Shelter Animals Are Still the Pet Market's Biggest Bargain

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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Jason Notte is a reporter for TheStreet. His writing has appeared in The New York Times, The Huffington Post, Esquire.com, Time Out New York, the Boston Herald, the Boston Phoenix, the Metro newspaper and the Colorado Springs Independent. He previously served as the political and global affairs editor for Metro U.S., layout editor for Boston Now, assistant news editor for the Herald News of West Paterson, N.J., editor of Go Out! Magazine in Hoboken, N.J., and copy editor and lifestyle editor at the Jersey Journal in Jersey City, N.J.

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