Most people in the animal welfare movement believe pit bulls are overpopulated and massive shelter killing is unavoidable. The ridiculously inaccurate “1 in 600 pit bulls make it out of the shelter alive” meme frequently appears on Facebook. Merritt Clifton, who is well-known for his discredited pit bull bite data, argues shelters can’t save any more pit bulls without banning breeding and 60% is the highest pit bull live release rate a shelter can hope for. Even certain pit bull rescue groups believe too few homes exist for pit bulls and adoption prospects are bleak. Are these claims true and should we just accept shelters killing pit bulls in droves?
Some Shelters Are Already Saving All of the Pit Bulls
Required save rates for no kill may be lower for pit bulls. No kill requires only irremediably suffering animals and dogs who present a serious danger to people be euthanized. The 90% save rate standard is the threshold for shelters to achieve no kill. In theory, pit bulls should have a lower save rate due to these dogs above average size. Simply put, an untreatable aggression issue may be forgivable in a small dog, but not a larger dog. Thus, no kill for pit bulls may potentially be achieved at a lower save rate than other dogs due to pit bull type dogs larger size.
Many open admission shelters are on the verge of, if not already, achieving no kill for pit bull type dogs. Over a decade ago, which was before many advances in shelter medicine and behavioral rehabilitation, Nathan Winograd saved 86% of all pit bulls at Tompkins County SPCA in upstate New York despite not adopting out pit bulls with dog or cat aggression. Lane County, Oregon’s Greenhill Humane Society saved 91% of the nearly 150 stray pit bulls taken in over the most recently available 12 month period (March 2013 – February 2014). Salt Lake County Animal Services saved 90% of its impounded pit bull type dogs in both 2013 and the first four months of 2014. During KC Pet Project’s second year in control of Kansas City’s animal control shelter, the organization saved 86% of its over 1,000 impounded pit bull type dogs. Amazingly, the primary facility is small and outdated and Breed Specific Legislation (“BSL”) is prevalent in the area. Most importantly, both KC Pet Project’s and Salt Lake County Animal Services’ live release rates increased significantly in recent years and greater than 90% save rates for pit bull type dogs seem very possible in the near future.
Mathematically speaking, shelters with very high dog save rates and pit bulls comprising a reasonable percentage of dogs will save 90% plus of pit bulls. For example, shelters will automatically save 90% or more of pit bulls with the following statistics:
- 99% dog save rate with pit bulls equaling 10% or more of dog impounds assuming all dogs euthanized are pit bulls
- 98% dog save rate with pit bulls equaling 20% or more of dog impounds assuming all dogs euthanized are pit bulls
In reality, even the best no kill shelters typically euthanize 1-2% of animals for medical reasons which makes the pit bull 90% save rate even easier to achieve. Thus, open admission shelters with very high dog live release rates are likely automatically saving 90% plus of their pit bull type dogs.
Other open admission shelters are likely saving 90% or more of their pit bulls. Long Island’s Southampton Animal Shelter’s dog save rate is 97% and pit bulls make up 24% of impounded dogs. If Southampton Animal Shelter euthanizes only 1% of its non-pit bull dogs, the pit bull save rate will equal 91%. The pit bull save rate increases to 94% if 2% of Southampton Animal Shelter’s non-pit bull dogs are euthanized. Colorado’s Longmont Humane Society saves 97% of its dogs and pit bull type dogs made up 8.1% of impounds in the recent past. If Longmont Humane Society euthanizes 1.3% of its non-pit bulls, the pit bull save rate would reach 90%. Monmouth County SPCA states “over a third” of its impounded dogs are pit bull type dogs. Based on pit bulls making up 35% of impounds and assuming all euthanized dogs are pit bulls, the pit bull save rate would equal 96%. If we were to assume the 35% of impounded dogs only applied to local canines (i.e. excluding dogs transferred in from other communities) and all dogs euthanized were pit bulls, the pit bull save rate would be around 90%. Thus, many shelters are likely already saving 90% plus of pit bull type dogs.
Pit Bulls Can Leave Shelters Alive Quicker Than Advertised
The length of time an animal spends in a shelter is critical to saving its life. Reducing the average length of stay in a shelter increases the number of animals a shelter can save. Additionally, reducing the length of stay decreases the chance an animal becomes mentally or physically ill. Also, reducing length of stay decreases the cost of care, such as feeding, cleaning, veterinary treatment, etc. As a result, shelters must do everything they can to get animals out of shelters alive as quickly as possible.
Recent research detailed the length of stay of bully and other major breed groups. Brown, et al. conducted a study in the Journal of Applied Animal Welfare Science on factors impacting the time it took dogs to get adopted at two upstate New York animal shelters. Both animal shelters, Tompkins County SPCA and Humane Society of Yates County, serve as the animal control shelters for dogs and are no-kill. 84% of the data came from Tompkins County SPCA, which is the shelter Nathan Winograd used to run, and was collected from 2008-2011. Several major dog groups were evaluated, which included “bully” breeds (150 American pit bull terriers, 1 American Staffordshire terrier, 1 Staffordshire bull terrier, and 3 American bulldogs), as adults (12 months and older) and puppies (under 12 months).
