How People Select Pets From Animal Shelters

When you walk through an animal shelter, all the dogs seem to say 'Pick me!'. Dave Parker [CC BY 2.0]/Flickr

What made you decide to adopt your pet? If it was the pup's floppy ears and soulful eyes or the kitten's playful antics and affectionate purrs, you're in the majority.

According to a new study by the ASPCA, "physical appearance" is the top reason for selecting a particular shelter dog, and "behavior with people" is the top response for choosing a certain cat.

The study was conducted from over three months at five animals shelters across the U.S., and roughly 1,500 pet adopters filled out questionnaires detailing how they knew their cat or dog was the right one for them. The results were published in the journal Animals.


Graphic: ASPCA

The research supports previous findings showing that cats and dogs that approach the front of the cage when a person comes near have a much greater chance of being adopted.

About 5 million to 7 million animals enter U.S. shelters each year, and 3 million to 4 million of them are euthanized, according to the ASPCA. However, the organization hopes that by understanding why people select certain animals, it'll be able to increase adoption rates and decrease returns.

It's particularly helpful to know that appearance is such a deciding factor because staff may need to spend more time counseling people about pets' behavior and other traits that might be overlooked, the ASPCA says.

"As an animal behaviorist, it was interesting to get inside the human animal's head," Emily Weiss, vice president of shelter research and development for the ASPCA, told The Wall Street Journal.

How to find your best fit in a pet

Studies like this, as well as successful programs like Meet Your Match, which Weiss designed, are part of the ASPCA's ongoing efforts to help people find the pet that's right for them and increase shelter adoptions.

In Meet Your Match, potential adopters answer 19 questions about their lifestyle and the kind of pet they're looking for — whether they want a laid-back dog or a high-energy cat, for example. The animals also undergo an evaluation. Each potential pet is placed in a room, filmed and evaluated based on how quickly they lie down, play or interact with items in the room.

Both the animals and the adopters are assigned a color, and people are encouraged to select a cat or dog that matches their color. For example, "green" dogs are ones that require a lot of physical interaction and "purple" cats thrive in homes where they're free to lounge and nap in a quiet atmosphere.

Weiss says the best part of the program is that it encourages people to focus on specific qualities — like which pet will be the best fit for their personality and lifestyle — instead of just the animal's appearance.

The color system has helped the Richmond Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals increase adoption rates by nearly 20 percent since it began using Meet Your Match in 2008. Returns have dropped from 13 percent to 10 percent.