PORTLAND, Ore. (TheStreet) -- Nothing against equities, commodities and the various other investments that keep the economy moving and enrich their investors, but they tend to lack the urgent, immediate and ever-present weight of the smaller investments we make in the world beyond the opening and closing bell.
In my case, that weight came in the form of an 11-pound adopted tabby.
I'm not going to get into all of the sappy pet intangibles or drone on about the merits of companionship. This is a business publication, after all, and none of those factors should have any bearing on a sound business decision.
No, instead I'll note that the means through which I acquired said tabby comprise the best investment a would-be pet owner can make. For a scant $50, Multnomah County Animal Services in Oregon handed over a year-old former stray then known as Ninja (heretofore known as Combo, for having a combination of traits of my family's two other cats) neutered, fully vaccinated, examined at the shelter, packaged with a voucher for a free examination at any county animal clinic, licensed, microchipped for tracking and tested for feline immunodeficiency virus. They even packed in a cat bed and a few toys to get him started.
In the pet market, that's buying low. Even when you're handed a free pet from a friend or neighbor's litter, the costs are significantly steeper. According to the National Council on Pet Population Study and Policy (NCPPSP), those new pets require spaying/neutering ($150 to $300 alone), distemper vaccinations (two treatments of $20 to $30 each), rabies vaccination ($15 to $25), heartworm tests ($15 to $25), flea/tick treatment ($50 to $200) and microchipping ($50). That's $300 on the low end alone.
If you're looking for a specific breed, that cost jumps as well. Even reputable breeders who give dogs and cats the same care as that you'd find at a shelter can fetch multiple hundreds of dollars per kitten or puppy. Granted, owning purebred animals -- which make up fewer than 10% of the 93.6 million pet cats in the U.S., according to the Humane Society of the United States -- makes it easier to predict their behavior, temperament and health issues. However, even groups of pedigree cat owners like the Cat Fanicers Association are staunch advocates of adoption as a means of picking up everyday housepets.
So what's the risk? Well, the NCPPSP notes that since 30% of shelter animals were obtained by the person dropping them for free from a friend or acquaintance, there's a fear that they're just not good pets. However, a study conducted by the group discovered that most pets are given up because owners are moving to a new home that don't allow pets (7% dogs, 8% cats); the owners turned out to be allergic to their pets (8% cats); the owner is having personal problems (4% dogs and cats); there are just too many pets or litter mates for owners to handle (7% dogs, 17% cats); the owner can no longer afford the pet (5% dogs, 6% cats); or the owner simply doesn't have time to care for a pet anymore (4%).
The reward is a little tougher to parse out. On the balance sheet, it's an annual loss. Pet adoption site Petfinder puts the average annual cost of owning a cat between $300 on fairly benign years to $4,570 when something goes horribly wrong. For dogs, that cost rises to more than $500 a year in food, health care and other associated costs and upwards of $9,000 in the bleakest circumstances.
On the upside, you're saving one or more of the millions of animals euthanized in shelters every year. The Humane Society estimates that only 30% of dogs that enter shelters are ever reclaimed by their owners. That is an even more dire situation for cats, which only have 2% to 5% of their owners come looking for them.
You're also helping confirm large companies' decisions not to breed and sell pets on their owns. Two of the nation's largest pet retailers -- Petco and PetSmart (PETM) -- each adopt cats and dogs through local shelters and animal welfare groups and only house those shelter animals on a temporary basis. Shelters, meanwhile, have been increasingly effective in convincing smaller pet stores to help them adopt out their surplus residents.
Even in the worst case, where a prospective pet owner has to pay out the average cost of care regardless of where their animal is obtained, a shelter offers the best value for the initial cost. Shelter staff that are familiar with the animals they're housing and well-versed in pet idiosyncrasies -- like young, male cats' penchant for getting along better with existing groups, for example -- help would-be owners avoid further costs down the line by making an ideal match the first time around.
Combo was a bargain, but there are a whole lot of others out there like him for anyone savvy enough to invest in a shelter animal. The intangible benefits of having a feline coworker around when deadline's looming is nice, but getting a healthy pet at a discount that will keep him in kibble for months may be one of the best calls of the year.
-- Written by Jason Notte in Portland, Ore.
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