A Returned Adoption is Not a Failure

By Darlene Duggan

One of the cornerstones of the animal welfare field is its goal to place unwanted animals in forever homes. One way shelter staff measures the success of their adoption program is by tracking the return rates on adoptions. Most shelters define a returned adoption as an animal that is brought back within 30 days of its most recent adoption attempt. While disappointing for all—adopter, animal, and shelter—a returned adoption should not be considered the failure it appears to be at first glance.

Here are a few common questions that shelters ask themselves when an animal is returned. As the answers show, adoption returns don’t mean something is wrong with a shelter, but they do help shelters identify weak spots and better their programs.

Is there a problem with our adoption process?

According to the ASPCA Shelter Partner Data, the average return rate for dogs is 8% and cats 4%, with a total return rate of 6%. By monitoring this statistic closely, a shelter can better understand the implications of their adoption decisions. If the rate elevates over a few months, perhaps it is time to reevaluate the adoption process.

Many shelters employ matching programs to assist potential adopters in choosing the best pet for their lifestyle. Programs such as the ASPCA’s Meet Your Match can help a shelter minimize their adoption return rate.

Is there a problem with a particular animal that we can better address in the shelter?

Every shelter has had at least one animal that takes many trips in and out the door, getting adopted and returned multiple times. For whatever reason, the animal is hard to place. When this occurs, the shelter now has a better opportunity to provide services for this animal: If it is an issue with house training, they can now give focused attention to the animal. If it is an issue with barking, jumping, etc, they can fix the problems with trained volunteers and staff.

Providing training and rehabilitation in the shelter will better prepare the animal for their next adoptive home, and adoption returns can typically tell staff a lot about what needs to be addressed with a specific animal.

How can we make this a positive thing?

When an animal is first relinquished to a shelter, the information that the previous caregiver provides is sometimes unreliable (or in the case of strays, completely unknown). Guardians may over-exaggerate or under-describe a problem depending on how they perceive an animal will succeed in the shelter.

As such, shelters rely more heavily on behavior and temperament screening performed while in the shelter’s care. But, history tells us that the best judge of how an animal will behave in its new home is how the animal behaved in its previous home. So, a returned animal now comes with a more reliable source of information that the shelter can use to either rehabilitate the animal or pass along to the next adopter. For example, if a cat is returned because it did not get along with the other animals in the home, the shelter now knows to place this cat in a home with no resident animals. If a newly adopted puppy is returned because it was too much for the small children in the household (jumping, chewing, etc), then the shelter can find a home with older children only.

Returned adoptions are disappointing for shelters, adopters, and of course, the animals. But once we get past the initial disappointment, we can see that there are great lessons to be learned. All adoption programs aim to make permanent placements, and no shelter out there wants to place an animal in a non-ideal situation. So, rather than viewing a return as a failure, it can be seen as an opportunity to make a better placement for a homeless animal.


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