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Black Is The New White

Dr. Emily Weiss discusses some colorful data results.

I was talking with a reporter the other day and she asked why the belief that black dogs and cats are less likely to be adopted is so strong. Personally I think it comes from two things – one is human behavior, and the other is perception based on total numbers of animals entering a shelter. 

Human behavior. There is a concept called "backfire” that I first learned about from the ASPCA’s ever curious Dr. Stephen Zawistowski. The essential idea is that sometimes facts counter to beliefs do not change minds, but instead cause folks to hold harder to their beliefs. We tend to grip hard to myths, and sometimes when our beliefs are challenged by data, we grip even harder. There was a nifty article in the Boston Globe a while back on the subject and the author summarized as such: “Facts don’t necessarily have the power to change our minds. In fact, quite the opposite. In a series of studies in 2005 and 2006, researchers at the University of Michigan found that when misinformed people, particularly political partisans, were exposed to corrected facts in news stories, they rarely changed their minds. In fact, they often became even more strongly set in their beliefs. Facts, they found, were not curing misinformation. Like an underpowered antibiotic, facts could actually make misinformation even stronger.” You can read the entire article here.

The research on backfire has focused mostly on politics and polarizing topics. Our field has polarizing topics and strong beliefs – such as free cats, gift adoptions and, yes, the belief that black animals are less desired.

Total numbers. The second reason I think keeping the myth alive is one we have hypothesized for a while – could it be that there are simply more black dogs and cats entering the system, making it appear that they are more at risk?  Let’s say 4 black dogs and one white dog enter the shelter, and the next day 1 white dog and 1 black dog are adopted – that leaves just three black dogs in kennels, shifting a perception of risk. However, the same number of black and white dogs were adopted!

Black dogs and cats – the chatter around the risk factors for these ebony cuties continues even as the evidence debunking the myth increases. I could not resist the opportunity to dig in with another view – our Comprehensive Animal Risk Database (CARDS) that allows us to delve into individual animal data.

With a sample of the CARDS data, we are able to explore this a bit more. We combined the data from 14 communities that partner with us to look at the risk for black dogs and cats vs. other colors. Almost 300,000 dogs and cats make up this data set, making for a rich sample.

As we dug in, what was most striking was the intake percentage. Just take a quick peek at the charts below and you can see that black is a popular color, and more black dogs and cats come in than other colors. 

You will see this pattern continue when we look at adoptions. A higher percentage of black dogs and cats are adopted than any other color – for dogs, 10% more black dogs are adopted than the next highest color – brown dogs at 22%. And the difference is about the same for cats (other than gray being the next highest color adopted in cats).

And – as more are coming in, while more are being adopted, the ratio of adoptions still means that more black dogs and cats are being euthanized. While more black dogs are euthanized, the euthanasia rate (euthanasia/intake for that color group) is higher for the next largest intake color – brown dogs (25%) than it is for black dogs (21%). Also of great interest is that the euthanasia rate for white dogs is quite similar to the black dog euthanasia rate at 19%. 

Black cat euthanasia rate is a bit higher than the others at 30%, with gray cats being the next highest at 28%. White cats do not fare much better at 26% euthanasia rate.

So first – some good news for those of you doing black dog and cat promotions – no need to stop just because we bust the myth that people do not want black dogs and cats. With more of them coming in, there’s no reason not to promote even more going out! However, this data, along with the research I have shared in the past should help curb the message that black dogs and cats are less likely to be adopted – as, at least in many places, it simply is not true.

Swinging back to backfire, I understand some of you will read this and say that this is just not the case for you – and I will respectfully ask you to look at the data with an open mind and heart – as I think it may really be time to put this puppy to bed.

 

Related links:
Blog: “Hmmm…It Really Ain’t So Black and White!”
Blog: “And the Research Says…Yep, It Still Ain’t So Black and White!”
Blog: “Syndrome? Myth? Fact?”
ASPCA Shelter Research & Development

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Comments

Comment

This is amazing! I just love that Dr. Weiss is using data to debunk some of the myths that we all continue to share. Such a shift -- "yes," we need to push black pet adoptions with specials because we receive more black pets -- but "no," we don't need to portray the black pets as unappealing, unwanted, and less-than.  Thank you so much for continuing to examine our animal welfare assumptions by doing quality research with good sample sizes and good data. What a suprise this finding was!

Comment

So interesting! Thank you for always scratching beneath the surface and taking our beliefs on a ride through reality. 

