the fee for a cat is $100, regardless of age. The fee for a dog varies by only $75: dogs under 6 months are $275; older dogs are $200. “The extra $75 for dogs under 6 months is considered a deposit, refunded upon completion of obedience training,” Fasseas says.

Charging less for adopting two pets encourages families to bring home kitten siblings or bonded older animals. “Not only in response to our oversupply of cats but also because kittens do well when adopted with a playmate, we allow adopting families to buy one and bring another home free,” Perez says.

Besides encouraging families to adopt older (or more) animals, fees serve as tools for accomplishing goals concerning the animal’s care, such as PAWS Chicago’s refundable training deposit.

Fee or free?

Varying views about offering free (or low-fee) animals illustrate the complexity of operating organizations that follow standard business models but have the unique objective of saving animals.

Mike Arms, the president of the Helen Woodward Animal Center in Rancho Santa Fe, Calif., and a pioneer in the animal adoption field, concludes that charging fees increases the perceived value of the rescued animals.

“Giving animals away for free — or at rock bottom prices — encourages people to view them as bargain basement, disposable pets,” Arms says. Based on his research, experience and extensive home visits, Arms concludes that more people relinquish free pets than paid-for pets. “If you get something for free and it breaks, do you bother to pay to fix it?” Arms says.

According to Arms, good advertising (such as showing cute puppies to bring folks in to the shelter to look at all the dogs), rather than putting the animals on sale, leads to the best results. At the Helen Woodward Animal Center, fees have been raised consistently for 15 years, and adoption rates have likewise risen.

“We have some of the highest adoption fees in the nation (adopting families can’t get a puppy for under $399), but people don’t complain about the fees,” Arms says. “Like us, our adopting families see animals as having significant value.”

Other research, such as Maddie’s Shelter Medicine Program at the University of Florida, 2012, suggests that free adoptions don’t compromise the quality of the animal’s life. A 2009 study (Weiss, Gramman, Weiss, Gramman, Journal of Applied Animal Welfare Science) concluded that no-cost cat adoptions didn’t affect the perception of the animal’s value.

“At Best Friends we don’t equate higher fees with more responsible pet ownership,” Peralta says. According to Peralta, many pet owners have at one point brought a free animal (whether from a shelter, friend or family member) into their home. “We consistently see families with both a paid-for and a free pet, without observing any variance in their love or support of the animals,” Peralta says.

Specials and sales

Few organizations can afford to continually give away animals, but fee-waiving adoption events are frequently-used tools. “The word ‘free’ or a reduced fee in a promotion catches the public’s eye, but we find many owners donate the adoption fee anyway to support us,” MacRossin says.

The Helotes Humane Society’s Free-Love event draws additional visitors with fun, hippie-themed festivities. “When we evaluate potential adopters, we conduct the same interviews, set up the same home visits and require the same references as we do when fees are in place,” MacRossin adds.

Similarly at the Seattle Humane Society’s Fall for a Friend October event, which offers free adoptions, potential adopters are screened as rigorously as on regular adoption days. “Excited potential adopters line up outside in lawn chairs, sometimes waiting hours for our doors to open,” Loewe says. “These adopters put as much (or more) skin in the game than those who come during our regular hours.”

According to Loewe, the Seattle Humane Society (by using the idea of sales and promotions) follows a successful retail model, but aims for the goal of placing animals, not making money.

“People are attracted to a sale, so we have specials such as the Spring for a Chihuahua event, when we reduced Chihuahua fees after a large number were transferred here,” Loewe says.

In Best Friends’ Los Angeles facilities, prospective adopters likewise find reduced fees in correlation with various promotions. In January’s Resolution promotion, Best Friends Pet Adoption Center in Mission Hills dropped fees from $50 for a cat and $100 for a dog to $25 for any animal adopted. For February’s The One, launching on Valentine’s Day and lasting through the weekend, any dog or cat older than 6 months was just $14 to adopt in Mission Hills or at the NKLA Pet Adoption Center in West Los Angeles. “We regularly see a marked increase in adoptions correlating with fee-reduction promotions,” Peralta adds.

Some organizations don’t typically lower fees at special events. “(PAWS Chicago) adoption events aren’t about lowering fee prices, but rather encouraging people to come meet the animals and learn about our no-kill mission,” Fasseas says. PAWS Chicago does occasionally offer incentives aimed at finding homes for senior or special needs animals. Recently, for example, it offered a “2 Is Better Than 1” reduced fee for the adoption of two older cats.

Maddie’s Fund’s annual Pet Adoption Days is the largest free adoption event in the country. This year’s event has grown to nine states, 14 communities, 200 locations and more than 10,000 free adoptions. Learn more at adopt.maddiesfund.org.

A free trial

The St. Francis Animal Sanctuary in Tylertown, Miss., provides a no-kill 48-acre animal sanctuary for old and hard-to-adopt animals, and cares for animals until they find homes.

“For years at seminars I heard opinions on the pros and cons of offering animals for free,” says Pam Perez, SFAS president. In 2010, Perez decided to run a trial at SFAS to see if offering the animals for free increased adoption rates.

“In theory, I had reservations about offering free animals, but I wanted to see if eliminating fees would increase the number of homed animals,” Perez says. “We lowered fees, but we didn’t lower our screening procedures or standards for adopting families.”

For six months the SFAS staff conducted the same screenings and home visits on prospective adopters as they typically conducted. After six months, seeing no increase in adoption rates, Perez reinstated the original fees. “Most of the people who wanted an animal understood the responsibility and future financial commitment to the animal’s care, whether they paid a fee upfront or not,” Perez says.

Different rescue organizations might have varying experiences with lowering or eliminating fees. “SFAS didn’t increase adoptions by waiving fees during that trial, but we have benefited from keeping fees reasonably correlated to our local economy, which took a hit a few years ago,” Perez says. “Any one fee, after all, can be reasonable in one geographical area yet unworkable in another.”

The futures of fees

Whether a group charges a low or high fee, rescue organizations have a similar goal: to save animal lives and place more animals into good homes.

“Fee reductions, used in conjunction with fun promotions, help get people excited about rescue,” Peralta says. “And whether the excitement leads people into the shelter for the advertised event or simply puts the shelter on their radar for future adoptions, the goal has been accomplished: We’ve increased the interest in adopting a rescued animal.”

According to Peralta, the trend in rescue organizations is toward making adoption more of an informative, educational process than a sale.

“Fees, although relevant because they’re a source of revenue, are a small part of the process,” Peralta says. “Most groups are now focusing on providing the education and client services that will lead adopting families (regardless of the fee they paid for the animal) to become great pet owners.”

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Lynn M. Hayner

A retired attorney, Lynn Hayner is a contributing editor to DOGSTER magazine and has been writing about animals for 10+ years. She especially enjoys combining her two interests: animals and law. A lifelong owner of German Shepherd Dogs, she also shares her home with a rescued cat and two gerbils.

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