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The Truth About Free Cat Adoptions 

August 2012

Originally published May 2011 and updated August 2012.

Once shunned, no-fee cat adoptions are coming into their own.

It was once conventional wisdom in the animal shelter world that cats adopted for free would suffer at the hands of diabolical people lurking in the shadows just waiting to abuse them. Surely, we thought, people who get cats for free don't value them, and will at the very least neglect them.

But as we as a nation make great strides in finding homes for dogs in need, our other companion animal, the cat, is still facing high death rates in shelters. Why? At least in part, it's because 65% of people acquire a cat or kitten for free from acquaintances, family and "free to good home" ads. Additionally, about 20% of all caregivers acquire a cat as a stray, leaving cats at a serious competitive advantage.

The good news is that our former fears about fee-waived cat adoptions weren't based in reality. A study conducted by ASPCA Senior Director of Shelter Behavior Programs, Emily Weiss, Ph.D., CAAB, and Shannon Gramann, Manager of Shelter Research and Development for the organization, took a look at how no-cost adoptions affect adopters' perception of the value of the pet.

The researchers concluded that eliminating adoption fees does not devalue the animal in the eyes of the adopter, and that free adult cat adoption programs could "dramatically impact the lives of thousands of shelter cats who would otherwise reside in a shelter for months or be euthanized." (Journal of Applied Animal Welfare Science, Volume 12, Issue 4, 2009).

Still unsure? That's okay, there's more:

Many high profile shelters across the country have implemented fee-waived cat adoptions very successfully, including the Animal Rescue League of Greater Portland in Maine, Town Lake Animal Center in Austin, TX, and the Wisconsin Humane Society. The ASPCA encourared shelters throughout the country to provide fee-waived cat adoptions for the entire month of June 2011 as part of Adopt-A-Cat Month, and featured a sampling of successful free adoption promotions in an article entitled Fee-wavied Cat Promotions: Shelter Tested and Approved. The Nevada Humane Society is publicizing their free June adoptions with this PSA. In a single day in August 2012, the Humane Society of Greater Rochester's Lollypop Farm adopted over 130 cats to new homes in their "Free Fur All" free cat adoption event.

In June 2012, 63 shelters and rescue groups in three Northern California counties participated in Maddie's® Matchmaker Adoptathon for the third year in a row. All dogs and cats available for adoption were free to the adopting public.

In a two-day period, over 2,600 dogs and cats found new homes, and the outcomes of those adoptions dispelled many concerns about waived-fee adoptions. "We were amazed and a bit overwhelmed today at how many very qualified adopters lined up to meet our kittens," said Dolores McDonnell, Director of the Sunshine Rescue Group.

Comments from a follow-up survey revealed more converts to free adoptions: "We were so impressed with the quality of people who came to adopt." Another wrote, "The question of finding qualified homes when waiving the adoption fee is now moot." And yet another agency said, "Free is no longer a scary thing!"

The Erie County SPCA (ECSPCA) implemented a "free over three" adoption policy for cats three years and older in December 2009. Since then, 1,213 cats have been adopted through the program, compared to 923 adoptions in the previous 14 months - almost 300 more cats finding permanent homes!

Stephanie Lesch, ECSPCA Adoptions Coordinator, says that the staff and volunteers love this program. "When cats over three are adopted it's great, but when cats over 10 years old find their new home, it's awesome."

Surprisingly, since this program began, more adult cats are adopted during kitten season. Says Lesch, "Many people come in thinking they want a kitten, but when they see the great adult cats available, and the adoption fee is waived, they choose the older cat."

The primary motive behind the fee-waived policy at the ECSPCA, besides saving lives, was to reduce the length of stay for older cats in the shelter. The policy has clearly been successful. In 2010, cats over the age of one had an average length of stay that was 70.8 days less than the previous year. The total number of care days saved over the previous year was over 14,000.

Shelters that regularly or permanently waive adoption fees on adult cats stress the fact that they do not lower their adoption standards. Furthermore, the adoption counselors understand people have the ability to acquire cats through other means, consequently resulting in unaltered cats contributing to the litters of kittens being surrendered to the shelters, or given away free, exponentially increasing the numbers of kittens born.

Your shelter can begin changing the outlook for these forgotten felines by implementing a waived-fee adoption policy. It will be the cats' meow!