Comment

Is there a difference in adoption rates for darker colored animals depending upon where the shelter is located in this country?  Are lighter colored animals more popular in warmer parts of the country?

Comment

This is great information.  Our shelter has participated in two "Back in Black" promotions run by a national organization, and as a result of being told that black animals were less adoptable, I've had some really awkward conversations with African-American adopters about why black animals are a) on sale and b) less likely to be valued/adopted.  Great to hear that this story actually goes in the opposite direction - that black animals are a) popular and b) a significant proportion of any shelter population.  Thanks!

Comment

I wasn't aware of the condition that animals that have black fur were less likely to be adopted.  Thanks for the exposure.

Comment

Interesting data re black dogs and cats.

Comment

Awesome look at the data Dr. Weiss.  Keep it coming!!!

Comment

This is so interesting, particularly the part about humans clinging harder to old myths even once they are proven false. I consider myself really open-minded and up to date on current best practices in this field, and yet, even faced with all the research proving otherwise, I find myself having that reaction about free adoptions. Now, knowing that not only does the data show that free adoptions do not mean bad adoptions, but my reticence to accept it is also proven, I have even more to convince me to open that part of my mind even further!! I am such a HUGE fan of all the research you guys are doing, and how positive you stay through all of it. Thank you for all you do!

Comment

I'm wondering if you've taken a look at length of stay for black animals? I generally see that when we put a litter of kittens on the adoption floor and there is one black and 4 other colors, the black one will be the last to be adopted. In previous years, when we've had kittens growing up on the adoption floor while others come and go around them, they've nearly always been black. Last weekend all our kittens were adopted except 6 black ones, and I experienced a lot of folks asking "Don't you have any other kittens?". The kittens available were 8 weeks, so they weren't looking for younger ones - when I asked, they just wanted any other color except black. The 6 left were the last kittens left from 4 different litters. I don't recall getting that question when we have 6 orange kittens available. It could be that I'm blocking those situations out, and only paying attention when it's the black ones - LOS would tell us if that's true.

 

Comment

I can look at a litter of kittens or puppies and (with a fair degree of certainty) predict which will be adopted first and which last, and usually the lightest are first and the black ones are last!  This year, at the beginning of kitten season, I was surprised to have two people wanting black kittens.  I was very happy to oblige them!  Right now we have a litter of 4 up front, 3 black and one brown tabby and everyone looks at them and goes straight to the tabby.  I tend to think that the black pet adoption increase is due to almost everyone doing black pet specials.

Comment

We started today with 6 kittens available for adoption; 2 black and 4 other colors. All 4 other colors were adopted; the two black remain, even though they are younger than the adopted ones and younger is generally more popular. This is pretty typical. If anyone knows how to get good LOS reports out of PetPoint that will tell me only the time an animal spent with a status of 'available' I would love to play with this. I can get LOS excluding foster, but that doesn't exclude time spent in prep or treatment areas; and we have multiple adoption spaces so time in one location doesn't get me what I need either. I've asked PPT and have been told this report isn't available unless we upgrade to Enterprise. If anyone has found a work around I'd love to hear it! 

Comment

Have you tried the report called Stage with Results Extended with the stage Available? That has Stage start and end.

Comment

Would have been nice to have a euth chart as well. vs just intake and adoptions..

 

Comment

I am so happy to read this! A few yeas ago I wrote and artlce for our newsletter talking about black cat and dog syndrome and found it was funny that we at Tree House did not experience the same phenomenon but we thought perhaps it was just becasue we had very progrssive adopters, since so many other shelters told stories of how the black cats and dogs sat and sat...

One of our volunteers was so saddened by this that she starteda rescue specifically for black cats and dogs (and FIV+ cats) since she also learned that we had a harder time adopting them out.

I am going to send this to her and mention that perhaps she should just shift her focus to pitbulls, chihuahuas and FIV+ cats ; )

Thanks,

 

 

Comment

This is very good news, however, the problem we have at our shelter with black dogs is mainly an issue of visibility --- the black dogs seem to simply disappesr into the kennel and do not stand out like the lighter colored dogs so the customers walk right by them. Part of that is a problem with our floor coloring but it is tile and not easily changed. The lighting is not very good either. To try to help, I am a volunteer and I am always putting brightly-colored collars and bandanas on the black dogs to help them be seen, and doing cute write-ups about them. The problem is not so bad with the csts because the lighting is better but the cage colors are still not great. I agree that people will adopt them, we just have to help them SEE them !

