The Case for Free Shelter Pets

Wendy, adopted from a shelter for free, loved and valued.
Wendy, adopted from a shelter for free, loved and valued.

Free.  People get excited when they see the word in front of most anything – except pets.  In recent years, anyone who advertises or seeks a free pet has been subject to attack from seemingly well-intentioned animal advocates and probably alienated about the entire concept of adopting a pet in need.  If you are giving a pet away for free, you are scolded for ringing the dinner bell for every dogfighter, animal torturer and other animal abuser in a six state range.  If you are looking for a free pet, you are smeared as an animal abuser (because they are the only people who want pets for free and if any doubt, see previous sentence) and told that if you can’t afford to pay for a pet, you shouldn’t be allowed to have one (because you are too stupid to know that pets come with expenses which obviously your broke ass will never be able to pay).

The teensy problem is that all this is wrong, so wrong, totally wrong and wrongissimo.  To my knowledge, there is no research that backs up any claim regarding free pets and negative outcomes that exceed the standard amount of negative outcomes which can be expected with all pet adoptions.  The data that we do have tells us what should be obvious:  people love their free pets just as much as they love pets they paid money for because they bond with the animal, not the sales receipt.

Nathan Winograd has written about the unfounded fears of giving away shelter animals:

From the Cornell College of Veterinary Medicine to the ASPCA, from Maddie’s Fund to the experiences of shelters across the country, every study that has looked at the issue has concluded that waiving adoption fees—in other words, giving the animals away for free—does not impact either the quality of the quantity of the adoptive home, but does increase the number of lives saved.

Lives saved. Sounds good.

And to reiterate, people love FREE.  All people.  As Christie Keith writes:

Free pet adoptions are not aimed at people who otherwise couldn’t afford a pet, and that’s not primarily who they attract. Just as Nordstrom holds special sales only for its best and, presumably, wealthiest customers, just as car dealers and appliance stores and luxury hotels have special promotions, shelters and rescue groups who do free adoptions know that the “free” part is a marketing strategy, not a hand-out.

Free and special price promotions are designed to be attention grabbers. They also serve to focus people on pet adoption not in a “someday when I get around to it” kind of way, but in a “better go this weekend because it’s exciting, fun, and I’ll save money!” kind of way.

Dismissing a group as a whole because of misconceptions about who wants free pets is keeping shelter animals out of homes. And that means resources are tied up, pets are kept in cages or taking up valuable space in foster homes, and tragically for millions of shelter pets every year, it means they end up in the kill room.

This is usually where the folks who like to say “There are fates worse than death” chime in. Let me be clear: There are no fates worse than death. Where there is life, there is hope. While I am in no way denying that animal abusers exist, I know that they represent a tiny minority of pet owners and that at least some of them are willing to pay for the pets they abuse. (Does the name Michael Vick ring any bells?)  Most people try to do right by their pets and love them as family members.  Most adoption applicants will fall into this category, regardless of the fee being charged for the animal.

While Nathan Winograd advocates for reasonable adoption screening, a practice I too support, he makes clear that even without screening, adopted is better than dead:

[I]n shelters where animals are being killed by the thousands, and where they are horrifically neglected and abused in the process, I’d rather they do “open adoptions” if it means getting more animals out of there and doing so quicker because in truth, there is no greater threat to companion animals in this country than the so-called “shelter” in the community where those animals reside. Shelter killing is the leading cause of death for healthy companion animals in the U.S.


[I]f the worst thing that could happen to them if we gave them away is the very thing that will happen to […] them if they stay at the shelter, is the cost-benefit analysis even close?

Although it is my wish that more shelters would give away more pets more often, I think it’s appropriate to offer some additional lifesaving marketing ideas which could be used in conjunction with or as an alternative to fee waived adoptions:

  • Offer low cost promotions in conjunction with holidays and other special events:  $4 or $17.76 adoption fees for July 4th or $11 adoption fees for June 11, Just One Day event for example.
  • 10 for 10 (can be used with any numbers):  Pick out the 10 animals in most urgent need of homes (long timers, elderly pets, etc.) and offer them for $10.  As each animal gets adopted, replace him with another so the promotion can run continuously.
  • Pay what you will:  Offer animals for a fee of any amount of the adopter’s choosing.
  • Donations appreciated:  Offer pets for free while letting adopters know they are welcome to make a donation of any amount.
  • Run promotions based on physical characteristics:  Tabby Tuesdays or Big and Beautiful Fat Cats for example.
  • Peruse this online book for more marketing ideas.

