Do Cute Young Animals Decrease Older Animal Adoptions?

Many New Jersey animal shelters and rescues transport highly adoptable puppies into the state. Typically, these groups argue transports of highly desirable animals increase foot traffic into shelters or off-site adoption locations and therefore increase adoptions of older dogs. On the other hand, many other people believe transports take homes away from local dogs and increase kill rates of local dogs.  As discussed in a previous blog post, New Jersey shelters transport large numbers of dogs from out of state each year. Thus, the answer to this question significantly impacts the lives of many local shelter dogs.

Preliminary Data Indicates Young Animals Decrease Older Animal Adoptions

An analysis of kitten impacts on adult cat adoptions shows young animals decrease adult animals adoptions. Darlene Duggan conducted a statistical analysis of the effect the number of kittens available has on adult cat adoptions. The analysis was done at a medium-sized open admission animal shelter during the months of February and August. Kittens and adult cats were defined as 4 months and younger and 5 months and older, respectively. In February, when kittens are less plentiful, 3 fewer adult cats were adopted for every 4 additional kittens made available for adoption. During August, which is during the peak of kitten season, for every additional 3 kittens made available 1 less adult cat was adopted. Thus, additional kittens available at the shelter significantly reduced adult cat adoptions

These results may be even stronger for dogs. While actual data is needed to determine impacts of puppy availability on adult dog adoptions, I think it would be more significant. My personal experience at off-site adoption events is puppies are adopted far more quickly than adult dogs of even the same breed. The size difference between adult dogs and puppies is much larger than adult cats and kittens. As a result, people may perceive puppies as relatively “cuter” than adult dogs verses kittens and adult cats. Additionally, our culture seems to generally view puppies as cuter than kittens. For example, kids more often want a puppy for Christmas and pet stores sell more puppies than kittens despite cats outnumbering dogs as pets in the United States. In fact, a recent study found puppies tended to stay in shelters for roughly half the time as adult dogs. However, this study defined puppies up to 6 months of age and did not adjust the length of stay for puppies who were too young to be put up for adoption. Thus, the length of stay of transported young puppies typically placed for adoption is probably even less and these puppies likely displace significant amounts of local dogs.

Shelters and Rescues Need to Change Behavior

The findings above have serious implications for local animal welfare organizations. Most New Jersey shelters receive large numbers of kittens during the spring and summer. As a result, efforts should be made to make kittens and cats available for adoption in different locations. For example, putting kittens up for adoption at permanent off-site locations, such as Petsmart, or in foster homes will decrease adult cat displacement at shelters. Additionally, shelters can put adult cats up for adoption at other retail outlets with few competing kittens. Also, shelters can exchange animals to minimize competition between young and older animals at each shelter. Thus, shelters should find ways to shield adult cats from competition from more adoptable kittens.

In my opinion, New Jersey animal welfare groups should not transport dogs due to the high local dog kill rate at many shelters in the state. While I believe New Jersey’s per capita intake rate is low enough to reach no-kill status while transporting dogs into the state, many shelters perform poorly and require significant rescue help. As a result of the transport craze, shelters are losing two potential homes – a foster home and a permanent one for dogs in imminent danger.

Animal welfare organizations should try to decrease competition between puppies and adult dogs. In reality, dog transports will continue since it is easier to “rescue” highly desirable puppies. However, organizations running off-site adoption events, such as Petco, Petsmart and Best Friends, should require only locally obtained dogs participate in off-site events. While this may seem extreme, Maddie’s Fund only pays its per adoption subsidy to groups participating in its Maddie’s Pet Adoption Days for local animals. At the very least, these organizations should try and ensure puppies and adult dogs are made available at different locations or times to minimize local dogs getting displaced by transported animals. Additionally, shelters should offer reduced adoption fees and free/discounted services, such as vet care, dog training, and doggie daycare, with community partners for adult dogs to make adult dogs more competitive with puppies.

In conclusion, animal welfare groups need to confront the issues preventing animals from finding loving homes. The more these issues are honestly looked at, the more wonderful homes we will find for homeless animals.

Raising Money and Costing Lives

Best Friends Survey Shows Disturbing Results for Shelter Animals

Last April, Best Friends published the results from a survey it conducted about the pet adoption market. While nearly all people surveyed identified themselves as pet lovers and recommended adoption to others, substantial numbers viewed shelter animals as damaged goods. Respondents believed the following about shelter animals:

  1. Have behavior problems – 65%
  2. Are malnourished – 63%
  3. Are unhealthy – 61%

People mostly viewed adoption’s benefit as saving a life rather than shelter animals being a better value.

Worst of all, young adults (18-34 years old) viewed shelter pets much less positively than other age groups. Specifically, 46% of young adult verses 33% of older age groups viewed shelter pets as less desirable than animals available from pet stores and breeders. Additionally, 38% of young adults compared to 28% of older adults believed shelter animal stayed in shelters as long as needed to find a home.