The study’s results detailed below proved pit bull type dogs do not take that much longer to get adopted than other breeds. Adult pit bull type dogs only took a week longer to get adopted than adults of other breed groups. Additionally, pit bull type dogs length of stay until adoption fell into the medium of the range of dogs around their size (i.e. companion, sporting, hound and guard). Also, pit bull type dogs were adopted quicker than both hound and guard dogs. Similarly, pit bull puppies under a year old took only slightly more time to get adopted than most other breeds and were adopted much quicker than guard and terrier puppies. Furthermore, the 49.3 and 27.5 days it took on average to adopt pit bull adults and puppies is not a long time for shelters to care for dogs.
The pit bull adoption length of stay figures are consistent with Greenhill Humane Society’s performance with stray pit bulls. Over the most recently reported 12 month period (March 2013 – February 2014), Greenhill Humane Society’s stray pit bulls took 41 days on average to get adopted. Given most strays are likely not puppies, this figure probably contains mostly adult dogs. As a result, the 41 day pit bull adoption length of stay is actually 8 days shorter than the adult pit bull adoption length of stay from the two upstate New York open admission no kill shelters.
Pit bulls actual length of stay at shelters may be lower due to rescues/fosters and owners reclaiming lost pets. For example, dogs may get pulled by rescues or fostered by volunteers long before the normal time it takes to get adopted. Similarly, owners reclaiming their pets tend to do so shortly after the animal arrives at the shelter. Additionally, animals euthanized due to severe medical or behavioral issues may occur long before the typical time it takes to get adopted. Thus, pit bulls actual length of stay at shelters may be lower than the length of stay until adoption figures from the study above.
Pit bulls have short lengths of stay at several other high performing open admission shelters. Salt Lake County Animal Services adoptable pit bulls, which have a 100% save rate, average length of stay is 30 days. Longmont Humane Society’s pit bulls only stay 38 days on average at their shelter. Greenhill Humane Society’s stray pit bulls had an average length of stay of only 16 days over the most recently reported 12 month period. Southampton Animal Shelter’s pit bull length of stay was 65 days in 2011 and 73 days in 2012.
We can also roughly estimate the pit bull length of stay at other open admission shelters with high pit bull save rates. KC Pet Project reports pit bulls make up around 25% of impounds and 40% or more of the shelter’s population. Additionally, they report most dogs get into playgroups after their 5 day stray hold period and take 9 days on average to leave the shelter via adoption or rescue after entering playgroups. Given we know the following formula for estimating a shelter population size, we can use simple algebra and math to estimate the pit bull length of stay:
Shelter Population Size = Daily Intake * Length of Stay
Using this formula, we can determine pit bulls length of stay is approximately 2 times longer than other dogs assuming pit bulls are 25% of dog impounds 40% of the shelter’s dog population. Based on some basic math and knowing most stray dogs not returned to owners stay 14 days at the shelter, we can estimate stray pit bulls not returned to owners take around 22 days to leave the shelter. Assuming owner surrenders enter playgroups after 3 days and dogs returned to owners happen in 5 days on average, I estimate the KC Pet Project’s overall pit bull length of stay is around 19 days. This estimate assumes pit bulls euthanized and those not entering playgroups do not have significantly different lengths of stay. Additionally, the estimate assumes pit bulls and other dogs are similarly represented in strays not returned to owners, owner surrenders, and returned to owner figures. While this is admittedly a rough estimate, it does provide a reasonable view of how effective this shelter is at getting its pit bulls safely out the door.
Monmouth County SPCA reports “over a third” of its impounded dogs are pit bulls and pit bulls are around 50% of the shelter’s population. Based on the shelter’s reported 54 day average length of stay for dogs and assuming 35% of dog impounds and 50% of the shelter’s population are pit bulls, I estimate pit bulls stay 77 days on average at Monmouth County SPCA.
Pit bulls with behavioral issues can also have a relatively short length of stay at shelters. Austin Pets Alive, which pulls dogs off of Austin Animal Services kill list, reports a 52 day average length of stay for its large dogs with behavioral issues (pit bulls represent a significant portion of such dogs). In other words, Austin Pets Alive is able to rehabilitate and place many pit bull type dogs in a reasonably short period of time.
Successful Shelters Use a Variety Strategies to Save Pit Bulls
Playgroups are used by most of these shelters who successfully save pit bull type dogs. Aimee Sandler created playgroup programs to efficiently exercise dogs at the Southampton Animal Shelter and Longmont Humane Society. Subsequently, KC Pet Project and Salt Lake County Animal Service implemented Aimee Sadler’s program.
