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The Exciting Trends Making Shelter Animals More Adoptable

Analysis by Dr. Karen Shaw Becker

animal shelter

Story at-a-glance -

  • Animal shelters across the country are stepping up to the challenge of improving the shelter environment and preparing pets for adoptions that “stick”
  • Pet-centric facilities, shelter enrichment, community outreach, and innovative adoption programs are just a few of the ways these organizations are meeting the needs of both homeless animals and potential adopters
  • The Austin Pets Alive! no-kill shelter is a shining example of what can be accomplished when people are determined to find a home for every homeless animal

All over the U.S., animal shelters are progressing well beyond the warehousing operations they once were. Pets today are considered family members, and a growing body of research provides evidence of the importance of animal companions and the human-animal bond.

Thankfully, more and more shelters are stepping up to do their part to take better care of their residents while also helping improve their chances of being adopted, and of making those adoptions “stick.”

Recently, the online magazine Bark listed several trends that demonstrate how animal shelters are upping their game.1

5 Ways Animal Shelters Are Stepping Up for Pets

1. Pet-centric facilities — Shelters are remodeling old facilities and building new facilities designed to address the needs of their animal residents, such as natural light and stress reduction.

As Jenn Barg, director of operations at Colorado’s Larimer Humane Society (LHS) explained in an interview with Bark:

“People in the sheltering world are paying attention to how to build a facility designed around the animals’ needs and behaviors rather than to make it easier to clean or simply to maximize the number of animals that can be held at one time. Better-designed facilities mean less barking, less disease and the ability to provide a more enriching and calming environment for the animals.”

Innovative design strategies include:2

Placing indoor plants as a barrier between rows of kennels, which reduces barking

Windows facing sidewalks to tempt passersby to come in for a closer look

Skylights for natural light and fresh air

Improved air quality and ventilation systems

2. Environmental enrichment — Many shelters are now focused on providing enrichment for the animals in their care with training and behavior modification programs, community interaction, educational programs for foster and adoptive families, and veterinary care specifically targeted to shelter pets.

Some shelters also provide piped-in animal-centric music, more comfortable bedding, play groups, kiddie pools, community play areas, and outdoor park-like settings for exercise.

3. Community outreach to help keep pets out of the shelter system

“A major goal of innovative shelters is to be the first places people turn to when they need help with their pets,” explains animal behaviorist Karen London in her article for Bark. “Meeting that goal involves offering a variety of services to benefit all of the animals in the community, not just those in the shelter.

Changing the model of a shelter from animal control to preventing animals from entering the system in the first place is a big deal, one that includes being a resource for the people who are concerned they may need to surrender their pet, regardless of where that pet was originally obtained.

If animals need medical or behavioral assistance, the shelter may be able to help their owners solve whatever problems they’re having rather than requiring them to surrender the pet.”

4. Outside-the-box thinking to increase adoption rates — Shelters are creating programs that appeal to a broader base of volunteers. The more opportunities a local animal shelter provides to the community, the greater the response.

A large population of volunteers means more services for the animals. For example, some shelters offer dog walking and cat cuddling programs that appeal to people who can drop by the facility on their way home from work for 15 to 30 minutes of furry stress relief.

Other shelters allow volunteers to take pets to adoption events and help with dog training classes. “Running Buddy” programs are also cropping up in lots of shelters. As London writes:

“Personally, I’ve benefited from the program in my community; once a week, a shelter van filled with crated dogs arrives at our local running store. Volunteer runners take a dog out for a run of 20 to 30 minutes.

It gets the dogs out of the shelter, gives them exercise and makes them visible to the community as they run through town wearing their ‘Adopt Me’ vests. Many of the program’s dogs have been adopted by volunteer runners, great matches forged by their shared love of running.”

5. Sleepovers and trial adoptions — Sometimes these are one and the same, however, a “pure” sleepover means the pet goes home for the night with a volunteer. The animal gets a break from the shelter environment and is exposed to the everyday sights, sounds and smells he or she will encounter in a new forever home.

If you’ve ever adopted a pet, you know the animal you meet at the shelter is often very different from the one who ultimately ends up being your new furry family member. The once very shy dog that cowered in the corner of his kennel may turn out to be the most affectionate lap dog you’ve ever known.

This is one of the advantages of sleepovers that are also trial adoptions. One of the best ways to really get to know if a dog or cat is a good fit for you is to spend a few days with the animal in your home. At the Arizona Animal Welfare League & SPCA in Phoenix, Arizona, pet sleepovers/trial adoptions have become a matter of course.

The program involves having pets spend three days at home with potential adopters. The adopters fill out paperwork and are provided with food and other necessities to care for the animal. During the sleepover, the shelter calls the potential adopters to answer any questions.

After the three days are up, the adopter can decide to keep the animal or bring him or her back to the shelter. The adoption rate from this program is around 75%, and for those animals not adopted after a sleepover, the shelter staff has additional information on their behavior and personality that they can use to more closely match them to future adopters.

Click here to find out Dr. Becker's top tips against seasonal pet allergiesClick here to find out Dr. Becker's top tips against seasonal pet allergies

A Prototype No-Kill Shelter: Austin Pets Alive!

From its meager but ambitious beginnings in 2008, Austin Pets Alive! in Austin, Texas has become the gold standard of no-kill animal shelters. Some of the goals the shelter has set and achieved in the last 10 years include:

  • Finding a foster home for every pet on the daily euthanasia list at the city shelter
  • Securing a facility and setting up a shelter
  • Creating programs to treat sick animals so they, too, can be adopted
  • Setting up a bottle-baby nursery to stop large-scale euthanasia of orphaned kittens
  • Caring for feral cat populations

Another of the organization’s early goals was to create programs to rehabilitate pets with behavior issues. Toward that end, Austin Pets Alive! assembled a behavior team to rehabilitate dogs with behavior issues. It's one of the shelter's biggest programs, and it was created to address large dogs with behavior problems — one of the populations of at-risk animals least likely to come out of a shelter alive.

The shelter also has a cat behavior program in which a volunteer behaviorist works with cats and their families to keep them in the home if they're having behavior problems. Cats living at the shelter who've been abused or traumatized also get behavioral help so they can have a successful adoption down the road.

Austin Pets Alive! is a great example of how sheltering can be done in a much more constructive way. Their goal is to help build other no-kill communities. Not just individual no-kill shelters, but entire communities. They're prioritizing teaching other shelters and communities how to replicate their success.