Comment

I do know that when I walk folks through the kennel to look at dogs, they usually walk right past the black ones and stop at the lighter colored ones or the patterned ones. I think our black dogs tend to get more 'hits' and interest with photographs on our website or Petfinder. I think they just don't stand out as much in the kennel visually. But in a photograph, in the sun and grass, their personality breaks through their common black dog appearance. Also, we get two kinds of people looking for dogs - those that are looking for a personality match and those that are looking for something visually appealing or social status appealing. If they are looking for a dog to match their lifestyle, the black dogs have as much a chance as all the others. Someone looking for something to impress their friends with, they may not get the same consideration.

Comment

I think, even today, some people remain very superstitious about black cats.  I am the exception to the rule having rescued 5 black cats.  Believe me, they are no different than any other color.  The only month I do not believe black cats should be put up for adoption is October.  Thank you.

Comment

The fact is that as long as animals are being euthenized, all animals are at risk. It would take a much more complicated survey involving not just shelters but the public as a whole to determine if this matter is true; however, I do know that some people still hold to superstition about black cats being bad luck, which is very unfortunate.

Let us focus on ending euthenization all together, promoting, rescue homes, foster homes, and education. Let us make sure that every school child is educated about animal care, (especially domestic animals which are pets), animal needs, and animal rights. Let us make sure that every pet is chipped, and is given vet care, every animal is protected from extreme weather, vaccinated, neutered/spayed, and given social and behavioral training, and fed and watered properly.

Let us make sure that every house/every home has a visible street address to make it easy to see from the street (in order to report abuse and neglect before it is too late), and let us educated all law enforcement agents, encluding the Sheriff's department and police, which deal with animals, and let us develope oversight committees to make sure progress is really being made when it comes to protecting and helping our animals. Let's get rid of euthenization!

Comment

I do feel, however, that black pets don't PHOTOGRAPH as well and thus may not look as good in the photos, which definitely could account for less interest.

 I get where the article is going but I think that we could promote more black dog and cat adoptions than we have now, by educating the photographers on how to properly light up and take the right angles on the black pet, to make them look better.  That part of the black-adoption thing can be a challenge.

There is a photographer on the internet who has a website ( and a book?  not sure ) on how to photograph the black pets and has beautiful examples...unfortunately I don't have that info but if you just google, you will find it, or somethign like it. 

Comment

Hi, TJF -- thanks for your comment! We've posted a bunch of stuff about getting great photos of shelter animals. Here's a segment of one of our blogs that speaks to photographing black animals:

Back in Black

Do dark-coated animals seem to be eclipsed by flashier colors in adopters’ eyes? “It definitely doesn’t help that they are also the toughest to get a good photo of,” says Traer Scott, who recommends photographing black dogs outside, ideally in the shade or an overcast day. “Bright sun will have a very similar effect as a flash and wash out all the detail in the animal’s fur and eyes.”

http://www.aspcapro.org/great-shelter-dog-photos-and-killer-abs-in-7-easy-steps

-Elyse

ASPCApro Blog Team

Comment

I think that black animals are much more difficult to photograph but in real life they always look much more sleek, shiney and healthy than their coloured counter parts, especially white with tear stains.

Comment

This research seems to overlook the important question of why there are more black cats and dogs entering the system. We can't just assume more black animals are born without any data.

I would also echo the request for euthanasia statistics by color, especially in light of several previous comments about black animals being adopted more slowly. Slowly = higher risk of euthanasia in a lot of shelters.

Comment

Do you know if the black coat is simply the more common coloring in both canines and felines? The numbers suggest that possibility, but I'm interested in an answer supported by data.

Comment

Still in search of a good way to get LOS data by color out of PetPoint to evaluate color and adoptions in kittens. We began the weekend with 14 black kittens and 12 non-black kittens. There were 16 adoptions; every single non-black kitten was adopted, and just 4 of the black kittens - only 28% of them. At the end of the weekend we had 10 kittens left; every single one of them black.

It's not that the black kittens are older, bigger, less social - there were many mixed color litters on Friday; in those, every single non-black kitten has been adopted, but the black kittens remain. 

I'm a huge fan of evaluating whether what we believe is true or not is actually true. With black, for felines, I keep seeing this happening.  I believe it's happening in cats as well, but it's a lot easier to see in kittens (they're all about the same age, health, and personalities are not developed as they are in adults - plus their LOS with us is very short, and they come in batches which makes it easy to look at movement). 

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