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.

>To contact the writer of this article, click here: Jason Notte.

>To follow the writer on Twitter, go to http://twitter.com/notteham.

>To submit a news tip, send an email to: tips@thestreet.com.

RELATED STORIES:
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.

If you liked this article you might like

Walmart Is One of 63 Companies Contributing Massively to Aid Harvey Relief

How Walmart and Costco Could See a Future Flush With Profits Thanks to an Abundance of Cute Puppies

The Haunting Truth Behind $6.9 Billion in Halloween Sales