The Perplexing Case of Long-Term Shelter Animals


Una is a deaf Pit Bull mix who has been living in the care of Chicago- based Alive Rescue for nearly four years. At six years old, she has spent more than half of her life homeless.

Una has been waiting for her forever home for almost four years.

Una has been waiting for her forever home for almost four years.

Una’s long stay isn’t for lack of exposure. Since arriving at Alive, shelter staff and volunteers have vigorously promoted the sweet and smiley dog. She has her own Facebook page with more than 3,000 followers. She was crowned Grand Champion in a national online dog contest and her post- win celebration video has reached more than 25,000 people. She has walked the red carpet at Talbott’s National Dog Day Fashion Show and gone on Chicago River cruises with the Live Like Roo Foundation. And still, the perfect adopter has yet to set eyes on her.

Una’s experience speaks to a larger problem in the animal rescue world. She could be the poster child for a challenge faced by many shelters: The Long-Term Stay. While many adoptable animals find homes through shelters and rescues in a matter of days to a few short weeks, some find themselves lingering in rescue limbo for months, or in some cases, years.

Why do some animals take so long to get adopted?

Municipal open-admission shelters must take every single animal who comes to their door. Because of limits on space and resources, they rely on independent rescue organizations to pull animals and take over their care and adoption processes.

Rescue groups are often drawn to the hard cases—animals who are sick, injured, elderly, traumatized, or extremely distressed stand out as being particularly in-need. The limitations of a city-run shelter often mean that these animals have to be pulled quickly or face the prospect of euthanization.

As people continue to respond to “Adopt, Don’t Shop” campaigns and similar outreach about the great pets waiting at shelters, the number of animals finding homes is increasing, freeing up rescues to pull even more from open-admission shelters. But some of these animals—particularly the tougher cases—linger in limbo, safe from euthanization, but not yet in the comfort of a forever home.

The reasons are as varied as the animals, but several factors tend to work against otherwise perfectly adoptable pets. Senior animals, overweight animals, overactive animals, depressed animals…all typically wait a longer time to find families.

Sometimes it’s as simple as how an animal looks. In Una’s case, she was the unfortunate recipient of a botched DIY ear cropping that left her ears uneven and pointy. Sadly, scars, missing eyes or limbs, missing hair, and a host of other physical features often result in an animal being passed by on the adoption floor.

Other animals remain homeless due to behavior misconceptions or breed prejudice. It happens to mutts, too. Mixed-breed dogs (including the block-headed ones that all get labeled as Pit Bulls) are often misidentified, further complicating the issue.

Advances in shelter care and volunteer programs have made it possible for animals with special needs to be released to rescues in greater numbers than ever before. However, those extra challenges often mean prolonged adoption times, tying up resources and foster homes. This creates a challenging situation for rescues: Do they choose to save animals like Una, knowing they may take longer to find homes and require months, or even years of resources, or do they pass them by, knowing that without rescue they will likely be euthanized? For volunteer-led groups with finite resources, this is no small dilemma.

Not so best in show

One of the finest dogs I’ve ever met was a total disaster on the adoption floor, despite being perfect as soon as she stepped off of it. Some animals go absolutely bananas in the cage. And who can blame them? Shelters are stressful environments, with strangers coming in and out, and a veritable stew of stress chemicals streaming into the bark-and-meow filled air. This is one of the big reasons why open- admission shelters prefer to send animals to rescue organizations rather than putting them on their own adoption floor. They know that jumping, crying, barking balls of kennel stress get passed by. But the higher the stress, the worse the behavioral deterioration, and the greater the chance the animal may be euthanized.

There are other animals who may do very well in foster homes, but fall apart when they attend adoption events. Some animals, like some people, simply cannot handle crowds and chaotic environments. Distressed behaviors range from hiding and shaking to getting snarly and snappy. For these adoptables, social media and word of mouth connections could be their only way to finding a home of their own.

Being placed with a rescue group may buy an animal some time, but it doesn’t guarantee a smooth road. I encourage anyone who is looking to foster or adopt to give a long- timer a chance. If you don’t have the room in your home, consider helping spread the word about these animals in need, most of whom just need a little more exposure to reach their forever person. Social media saves lives, and long-timers need some extra online love and attention. Volunteers with graphic or social media skills can be game changers for adoptable animals, posting photos and stories from foster families. Got skills? Offer to help!


Some animals wait in shelters longer than others, but that doesn’t mean they wait there forever. Here’s a look at some local animals who eventually found their happy endings. All animals were adopted through DuPage Animal Shelter, where this story’s author volunteers. Click on each animal’s tab to read their story.


Senior Penny came to the shelter overweight and deconditioned after her caregiver died. She had been shuffled around in neglectful circumstances and it took many months for her to find a home. Then, through no fault of her own, she came back to the adoption floor a year later. Happily, she came back fit and in good health and has landed with a family who dotes on her and loves her to pieces.


Jackie Petersen Photography

Jackie Petersen Photography

Bethany was found on the side of the road having survived an attack from another animal (coyote suspected). Because she could not attend adoption events, social media was her only chance of adoption. It took 13 months for her to find a home, but she hit the jackpot: The man who adopted her is retired and makes cat toys as a hobby!

Bonnie Belle

Bonnie Belle was notorious for jumping and barking like a nut in her kennel. Shelter staff had to string a sheet across her kennel to cut off her vision, which kept her calm but put off potential adopters, especially when they peeked over the sheet (if they even bothered to) and a large Boxer suddenly jumped into their face. Out of the kennel she was a staff and volunteer favorite, but it took a big social media campaign, including getting her featured on The Shelter Pet Project, to find her a home. Her adoptive family is proud to announce that she just passed her canine obedience class with flying colors.

Cocoa Puffs

Cocoa Puffs came to the shelter with another cat after their caregiver died. His companion cat did well, but Cocoa Puffs got very ill, stopped eating, and failed to thrive. After a few months of TLC, he was able to return to the adoption floor. Eventually he was adopted, at age 13, just over two years after entering the system.

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