For years, there’s been concern in the shelter and veterinary community that black dogs were less likely to be adopted. Recently, a large U.S. study showed no evidence for this so-called “black dog syndrome.” This is great news to me personally and will help in ways you might not consider at first.

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Black dog syndrome: myths and facts

I worked at my local Humane Society shelter in the late 1980s, which left me with the impression that big black dogs didn’t fare well finding homes. I believe the real damage of this sentiment was that shelter employees unconsciously didn’t bond too closely with them. We feared getting attached because we thought they’d probably be euthanized. Whether or not black dog syndrome was real, it definitely affected our attitude.

In 1992, a study from Northern Ireland found that color was not a critical factor for dog adoption. Great news! But then, in 1998, a U.S. shelter study demonstrated dark coat colors were associated with higher euthanasia rates than yellow or light-colored animals. For the next decade, evidence mounted that “black dog syndrome” was real.

In 2013, the dark tide began to turn. Larger studies determined that coat color was not a very accurate predictor of adoption. As quickly as the black tide receded, a contradictory study found black cats took longest to find homes and were euthanized more frequently. Meanwhile, millions of black pets were drowning in this sea of uncertainty and myth. Now the tide is turning again.

A four-year study evaluating 16,700 dogs in two Pacific Northwest shelters found black dogs had shorter stays compared to lighter-colored counterparts. The researchers found age and breed to be more reliable indicators than color; older dogs and bully breeds took longer to be adopted and were more likely to be euthanized.

Another recent study concluded black cats may have a harder time finding a forever home than black dogs. “Black cat syndrome” may be real and is a potential barrier to adoption and warrants further investigation. The recent study authors encouraged shelters to carefully evaluate their own data and allocate resources to colors, breeds, ages and species that need them most.

I’ve witnessed firsthand the impact preconceived notions of “adoptable or not” can have on a shelter environment. I believe this potential myth often becomes self-fulfilling when we treat certain colors, breeds or ages differently. At the very least, all shelter animals deserve a fighting chance and as much love and support as we can muster. While this is certainly good news for abandoned dark-coated dogs and cats, it reinforces the fact we all must do much better to save the lives of millions of abandoned and homeless pets.

Mar 21, 2016

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