Wednesday, 6 March 2013

What influences a dog's length of stay at a no-kill animal shelter?

Are some types of dog adopted more quickly from animal shelters than others? A study by William Brown and colleagues at Keuka College looked at two no-kill shelters in New York State in order to answer this question.

A brindled pit bull on a red/pink couch

A no-kill shelter is one that will only kill animals that are too ill or too bad-natured to be adopted; some of them will even work with animals to try and resolve behavioural problems before assessing them again. There are very few no-kill shelters in the US; most shelters and municipal animal controls will euthanize dogs for reasons such as lack of space. 

Brown et al looked at the shelter records from January 2008 until sometime in either 2010 or 2011 (different for each shelter). This gave a total of 203 dogs that had been adopted in that time. They categorized the dogs according to the information on the record cards, looking at age, breed, size and colour. 

The colours were very descriptive (e.g. apricot, butterscotch) and so they reduced them to nine standard colours, sometimes collapsing this to light, medium and dark for statistical reasons. Age was classified as puppies under six months, puppies between six months and a year, and adult dogs (12 months or over). The age of adult dogs was estimated by shelter staff. Size ranged from XS to XL, and dogs were categorized into breed groups (e.g. hounds, guard dogs, terriers etc).

The average length of stay during this period was 35 days. Puppies were adopted fastest, with a stay of 23 days for puppies under six months and 33 days for the older puppies. Adult dogs had an average wait of 42 days before they were adopted. This won’t surprise anyone; it is widely known that puppies are adopted quickly.

The results for coat colour will be a surprise, however, since it is sometimes suggested that black dogs are adopted last. That was not the case in this study: coat colour made no difference to length of stay. There was also no effect of gender of the dog.

There was an effect of size, with the XS dogs being adopted soonest, followed by the small dogs. The medium-sized dogs were the ones with the longest stay. The authors say that the XL dogs (such as St Bernards) were quite unique and likely were adopted out because of this. Some people may also have had size restrictions imposed by their landlords or condominium councils that meant they could only have a small or extra-small dog.

Breed also played a role, with giant breeds having the shortest stay and guard dogs having the longest. Amongst puppies, the lapdogs were adopted soonest, with an average stay of just 13 days. Of course there is probably an interaction between breed type and size!

The authors suggest the characteristics of dogs that get adopted soonest may vary with the shelter location. The two shelters in this study were in a primarily rural location with some built-up areas. The results may well be different in a city. Shelter managers may learn over time which kinds of dogs go fastest, and networked groups of shelters can ‘swap’ dogs to locations where they are more likely to find a home. 

This study found that coat colour made no difference to adoption rates, which contradicts the belief that black dogs are adopted more slowly. It will also surprise some people that dogs referred to in earlier work as "fighting" breeds (such as pit bulls) were not the breed type to be adopted last. In some kill shelters, the majority of these dogs are euthanized, but this study suggests that – at least in some locations – it is possible to find them homes.

Did you get your dog from a shelter? What characteristics did you look for?

Brown, W., Davidson, J., & Zuefle, M. (2013). Effects of Phenotypic Characteristics on the Length of Stay of Dogs at Two No Kill Animal Shelters Journal of Applied Animal Welfare Science, 16 (1), 2-18 DOI: 10.1080/10888705.2013.740967


  1. I take issue with this sentence- "It will also surprise some people that fighting dogs (such as pit bulls) were not the breed type to be adopted last."

    Not all pit bull dogs are victims of or bred for fighting, and not all fighting dogs are pit bull dogs. You are perpetuating an extremely damaging stereotype. If your definition of a "fighting dog" is one that may or may not have any "pit bull type" breed in its make up, you are totally off base.

    You go on to say that " least in some locations... it is possible to find them homes." Are you insinuating that these dogs are nearly hopeless to place? You're right, it is totally possible to find pit bull type dogs homes, and it happens quite often, it's not a miraculous alignment of the solar system when it does.

    It is also important to note that many of those dogs were summarily euthanized because of BSL or breed-specific shelter policies, not because of inherently un-adoptability.

    1. “I take issue with this sentence- "It will also surprise some people that “fighting” dogs (such as pit bulls) were not the breed type to be adopted last."

      Thank you for your comment which I appreciate because there seems to be a misunderstanding. The post states that pit bulls and similar type dogs *were* adopted. Unfortunately at many animal shelters in the US it is assumed that they are not adoptable and they are euthanized without even being given a chance. This study shows that in fact they would have a good chance at adoption.

      I think this *will* surprise some people, because there are many negative perceptions of this type of dog.

      The reason for the statement ‘at least in some locations’ is because we cannot generalize from these two animal shelters to all shelters in the US. That would be too big a leap, especially since one of the conclusions of this paper is that local factors likely affect the adoptability of different types of dog. We also know that these two shelters were no-kill shelters, which is not the norm across the US; in other words, these shelters are not typical. There may be other factors of the shelter which also played a role.

      However, as suggested in the article, if shelters ‘swapped’ dogs to other locations where they were more likely to find a home, this would help all breeds, including pit bulls. For example, suppose pit bulls were very popular in downtown city A but not so much in the suburbs, and Labradors were popular in the suburbs but not downtown, the shelter in the suburbs could send the pit bulls to the downtown location and receive some Labradors in return. Then the dogs that had been moved would have a better chance of adoption. Some networked groups of shelters already do this, and it would be good if other shelters adopted the practice.

      The description of them as ““fighting”” breeds is the wording used by Brown in the article. Although I cannot speak for them, looking back at their paper, I think they probably use the term in order to reflect the earlier literature. For example, they state that “Our breed results differ from those of Lepper et al (2002) who found that “fighting breeds” were the least likely to be adopted from a California shelter” (p15). They also use the term in the abstract of the paper (where they state the main results). I am not sure how I can reflect their findings accurately without using this term.

      I am sure you are right that BSL and shelter-specific breed policies play a role in euthanasia rates at many shelters. However they did not apply at the two shelters in this study since they were no-kill shelters.

      I hope that clarifies matters. Since there’s obviously been a misunderstanding, I’m open to suggestions for edits, so long as they still reflect the paper. Brown et al’s paper shows, amongst other things, that shelters cannot assume that pit bulls and similar dogs are not adoptable, because at these two shelters they did find homes.

  2. "I am not sure how I can reflect their findings accurately without using this term."

    Simple: "Pit bulls and other breeds referred to by Brown's study as 'fighting' dogs were not the breed to be adopted last."

    The "fighting" term used by the original study does not justify perpetuation of stereotypes in your article. More scrupulous editing would have been appropriate.

  3. Thanks for your helpful suggestion which as you can see I've adopted. I had thought the quote marks did the trick in the original text, but since this was misunderstood, I've made a change.

  4. I wonder how disease factors into this. I adopted a 7 year old miniature pinscher from a kill shelter and i'm thankful they didn't notice her extensive teeth decay or she surely would have been needlessly discarded. It would be interesting if no-kill shelters tried to work with potential owners to help a sick or diseased future pet.