I don’t mean “free THE cats” – this isn’t a Braveheart situation.
And I’m not about to go on some barely intelligible rant about the enslavement of companion animals because that would be ridiculous and highly contradictory being a happy pet owner myself of two dogs and two cats.
Instead I am talking about free cats – cats given away for free. And dogs. Rabbits. Guinea Pigs. Any pet, really. But I’ll refer primarily to cats because free cats are what we see more frequently.
My office has an internal message board system for employees. People can post ads for anything, from when they’re looking for plumber recommendations or their kid is fundraising for school, to selling cars/furniture/time shares. It is a great tool for sourcing Girl Guide cookies.
During the extreme flooding Calgary had last month, it was inspiring and endearing to see the message boards fill with offers of help in the form of donations, supplies, labour, vacuum truck services, free generators – you name it. If you lived in this city, you knew many people affected by flooding even if you weren’t yourself, and it was awesome to see so many maybe-humanity-doesn’t-suck-so-much-after-all moments. Also, our Mayor is the best.
An arial flood photo from the National Post.
But I digress.
Amid these ads came another one.
A coworker from another department and another floor posted an ad for a free cat. She was moving and urgently trying to give him away “to a good home”. The cat was fixed and declawed (a post for another time). It was an adult cat – about 7 years old, if I remember correctly.
Now I’m not going to go into the reasons people end up having to (or thinking they have to) rehome their pets. I can’t even comprehend the decision making process someone goes through to decide to depart with a beloved pet they’ve had for that long. I also acknowledge this city is notoriously difficult for finding pet-friendly rentals, and it goes without saying that adult pets are more difficult to rehome than young puppies and kittens.
The ad was short and sweet – like many of 92 ads that currently show up on Kijiji if you search for “free cat” in Calgary – a brief description and a cute photo.
I stewed over the ad for a few hours after first reading it and eventually resolved that I couldn’t keep my mouth shut (shocking). I fired off an email to a coworker I’d never even seen before, poking my nose where many would probably say it doesn’t belong.
As diplomatically as possible, I outlined a couple reasons why giving away pets for free – and trying to rehome them yourself – isn’t necessarily the best idea. Here is a long-winded version of what I sent her.
1. Offering a pet for free risks enforcing the notion that there is no value to the pet.
I’m not kidding about this. 65% of cat owners got their cat for free. It’s no secret there’s a heirarchy the way people view different kinds of animals, and for many people cats do not get the same status as dogs, for example. The facts prove this.
Half as many pet owners get pet insurance for cats as compared to dog owners. Not as many cat owners license their cats (about 50% compliance in Calgary) compared to dog owners who license their dogs (90% compliance in Calgary). According to the CFHS, more than twice as many cats than dogs are admitted to Canadian shelters in a year, and 46% of them are euthanized, compared to 14% admitted dogs euthanized, and 33% other species. The only place where cat owners excel is in spay/neuter, with 79%, compared to 69% of dogs (step it up, dog owners!).
If people are continually “giving away” cats, there can be a subliminal message that the pet has no value and is easily replaceable. I’m not saying that someone whose cat has an “oopsie” litter should try to capitalize off the kittens and sell them for thousands of dollars (that’s how backyard breeders are born), but I am saying that rarely can you – or should you – procure an animal of any kind for free.
Our cat Isaac is a direct contradiction to this. He was “free” in that he was a stray in our neighbourhood for a long time until we finally just took him in one particularly cold December day. Of course, he wasn’t actually free in the sense that our first order of business was to get him checked out, neutered, and tattooed.
Rescues, for example, often have a nominal adoption fee – usually between $50-$150 for a cat and between $150-$250 for a dog. Of course, this helps the rescue recover the costs of feeding, sheltering, spaying/neutering, vaccinating and other possible medical expenses. But it also ensures that adopters understand there are costs associated with having a pet.
I don’t think it’s unreasonable to tack on a nominal fee – it’s not like $100 would garner a profit of any kind for “selling” a cat that’s been taken care of for 7 years, but it tells those looking at the ad “hey, I think this cat is awesome and has value”.
2. Owners looking for only free pets also worry me.
Firstly, free pets can encourage impulsive decisions.
But even more concerning, if you’re not willing to pay even a little bit to get the right pet for your family, then what about paying for proper medical care and a healthy diet? Even a cat obtained for free somewhere isn’t “free” when you include the cost of food, litter, toys, vet visits, etcetera.