Animal Welfare Organizations Must Take the Blame for These Results

This survey’s results show animal welfare organizations are sending the wrong message to the public. Unfortunately, Best Friends press release about the survey largely blames the public for being ignorant and remains silent about animal welfare organizations. While Best Friends certainly does some excellent work, no-kill advocates do criticize Best Friends tendency to value collaboration with animal welfare groups over confronting such groups on important issues.

Dr. Becker over at analyzes the results quite well.  She mentions some people may not find the specific breed they are looking for at a shelter. Certainly, it is more difficult to find designer dog breeds at shelters. However, Dr. Becker cites some interesting commentary from Mark Cushing, founder of the Animal Policy Group.  Apparently, this is a lobbying group, but the analysis is still insightful. Specifically, Mr. Cushing blames the major animal welfare television ads showing sick and abused animals “rescued” by these groups. We certainly have seen the ASPCA ads with Sara McLaughlin and various Humane Society of the United States ones with emaciated animals. Clearly, these ads convey the message “shelter animals are abused and give us money and all will be ok.” Is there any wonder why 2/3 of people view shelter animals as damaged and almost 40% of young adults think animals in shelters are safe?

Additionally, many shelters do not publish their kill rates or disguise them leading to the disconnect among the public about shelter killing. Most shelters do not want to discuss kill rates due to concerns about fundraising or ego. Others claim nearly all of their “adoptable” animals are saved when large number of dogs and cats are killed. Unfortunately, this secrecy leads to 38% of young adults and 28% of older age groups to erroneously believe animals are safe in shelters. Once again, shelters are putting their self-interests over their job of saving the animals under their care.  The solution is quite simple – mandatory publishing of kill rates (of all animals not just “adoptable”) so people can become informed that pets are not safe at many shelters.

Organizations do not have to send this “damaged goods” message out to raise money. The Upper Peninsula Animal Welfare Society (“UPAWS”) in Michigan increased its save rate from 37% to 99% in a few years and raised significant funds during this period. However, UPAWS’s Pet Promoter in Chief argues its better to only make special pleas a few times a year.  Additionaly, UPAWS’s pleas do not overemphasize abuse of the animal, but instead focus on getting the pet well and into a good home.  As a result, the  organization raises needed funds, but does not tarnish the shelter pet brand.

Many Animal Shelters and Rescues Are Responsible for These Results

Local groups replicate the fundraising tactics used by national organizations. New Jersey’s largest animal welfare organization, Associated Humane Societies, frequently makes fundraising pleas for “abused” and “neglected” animals on its website as well as it Facebook pages. Similarly, many rescues highlight the terrible conditions animals were in before the rescues saved them.  Many rescuers whether they admit or not view themselves as heroes and want others to as well. As a result, rescuers highlighting the terrible conditions of the animals makes them feel like bigger heroes.

Shelter operations also impact the public’s negative perception about shelter animals behavior and health. Too many local shelters lack proper enrichment for animals, do not quickly get animals safely out of the stressful shelter environment, and do not provide proper medical care. As a result, people walk into poorly performing shelters seeing dogs acting “cage crazy” or looking sick and develop negative impressions. While we know these “problems” often disappear once animals get into a home, the potential adopter’s experience is tarnished.

Young Adults Pet Buying Trends Are Bad for the Future

Advertisers heavily market products and services to young adults.  Most importantly for pet adoption, young adults develop brand loyalty during this stage of life. Win these people over and you may have a customer for decades. Additionally, persuading older age groups who may be more set in their ways to adopt may be more difficult. Thus, it is imperative to win this demographic so we can have adopters for decades to come.

Recent research indicates young adults are looking for convenience and affordability in products and services. Overly restrictive and intrusive adoption requirements from many shelters and rescues certainly make adoption inconvenient. In fact, some rescues will not adopt animals to young adults altogether. Misguided beliefs about high adoption fees being necessary for good homes also is an impediment to reaching this market.

Shelters and Rescues Need to Show Their Pets Are the Best Product Available

Shelters need to properly market pets individually. After working with hundreds of shelter dogs (most of which were pit bull type dogs), I was always struck by how individual each animal was. Profile writers need to stop talking about the pet’s terrible past and focus on its positive present self. Show how this animal will make the adopter’s life better.  Use language to get people imagining doing all the things they enjoy with the animal. Allow the adopter to feel like a hero by giving this amazing animal a new home. You can read how to properly write pet profiles here and here.

At the end of the day, our goal is to save lives. If shelters continue the failed mantra of “poor abused animal, give us money, and adopt him”, they will only attract a small part of the pet market. Families or singles bringing an animal into a home usually want a well-adjusted animal. Shelters need to make the adoption experience fun, easy and effective by getting to know the adopters and helping them find their match made in heaven.  For example, take a look at the KC Pet Project’s adoption process which helped make Kansas City the fourth largest no-kill community in the nation. After adoption, the shelter should continue being a resource to help with any home adjusting issues.