Playgroups improve the care of dogs at shelters and help get dogs adopted. In a large shelter, taking out and walking every single dog is time-consuming. Additionally, many pit bull type dogs are high energy and require a lot of exercise. Aimee Sadler estimates a 30 minute playgroup session equates to a 2 hour walk. Given large shelters may have over 100 large dogs, the cost savings becomes immediately apparent. Time spent walking dogs can be devoted to cleaning, marketing, off-site events, fundraising, etc. Additionally, dogs in playgroups tend to overcome many pre-existing behavioral issues, such as fear, anxiety, dog aggression, and reactivity. Playgroups also help dogs act calmer in kennels which increases adoption chances. People are frequently drawn to playgroups and are more likely to adopt a dog who is having fun. Also, dogs who play together are more likely to share a kennel peacefully which increases effective shelter capacity and the dog’s mental well-being at the facility. Finally, playgroups provide lots of information about the dogs and help shelters properly match dogs with adopters. Thus, playgroups are critically important to help pit bull type dogs live in shelters and safely get out of these facilities.
Greenhill Humane Society and KC Pet Project use differing strategies to save their pit bull type dogs. Greenhill Humane Society relies on a very high return to owner rate of 68% to achieve impressive pit bull live release rates and reduce these dogs length of stay. On the other hand, KC Pet Project uses a customer oriented, retail business philosophy, to promote adoptions. For example, KC Pet Project uses “open adoptions” which focuses on educating adopters and making great matches verses overzealous screening. Additionally, KC Pet Project set up adoption centers in a strip mall outlet and a local Petco. KC Pet Project also transfers some large dogs to colder rural areas, which have high demand for these dogs, due to local rescues not wanting to take such dogs.
Salt Lake County Animal Services uses a balanced approach for its pit bull type dogs. Several years ago the shelter formed the Salt Lake County Pit Crew program to increase the pit bull live release rate. The program utilizes a variety of programs, such as community support and education, and also promotes adoptions. Community support programs include free spay/neuter, microchipping and leash and collar exchanges. As a result of these programs, pit bull intakes decreased and the pit bull return to owner rate increased over the last several years. Additionally, the percentage of dogs adopted, fostered/rescued increased significantly since the Salt Lake County Pit Crew program started. The shelter uses an “open adoptions” process to make great matches for adopters. Additionally, the shelter adopts pit bulls out at a retail location called the Best Friends Sugar House Adoption Center and does many off-site events. Finally, the Salt Lake County Animal Services’ adoption fee for large dogs is only $50 and discounted adoption fee programs are also offered.
Longmont Humane Society, Southampton Animal Shelter and Monmouth County SPCA use other strategies to save pit bull type dogs. All three organizations invested in facilities which make the dogs stay at the shelters more pleasant and create an atmosphere where the dogs are more appealing to adopters. Additionally, all three shelters have qualified behaviorists to treat and rehabilitate dogs. Also, both Southampton Animal Shelter and Monmouth County SPCA provide free spay/neuter for pit bull type dogs.
Challenges Can Be Overcome
Recently, Dr. Emily Weiss of the ASPCA hypothesized high pit bull intake rather than too few pit bull adoptions results in large numbers of pit bulls killed in shelters. Dr. Weiss concluded shelters were doing a good job with pit bull adoptions due to pit bulls being the 5th most common dog admitted to Banfield Animal Hospitals (i.e. a measure of overall popularity) and the third most frequently adopted dog at animal shelters. The five major flaws in this analysis are as follows:
- Pit bulls tend to have more owners who are poor and lack resources to take dogs to animal hospitals (i.e. understating pit bull popularity)
- Most shelters do a poor job at adopting dogs so adoption potential is much greater than current level
- Pit bulls having more restrictive adoption polices
- Overly strict temperament testing for pit bulls reduces the number placed for adoption
- Pit bulls were the most frequently impounded dog which suggests the shelter adoption numbers are due to high intake rather than successful adoption efforts
That being said, pit bulls do tend to have above average lengths of stay at shelters. At the high performing shelters above, pit bull type dogs had a length of stay about 2-3 times the average of non-pit bull type dogs. However, these shelters non-pit bull type dogs length of stay is short so the 2-3 times longer length of stay for pit bulls is still reasonable. Also, the study above suggests pit bulls length of stay until adoption is not much different than other large breeds. As a result, pit bull adoption/foster/rescue efforts should be prioritized as these are the primary ways pit bulls not returned to owners leave shelters alive.
Over the longer term efforts to reduce intake and end BSL are key to saving pit bull lives. BSL restricts pit bull type dog ownership in some communities. However, the bigger problem are landlords and/or insurance companies preventing tenants from owning pit bull type dogs. Animal welfare groups need to advocate for legislation requiring landlords to allow pets. The New Jersey Animal Welfare Task Force Report issued a decade ago argued for this and used precedents of Federal Section 527 public housing and New Jersey subsidized senior citizen housing projects requiring landlords to allow pets.
Until the housing availability disparity between pit bulls and other dogs disappears, animal welfare groups should step up efforts to prevent pit bulls from ending up at shelters. Pet owner prevention programs are especially beneficial for pit bull type dogs where housing options are more limited. Downtown Dog Rescue in South Los Angeles is a great example as this organization prevented 2,622 pets from entering the shelter system over the first year of its pet owner support program. Similarly, increased efforts by animal control officers and shelters to return lost dogs to owners are particularly important for pit bulls. Additionally, free pit bull spay/neuter programs may help reduce pit bull intakes over the longer term.
At the end of the day, we can save all the pit bulls. We just need to enact proven successful policies and do the necessary hard work.
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