Of course, there are also those truly terrible people who take pets from free online ads only to re-sell them for a profit, or get those free pets only to do something truly horrible like use them as live food for their snakes or other reptiles (it happens, particularly with kittens and bunnies). Free dogs, of course, can risk being adopted into dog fighting, and any unfixed pet can be adopted for breeding purposes and wind up in a puppy mill or kitten factory.
As the average person trying to rehome a pet, you also don’t necessarily have the experience necessary to vet potential adopters, no matter how bold, underlined, and italicized your “to a good home” requirement is. And I’d hope the last thing you’d want to see is your cat end up back on Kijiji when it doesn’t work out with the new family.
Rescues and shelters excel at this; they never want to see their pets end up back in the system and will do their best to match them with a truly forever home. They may not be thrilled to see you surrender your pet, but they will do the best for it once its in their care. I do recommend canvassing local rescues to see who has capacity and ask for help with the rehoming process. Even if they dissuade you from directly surrendering it, they can offer advice and resources. You may even end up fostering your own pet while they find a new family for it, but then you have their resources to ensure a good home is found. To ease your guilty conscience, I’d also recommend making a donation to the rescue when you surrender your pet to cover the costs they will incur on your behalf.
Working with a shelter also has the benefit of promoting the shelter system and pet adoption. It’s one less pet ad on the internet, and you can still tell people about your cat who needs a good home, referring them to the shelter for adoption information.
Sure, maybe if you had a close friend or family member willing to take your pet, these concerns are moot. You wouldn’t necessarily want to charge them money and you probably wouldn’t make them go through a rescue for the adoption. But once you’re at the point of posting to coworkers, acquantainces, and strangers on online forums, I think some greater oversight is required.
I got Emma from a backyard breeder who advertised on Kijiji before I knew any better (we all make mistakes). I think I paid $60 for her and she did not come vaccinated or spayed (her costs in shredded toilet paper are still accumulating). She fits our family well and I’m glad we have her, but I will be going through rescues for any future cats/kittens. I know I picked her out due to a cute photo, but I also remember passing over free cat ads, seeing them as untrustworthy.
3. Some Potential Owners Might Not Want a Free Pet
A kitten posted for free in an online forum likely hasn’t seen a vet or been spayed/neutered. If it has, I would expect the owner to charge even a little bit for them to recover some of these costs, and I wouldn’t really fault them for this.
There are so many campaigns out there to educate people about responsible pet procurement that ads for free pets may turn away – and rightfully so – some really good potential adopters.
Maybe they don’t want to encourage backyard breeding. Maybe they are concerned about the health and want to find a kitten that’s been spayed and vaccinated. Maybe they do think free pets have lesser value – there could be the perception that there’s something wrong if it’s just being given away – and would instead opt to pay a little for a pet that may even just appear to be a little bit better.
I understand the sentiment that rehoming a beloved pet isn’t about the money, and that isn’t the message you want to send by tacking a price tag to your animal, but the associations with free pets outweighs this in my opinion.
Don’t forget, there is still a strong perception – whether conscious or subconscious – that pets are a commodity, or have an element of commercialism. Many people are working against this, including Actions Speak Louder (Calgary), but it remains a reality that has to be acknowledged.
It would be nice if campaigns like this weren’t necessary.
People turn into backyard breeders realizing they can profit from their unfixed pets. Pets are sold in stores like commodities – they’re advertised, they go on sale, some places even let you finance your purchase. Store sales are analyzed to determine what breeds, ages, and colours of pets sell fastest and for the highest prices. Sometimes they come with warrantees or guarantees. By Canadian law, they’re property. You may not like it (I don’t), and these pets really do become members of the family (arguments about not giving away those members at all notwithstanding), but the procurement of pets in the first place is still pretty commercial for a lot of people. Putting a price on a pet you’re rehoming at least uses this perception to the advantage of the pet, acknowledging this construct and using it to show value.
These days more than ever, people are being educated about backyard breeding, pet stores, and puppy mills, and are seeking their pets from reputable breeders or rescues – neither of which provide pets for free. By even asking for a symbolic financial commitment from your pet’s new home at least you are asking for some kind of commitment at all, beyond promises that only time can prove.
I sent a very abbreviated version of this information in an email to my coworker who posted the ad and though I waited anxiously the rest of the day, I never did get a reply of any sort.
However, the ad was taken down the next morning. Was this because she heeded my advice, didn’t want anymore unrequested advice, or found a home from the cat? I’ll probably never know.
Couldn’t put a price on these two.