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It’s a common belief that black dogs and cats are less likely to be adopted than pets of other colors. Experts weigh in.
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On Jan. 6, 2002, during a “scouting” trip to the local animal shelter in Boca Raton, Fla., I fell head over heels in love. The object of my affection, Chase, was a medium-sized Belgian Shepherd–black Labrador Retriever mix. Chase’s sweet face and goofy personality stole my heart, so I was stunned when a staff member revealed that this canine jewel had been waiting at the shelter for more than six months, without so much as a passerby showing him any interest.
I had heard about “black-dog syndrome” (and its feline counterpart, “black-cat syndrome”), a phenomenon in which homeless black animals are thought to sit in shelters longer than their fairer-furred counterparts, so I accepted that my sweet boy had been a victim of his coat color.
The plight of black dogs and cats has been highlighted in major media, and countless websites are strewn with anecdotal evidence on the topic. Many of these sites paint a gloomy picture of the fate of black animals, claiming that they are euthanized at an alarming rate because they are so difficult to adopt. But are black dogs and cats really shunned by the public? We asked the experts to weigh in on black-dog and black-cat syndrome. Their responses might surprise you.
Studies on the existence of black-dog and black-cat syndrome are inconclusive. A 2002 study published in the Journal of Applied Animal Welfare Science found that among dogs and cats up for adoption at a Sacramento, Calif., municipal shelter between September 1994 and May 1995, black dogs and cats were among the least likely to find a home.
More recent studies tell a different story. In 2013, adoption records from two no-kill shelters in New York State found that coat color did not influence a dog’s length of stay, leading the researchers to conclude that, “Coat color and breed may have only local effects on (length of stay) that do not generalize to all shelters.”
Emily Weiss, PhD, vice president of shelter research and development for the American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals in New York City, agrees that drawing conclusions from one shelter or community’s data can be misleading. “There is no proof that local preferences translate into national trends,” Weiss says.
When ASPCA researchers recently looked at data from its 35 partner shelters across the country, they uncovered some surprising information. “We found that nationwide, black dogs and cats actually have among the highest chances of adoption, with 31 percent of black dogs and 29 percent of black cats that enter shelters finding homes,” Weiss says. The data also found that black animals are not more likely than other colors to be euthanized.
Two studies referenced in a 2012 Society and Animals manuscript titled, “Give a Dog a Bad Name and Hang Him: Evaluating Big, Black Dog Syndrome,” question another popular assumption that black dogs are considered, as Weiss puts it, “badder” than other colors. The studies found that people rated black Poodles as significantly more friendly than white Poodles, and that black Labs were perceived as less hostile, more friendly, less dominant and more submissive than a brown pit bull, a brindled Boxer, a sable German Shepherd Dog and a black-and-tan Rottweiler.
“This study supports what many of us involved in shelter research have long suspected, which is that breed — rather than coat color — strongly predicts how people view a dog’s personality,” Weiss says.
Although research regarding the existence of black-dog and black-cat syndrome is inconclusive, shelter and rescue workers consistently report witnessing the phenomenon. “We have approximately 900 network partners across the country, many of which tell us that black animals stay longer at their facilities and are more difficult to place,” says Tami Simon, events supervisor for Best Friends Animal Society’s No More Homeless Pets Network.
The most common reasons given by rescue workers to explain this occurrence include, according to Simon: • Aesthetics. Some people don’t view a black animal as “interesting” enough looking. • Photographic issues. In an internet age where many adoption searches begin online, a picture that steals hearts is essential. “Since black dogs and cats are harder to photograph, they may be passed up for lighter-colored pets, whose faces appear more expressive on camera,” Simon says. • Stereotypes. In Hollywood, black dogs are often depicted as vicious and menacing, a false portrayal that might cross over into how the public views them. • Superstition. Some people harbor negative feelings and even fear regarding black animals that traces back to outdated folklore. “This is especially problematic for black cats, which have long been associated with witchcraft,” Simon says.
Can the research data and the perceptions of shelter staff be at odds and yet both be correct? Absolutely, according to James Bias, president and CEO of the SPCA of Texas, with shelters and clinics in Dallas and McKinney, Texas. “It is an observable fact that there are more black animals at shelters,” Bias says. “Where we can get into trouble is in how we interpret this situation.”
Because black is a dominant coat color, there are more black dogs and cats in the general population, which means more of them enter the shelter system, Bias says.
“If five black dogs and one white dog arrive on the same day and one of each gets adopted, you now have no white dogs and four black dogs still left,” he says. “It’s easy to look around and conclude that black animals are less desirable, when it’s actually just that there are more of them.”
Nicholas Dodman, BVMS, Dipl. ACVB, director of the Animal Behavior Clinic at Tufts University’s Cummings School of Veterinary Medicine in North Grafton, Mass, offers a second explanation: “In labeling black dogs and cats as less adoptable upon intake, shelter staff may unwittingly treat them differently or even write them off as hopeless,” he says. “Potential adopters pick up on this negative perception, which actually perpetuates the situation.”
The fact that there are more black pets to choose from can hinder the adoption process. “Numerous marketing studies confirm that the greater the number of choices people have, the less able they are to make a decision,” Weiss says. In a shelter setting, this means that too many black animals could overwhelm potential adopters, steering them toward dogs and cats of other colors, where there are fewer available options.
Even those who question the existence of black-dog and black-cat syndrome agree that this segment of the homeless pet population can use an extra helping hand. “Every subset of the shelter population can benefit from extra advocacy, and black animals are no exception,” Weiss says.
This is where innovative adoption programs, such as Best Friends’ annual month-long campaign, Back in Black, can make a huge difference. “We created Back in Black in 2011 to help our network partners showcase the wonderful black dogs and cats in their care for an entire month,” Simon says.
During Back in Black, Best Friends provides participating network partners with a variety of professionally designed marketing materials, including fliers, images, banners, kennel tags and press release templates, to help promote their black and mostly black animals. Special adoption events also take place throughout the month, hosted by Best Friends Animal Sanctuary in Kanab, Utah, as well as the organization’s Los Angeles and Salt Lake City adoption centers and participating network partners throughout the country.
During the 2013 Back in Black campaign, more than 3,000 black and mostly black pets found homes, according to Simon. “We’re very pleased and look forward to growing this important event more each year,” she says.
At the SPCA of Texas, Black Friday arrives every week, with special Facebook promotions spotlighting the organization’s black dogs and cats. “This is a fun and lighthearted way to spread the word that, yes, there are many black animals out there awaiting their forever home, so come on in and take a look,” Bias says.
More research into black-dog and black-cat syndrome is needed before definite conclusions are drawn, but the bottom line is that we should never choose a pet based on appearance, Dodman says.
“Successful adoptions are those in which the human and animal form an enduring bond,” he says. “That sort of deep connection springs from an underlying personality compatibility and not from what we’re initially attracted to on the outside.” He ought to know; the newest member of Dodman’s four-legged family is a mostly black dog named Jasper.
Diana Laverdure is an award-winning dog healthcare writer. Her book, The Canine Thyroid Epidemic: Answers You Need for Your Dog (Dogwise Publishing, 2011), with W. Jean Dodds, DVM, was named Best Care/Health Book of 2011 by the Dog Writers Association of America, and received the 2011 Eukanuba Canine Health Award. She lives with her rescued shepherd mix, Chase.
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