The Shelter Voice: The Kitten Dilemma

By Darlene Duggan

For high-volume shelters, moving animals out the door as quickly as possible is crucial, and running a successful adoption program is one critical part of achieving quick movement. There are a plethora of ways to create adoption success (strong adoption promotion, open adoption procedures, reasonable adoption fees), but have you ever thought about what impact the mix of animals in the adoption room has on the overall adoption rates?

Dr. Kate Hurley and Dr. Sandra Newbury of the UC Davis Koret Shelter Medicine Program study shelter practices. According to their lectures, in adoption rooms across the nation, “the more, the merrier” notion is often employed without much thought to animal presentation or organization. We pack as many cats into the adoption room as possible, and leave it up to the animals to sell themselves.

However, research and data are showing that a little forethought and planning can improve adoption rates. In his book, TheParadox of Choice: Why More is Less, author Barry Schwartz argues that eliminating consumer choices can greatly reduce anxiety for shoppers. Extrapolating this concept to an adoption room is another way that animal shelters can work to improve their adoption rates.

I wondered how I might apply this to my own practices. I looked at data for another shelter like mine: Medium-sized, open-admissions shelter, and in a large city. I was curious to know if the adoption rates of adult cats rise or fall when kittens are also available for adoption. One might argue that having kittens in the adoption room will increase older cat adoption rates because kittens act as “eye candy” to draw-in more would-be adopters. On the other hand, one might argue that kittens decrease the adoption rates of older cats because kittens are inherently more desirable.

Before we look at the data, a few notes:

  1. Kittens are cats that are 4 months and younger.
  2. Two months were chosen because kitten intake rates fluctuate seasonally (February = lower kitten intake; August = higher kitten intake).
  3. If no kittens were available for adoption on any day in the month, the day was removed from the dataset, thus there are less data points than days of the month.

That being said, let’s look at the data:

We can ascertain from the negative slope of the trend line for both months that having kittens available for adoption actually detracts from adoption rates of older cats. But, the negative slope improves in August—a time when kitten intake is at its highest:

  • In February, for every 4 additional kittens available, this shelter loses about 3 non-kitten adoptions
  • In August, for every 3 additional kittens available, this shelter loses about 1 non-kitten adoption

So, does this mean that shelters should not make kittens available for adoption? Certainly not! But, analyzing data in this way can be the first step towards understanding adoption patterns and choices. Knowing that kittens will take away from adoptions of older cats will help shelter managers space kitten arrival in the adoption room. They may also choose to increase their use of foster-to-adoption programs (an emerging trend in animal sheltering to “foster” underage kittens with families with the eventual hope/mutual understanding that the family will adopt the kitten when it is of age), for young and underage kittens.

Moving forward, shelters can analyze their data in this way for various types of scenarios including:

  • Adopter preferences of males vs. females
  • Adoption rates of different colors (black vs. non-black) or coat patterns (solid vs. tabby)
  • Adoption rates for various kennels or rooms housing available animals (do animals housed in the kennels near the front of the room get adopted at different rates than those housed near the back?)

If you have made it to the end of this article, you probably have an interest in statistics, or maybe even product merchandising. If you’ve got these skills and were wondering how to use them for good, get out there and volunteer your services to your local animal shelter! As I mention frequently in this blog, shelter staff are usually busy with caring for the animals, so they could certainly use your expertise in analyzing their data and optimally preparing their adoption rooms.

For many years, Darlene worked behind the scenes at The Anti-Cruelty Society in Chicago–overseeing volunteer programs, problem solving shelter issues, and laboring tirelessly for the welfare of animals. Her bi-weekly column, The Shelter Voice, will explore the complex concepts surrounding animal rescue and welfare usually reserved for discussions amongst those at the very front lines of the industry. She hopes to broaden the understanding and education of shelter supporters so they can act as well-informed advocates for the cause and help spread the adoption and rescue message throughout their community.

To read more from Darlene, check out her Blog–Shelter Report.


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