This adoption promo ad is from 2011 but still a favorite of mine:

Many shelters have been successfully using free adoption promotions in order to save lives for quite awhile.  But among animal advocates, there remains a stigma – baseless as it is.  Let’s embrace the word free.  If you are looking for a word to replace it – one that you can hang your Hate hat on – use kill.  The people who needlessly kill animals instead of sheltering them are deserving of your lectures, not the people who want to save a shelter pet’s life by giving them a home.

25 thoughts on “The Case for Free Shelter Pets

  1. Just last week I wrote a rebuttal to a petition that was flying around facebook. Some guy got his tidie whities in a bunch because a NEW shelter director for the Stockton shelter (and someone who had NO experience in killing shelter animals, gasp!) was giving away pitbulls for FREE. He ranted on about how the likely adopters were gang bangers, thugs and otherwise undesireables. He made several idiotic assumptions as to quality of adopters, railed against lack of background checks (who does this?), yard checks (a tactic employed famously by Memphis Animal Services, or not, so they can keep killing) and the general lackadaisical management style of someone who is refusing to do business as usual i.e. not kill. I was attacked by people that know me, or at least I thought knew me, for being too “rainbows and unicorns”. When I gave them a link to a recent study that showed exactly what you’ve discussed here they dismissed it as ASPCA drivel. Yeah, I’m not the biggest fan of the ASPCA but they DO have the money to do the research and I’ve met Dr. Weiss and found her to be level headed, funny and smart. Keeping an animal out of the shelter is a good thing, getting them out once in is a great thing. Time to think outside of the box….

    Liked by 1 person

  2. There are still some folks at my local shelter who balk at the idea of free pets. It means that people are “cheap”, that they don’t care ENOUGH about an animal, that they won’t care properly for that pet…

    Except now, some adopters are updating us on their free pets – the old man who loves his vision-impaired free cat, the 11 year old girl who dotes on her free senior cat, etc. Did all of our sponsored/free/sale pet adoptions work out? No, they didn’t. But that seems to be more of a factor of PEOPLE, rather than pets.

    And when the shelter folks kick up a fuss about free pets, I remind them of the cruelty case we handled last year – a dog kept in a cage so small, he could not stand, turn, or move. Starved nearly to death, urine scald on his feet, tail, and chest. This dog was adopted from another shelter and the adopter paid full price for him – $150.

    What you pay does not equal how much you value.

    Liked by 1 person

  3. As someone who is passionate about shelter pets I can totally attest to the fact that Shirley is right. My condo association allows me to have two pets and I had been toying with the idea of adopting a second dog for months. What finally motivated me to move from “I’ll get around it to it someday” to actually adopting was the fact that one of my local shelters was holding an end of the year “Let’s get every pet adopted by December 31st!” campaign, which entailed deep discounts on their regular adoption fees. The other cool part (I’m in Portland, Oregon, where by and large we have an excellent shelter system) is that my little guy was pulled from a high kill California shelter as part of our shelter’s “second chance program”. My chi-mix is totally beloved, despite the fact that I “paid” less for him that I would have otherwise. Promotions and lowered (or free) adoption fees work.

    Liked by 1 person

  4. I’ve seen a lot of hate for the free adoption offers and it’s upsetting. A lot of it seems to be tied to the idea that poor people are rotten pet owner, which is nonsense. And I really question the idea that only expensive animals are valued, that is just sad. Most of my pets were free, some abandoned and some stray that no one ever claimed.
    I am also working poor and yet manage to care for them, and love them very much.
    Honestly, hating on the poor should end, there are a whole lot of us who can’t shell out three to four hundred to adopt but do manage basic vet care expenses.