At the end of the day, it all about the animals and not the money. When you see how an organization markets its animals, you can tell whether it is all about the animals or all about the money.

Shelters Need to Do More Than Send Animals to Rescues

Recently I’ve seen several shelters and their supporters reach out to rescues to pull animals. While working with rescues is a key part of the no-kill equation, I do not think asking for rescue help alone is very effective in making New Jersey a no-kill state.

Clearly, these shelters are competing with each other for limited foster homes through local rescues resulting in little to no net saved lives. Rescue help can make a huge difference in other places where one local shelter exists. In these cases, the rescues would have to travel great distances to go to another shelter so this likely results in net saved lives. However, New Jersey is a densely populated state with many local animal shelters rescues can choose from. Also, many local rescues pull easier to adopt animals from out-of-state leaving relatively few rescues to save pets from New Jersey’s large number of animal shelters. As a result, rescues pulling an animal from one local shelter likely causes another animal to not get pulled from another nearby shelter.

The rescue market is much different from the adoption market. As discussed on a previous blog, shelter killing is largely a market share problem where shelters need to modestly increase their share of the market where people obtain pets. In my view, the rescue market is much less expandable. For example, fewer people are willing to take care of an animal and then adopt it out. Even fewer people are likely willing to do so with rescues which often have stringent requirements for adopters.

The most powerful tool for expanding foster homes are urgent pleas saying the animal will die if not pulled within a short period of time (i.e. 24-72 hours). These pleas typically attract those involved with animal welfare and likely cause someone to take on an additional pet temporarily. Unfortunately, many shelters are unwilling to make these pleas as they perceive it is bad for public relations to put a face and number on their killings. As result, these urgent pleas are generally not made public and when they do occur it’s mostly through rescues/volunteers who sometimes do not name the shelter.

Organizations with vast resources over-relying on rescues is not very efficient. In an ideal world, rescues would only pull animals needing extraordinary treatment or who cannot live in a shelter environment. However, even in these cases a well-run foster program administered by the shelter can successfully place these animals. In fact, one New Jersey shelter, which takes in millions of dollars of revenue a year, refuses to put a volunteer foster program into place and instead relies on rescues to pull neonatal kittens when volunteer foster programs may be more effective. Additionally, rescues often have very limited financial and human resources making it difficult to oversee large numbers of foster homes. Thus, the notion of expanding the rescue market significantly is not likely.

The reason why shelters rely on rescues is simple – it requires little work and saves money by passing the cost of care to the rescue. The shelter simply makes a few phone calls or sends an email and the turns over the animals forever to the rescue. In fact, we know of one shelter which takes in millions of dollars in a year who charges pull and spay/neuter fees to the rescues on a per animal basis. This is particularly troubling when you consider most rescues are financially strapped and the rescue is saving the shelter on the cost of care and/or euthanasia.

In reality, rescues should focus on shelters with limited space and financial resources who cannot hold animals for long. Many local shelters are pretty much old school pounds who lack the space to hold animals for any significant amount of time. While the lack of investment in shelter facilities is a huge problem, it is time-consuming to remedy due to the high cost of building/expanding animal shelters. Additionally, the governmental bureaucracies running these pounds make foster programs difficult to implement. Also, some pounds adopt animals out without being sterilized which poses the risk of additional animals entering the shelter system. Therefore, rescue efforts should be focused on facilities where few practical alternatives exist.

In the end, we need our well-funded animal shelters to shape up and stop wasting precious rescue resources. Our rescues are overburdened and overworked. Given the massive under funding of New York Animal Care and Control (i.e. New York City’s animal control shelter), many New Jersey rescues must help out in New York. Add the many pound like shelters in the state and you have high demand for rescue resources. Our well-funded animal shelters need to stop diverting scarce rescue resources and start doing the following:

  1. Improve customer service
  2. Conduct off-site adoption events several times a week with same day adoptions
  3. Implement volunteer foster programs administered through the shelters
  4. Stay open a few evenings a week so working people can adopt
  5. Proactively seek owners of lost pets instead of casually dismissing such animals as “dumped”
  6. Work with struggling pet owners to help them find solutions to problems so they can keep their pets
  7. Rehabilitate dogs with medical and behavioral problems
  8. Offer real low-cost or better yet free spay/neuter services to economically disadvantaged pet owners
  9. Practice trap-neuter release for impounded feral cats and work with shy cats to make them adoptable

Open admission animal shelters, such as Nevada Humane Society and Charlottesville-Albemarle SPCA, place approximately 96% of the animals sent to private homes through direct adoptions. These shelters accomplish this despite taking in several times more animals per capita than New Jersey shelters and saving over 90% of impounded animals.

Remember you are paying for these well-funded shelters through your taxes and/or donations. You should demand they spend your money wisely and put it to good use. Don’t let them get away with taking the easy way out.