Dog inflation: Animal shelters charging people big bucks to adopt "Very Important Pets"

Recently Gene Shue went looking for a new dog, a companion for the chihuahua he adopted three years ago -- and got a bad case of sticker shock. He found the perfect buddy dog at Golden's Foothills Animal Shelter, only to learn that the adoption fee was double what he'd paid for the same type of dog at Foothills in 2010. And Shue was even more dismayed to discover the price hike applied to some dogs more than others.

"One guy told me they could get a lot more for the cuter ones," Shue says.

It used to be that animal shelters had what amounts to a two-tier structure of adoption fees -- one rate for younger animals (kittens or puppies) and a reduced rate for older animals. But in recent years several Front Range shelters have instituted a more elaborate "staggered pricing" range of fees, based on the idea that certain breeds are more in demand and thus can command higher prices. Shelter operators claim that staggered pricing boosts revenues and actually increases adoptions -- but Shue, for one, wonders how many people are finding the new fees too high.

The adoption fees for canines at Foothills can be quite a bite, especially if you're looking for something young and adorable. Puppies and dogs under seven years of age can cost anywhere from $110 to $400. Older dogs go for a flat fee of $80. But there's also a "top dog" premium for purebreds or "highly sought after" dogs, which go for $250 to $500.

Humane Society of Boulder Valley has an even more variable fee structure, charging anywhere from $19 to $499 for dog adoptions, with the highest figure demanded for VIPs (Very Important Pets). Longmont Humane has a similar category of "Super Special" animals whose adoption fees vary widely from the standard rates.

When Shue and his wife adopted their chihuahua at Foothills three years ago, the transaction cost them $150, including a senior discount. This time around, the shelter wanted $300 for the nine-month-old chihuahua the Shues took a shine to. The couple left without the pooch.

"We could have taken that little dog for $150," Shue says. "For what they wanted for some of those dogs, you'd have to go to a pedigreed breeder for those prices."

Continue for more about which dogs up for adoption are more equal than others. Jennifer Strickland, director of community relations and development for Foothills, says the pricing structure has nothing to do with any cuteness factor, and that any representative who said as much to the Shues was mistaken. "We have talked about this internally a lot," she says. "We don't want people to think we're putting more value on one animal than another."

Foothills takes in around 8,000 animals a year, Strickland notes. About a quarter of those are purebreds. Popular breeds, such as a Cavalier King Charles spaniel or a golden retriever, are in much greater demand than, say, pit bull mixes, and purebred puppies "are going to go quickly -- sometimes within hours." Charging more for the most sought after varieties helps to subsidize the care of animals who may take weeks or months to be adopted, she explains; it might also discourage mere faddists who may be seeking a particularly popular breed in the wake of a cutesy movie like Beverly Hills Chihuahua.

"This has been successful in shelters across the country," Strickland says. "Our adoptions numbers are up. We are transferring animals in from other shelters because it's been going so well."

She says that the shelter doesn't have that many animals priced in the $300-$400 range. Even that price point is still a bargain, she suggests, since adoption fees also subsidize a number of services performed before adoption, from spaying or neutering to shots, microchips and health checks. On the other end of the scale, Foothills has gone to a "pick your own price" approach to cat adoptions -- and is placing more cats than ever without seeing a significant drop in the fees people are willing to pay.

Shue, though, doubts that the new policy will appeal to dog lovers on a fixed income. "I know a lot of people who've adopted in the past who couldn't afford these prices," he says. "A retail outlet can charge whatever they want. I just thought these places had a different purpose."

More from our News archive circa 2009: "Inside Denver's 'Pit Bull Row.'"

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