    Liked by 1 person

  5. I commented earlier but had another thought. I know a lot of people who need to rehome their pets post on Craigslist. I completely understand their motivation for doing so. People who love their pets but can’t keep them want some control over who they end up with, and obviously they’re a lot more comfortable relinquishing their pets to someone they meet in person, as opposed to turning them over to the shelter system, where they’ll be housed for an indefinite period and will (potentially) go to whomever the shelter deems acceptable (if not be euthanized). I got my, now deceased, English Bulldog from a family who needed to rehome her from an ad on Craigslist. If I was in their position I’d probably do something similar. However, I’ve seen a spate of warnings (from shelters and animal advocates) against doing this. I’ve seen photos with dogs and cats who have their muzzles tied with duct tape around their mouths to encourage fighting dogs to attack them (all of whom presumably were posted for free on CL). I’m curious as to Shirley’s and others’ opinions as to whether CL is an ethical option to rehoming your pet (for free or a nominal fee) or if it’s better to relinquish your pet to a shelter.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I think that a lot depends on the shelter. And…the owner. I’m not what you’d call a fantastic judge of people. I miss things about people that others see (example – there was a girl in the shelter to adopt a cat, I spoke to her, she seemed fine to me. After she left, one of the shelter staff wanted to know if the girl was on drugs. Another said yes, but probably prescription for her Tourette’s. I picked up on neither the drugs nor the Tourette’s…). I can spot things in animals that others miss – how a dog moves indicating hip pain, when a cat is just about to let you know she’s had enough with the petting, etc. But I’m just not astute with humans. So I would not feel comfortable rehoming a pet with someone directly.

      And we have known flippers in our area (always on the lost and found lists trying to claim pets as their own, changing identities six times a week) others are aware of and can recognize.

      If a shelter has a halfway decent screening process and someone who is a better judge of humans than I, I would be more inclined to go with the shelter.

      If the shelter sucks at it, just taking any fee from any person, of if I were a better judge of humanity, then I’d likely do it myself.

      Liked by 1 person

    2. Unless the person needing to rehome the pet is lucky enough to live in a place with a no kill municipal shelter, I would say anything that allows the pet to be rehomed while keeping him out of the shelter is a good thing. Even in areas with open admission no kill shelters, I would recommend reserving the shelter as a last resort and trying to rehome the pet yourself. I don’t see Craigslist as any different from putting an ad in the local paper, which is what people did before the internet. Reasonable screening of potential adopters is key. It won’t protect you 100% from a dishonest person obtaining your pet but neither will anything else.

      Liked by 1 person

  6. Lauren, regarding Craigslist, it can be a great way to find potential adopters, as long as you talk to them for a while so you get a feel for how they view their animal companions. I got my greatly beloved dog Redd via Craigslist; I posted an in-search-of ad for dog calm enough to be left at home for many hours every weekday, and this amazingly calm one-year-old Pit Bull turned out to be exactly the right dog for me. I have run numerous ads for barn cats on Craigslist, and I’ ve adopted out about 50 cats to barn homes I’ve found through the ads I’ve posted (I had been contacted about these cats by people who had found out that the cats could no longer stay where they were living and knew that I could find a barn home for the cats). I provide a large dog crate for the cats to stay in for 2 weeks, along with food and water bowls, litter box, litter, cage cover, and canned food. There are rescue groups that advertise animals on Craigslist. It can be an excellent way to fond adopters, as low ng as you use the same screening procedure (not too onerous, we hope) you would use for ant other adopter.

    Liked by 1 person

  7. I have gotten 3 dogs I picked up directly from the streets (1 hit by car, 1 having bottles thrown at him, & 1 purposely being chased into traffic by horrible kids), and 3 dogs from clients who couldn’t keep them for various reasons (divorce, death, new baby & allergies developed during pregnancy), as well as 5 dogs that had $250 adoption fees each. (I’ve also gotten 1 cat for free, and several hamsters & gerbils that cost around $20 each.) I’ve loved them all, and always tell people that only the love is free, but that’s the most important part. Each of them had costs that were ‘normal’ and most had costs that were not really budgeted for, but were paid for somehow, including the hamster with the prolapsed rectum that I spent $80 on, before the vet did a courtesy euthanasia because the hamster (named Lassie) was in major distress and couldn’t survive.
    I’m a very good pet owner, but because I told a breeder many years ago that, while I dearly would have loved to buy one of her dogs, and understood that she had put a lot into the work of breeding, socializing, & caring for all her dogs, the price was beyond way beyond my budget. When I also said that if she ever had an adult dog returned to her or any other that came into the breed rescue she was a part of, that might not cost as much as a puppy did, she cut me off with, “If you can’t afford the minimum $850 I charge for pet quality puppies, I wouldn’t adopt to you unless I didn’t have any better options.” I was so shocked, I tried to tell myself she just spoke the words poorly & likely didn’t mean exactly what she said, but another person in the rescue said, “Yeah, she did meant it, sorry she put it that way though.” That was an eye-opener, and not a nice one.

    Liked by 1 person

  8. The main argument for opposing free adoptions is that it affects the entire market for adoptions. So, for example, a shelter that imports animals from another county and offers them for free reduces the chances for the animals in other shelters in the county of the importing shelter. It also reduces pressure on the outside county to clean up their act.

    Liked by 1 person

      1. Suppose in county 1 there are two shelters. One shelter in that county imports animals from county 2 and offers them for free in county 1. That means that the non importing shelter will find it harder to adopt their animals because the pool of potential adopters has been reduced. It also means that the shelter in county 2 has less incentive to create their own adoption program. This is not a made up example. It is a problem the shelter I volunteer at really faces.

        Liked by 1 person

      2. There are a lot of variables, though. Why is one importing? What are their policies about killing? How are the animals marketed? How are the free adoptions processed? What is the return rate for both shelters? I’m not convinced that there is a direct correlation here.

        Our local humane society offers free and very low cost adoptions as a way to get more pets in homes. They do the exact same screening as if they charged. The biggest “problem” I would guess is that sometimes folks will wait for a “sale” to adopt.

        I have often wondered about asking people to donate what they could when adopting. Sort of like, you name your own price kind of thing. I’m not sure whether the amounts would even out. There will always be those who give more, some will give nothing. As long as the screenings are in place, I would rather see more animals in homes than in body bags.

        Liked by 1 person

      3. How about the place that thinks it’s not adopting out animals because the other place is having a ‘sale’ put up a ‘sale’ too? Everybody wins, especially the animals. Whining that people aren’t coming to your place because the other place is giving a discount just means you need to advertise & let people know you have ‘sales’ too.

        Liked by 1 person

      4. Shelters obviously need funds to operate and adoption fees are typically a major source of revenue. If you give animals away you certainly put more in homes but that has to be financed. I don’t see much objection in the shelter world to giving animals away assuming a rigorous adoption interview. But financing that is at best difficult. The animal control shelter I volunteer at is micro-managed by the board of county commissioners (most are). Any change in fees must be approved by them and it is rare that they do so unless you can demonstrate to them that there is replacement funding (like donations). And while we do fund raising we are amateurs and do not have staffing funds for a fund raiser.


  9. The really sad thing I’ve heard about some shelters is that they don’t even offer adoptions to the public. I think MG Impound Dogs (FB) only allows “rescues” to pull animals. I don’t understand the rationale for this process. Can anyone enlighten me?


  10. If shelters want to make money they should go no kill and implement TNR, both of which bring high profits. Nobody wants to support pet murderers, they want to help those who save pets


    1. No one disagrees with your sentiment. And I assure you no shelter has any hope of “high profits” nor do they set that as a goal. But running a shelter takes money. So if you can tell us how to run a shelter that gives animals away without some way to pay for building mainainence , salaries of staff, and food, medicine, and care of animals I am all ears. This is really a practical problem, not a moral problem.


      1. Follow the models of successful non-profits in other areas. The Red Cross doesn’t sell water and blankets to people who have lost their homes in a flood, they fundraise year-round to cover expenses. Shelters can do the same thing, including asking for volunteers from the community who have fundraising experience or are willing to learn.



Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s