For the Rescuer: Tips for Holiday Adoptions Done Right

The Home 4 the Holidays adoption campaign is a successful, widespread and positive way to find pets forever homes. 

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Adopting a pet around the holidays was long considered a bad idea and even shunned as irresponsible by many in the rescue community. Some organizations still close their doors around Christmas to protect against “impulse adoptions” that, they maintain, lead to a high post-holiday rate of relinquishment. The theory goes that as the Yuletide magic wears off, so does the desire to care for the new pet. However, others in rescue disagree and have initiated innovative programs that actively promote holiday adoptions.

“Studies show that pets adopted around the holidays actually have the lowest rate of return,” says Mike Arms, president and CEO of the Helen Woodward Animal Center in Rancho Santa Fe, Calif.

In 1999, Arms created Home 4 the Holidays, an adoption drive designed to educate the public about the importance of adopting rather than purchasing a pet at the holidays. Today, nearly 4,000 shelters and rescue groups participate in Blue Buffalo Home 4 the Holidays, which has placed more than 9.3 million homeless pets with adoptive families, according to Arms, and inspired many other rescue organizations to implement their own holiday adoption programs.

The campaign now runs from Oct. 1 through Jan. 2. Participating shelters and rescues receive free resources to help them plan successful adoption events and obtain media publicity.  “Our focus is on promoting quality adoptions,” Arms says. For example, he does not advocate giving pets as surprise gifts. “Each organization keeps its own screening and placement policies. Our job is to help increase traffic into their facilities and teach them how to market their beautiful pets.”

COURTESY OF SAN FRANCISCO SPCA Thanks to innovative adoption events like the San Francisco SPCA's Holiday Windows at Macys, more pets find their way home for the holidays.
COURTESY OF SAN FRANCISCO SPCA
Thanks to innovative adoption events like the San Francisco SPCA’s Holiday Windows at Macys, more pets find their way home for the holidays.

A groundbreaking campaign is born

The idea for Home 4 the Holidays sprung from Arms’ keen understanding of human nature.

“You can’t change the reality that each year, millions of children will put a puppy, kitten, bunny or other pet on their holiday wish list, and millions of parents will fulfill those wishes,” he says. “I simply asked myself where I wanted them to get those pets — from pet stores, backyard breeders and puppy mills, or from rescue organizations?”

The answer to that question was obvious, prompting Arms and his team to brainstorm ways they could increase public interest in holiday adoptions. “It’s all about marketing,” he says. “You have to use your mind and come up with creative ideas to find the animal a quality home.”

In 1999, when most other rescue organizations retreated from the holiday spotlight, Arms did the opposite. He invited every shelter in San Diego to join the Helen Woodward Animal Center in opening their doors to the media and showcasing their needy pets. They agreed.

“We tugged at the public’s heartstrings,” he says. “For the first time, we asked people if this was really where they wanted to see these beautiful animals at the holidays — behind bars and on cement floors — or did they have room in their hearts and their homes for them?”

That first public holiday appeal resulted in the adoption of 2,563 homeless animals through 14 organizations around the San Diego area.

In 2000, Arms expanded the program, inviting rescue organizations from five states to join Home 4 the Holidays. One hundred thirty organizations signed up, collectively placing 20,000 homeless pets into adoptive homes. “I knew we were on to something and that we needed to keep growing the program each year,” he says.

After one of the early campaigns, Arms received a thank-you letter from an animal-control participant stating it was the first year that they did not have to euthanize any animals during the holidays. “This confirmed to me that there is a light at the end of the tunnel,” he says. “Animals would never give up on us, and we can never give up on them.”

In 2013, more than 3,900 shelters and rescues around the world participated in placing more than 1 million animals into adoptive homes. “By educating the public about the benefits of adopting a pet at the holidays, we have taken a huge bite out of the puppy-mill business,” he says.

A winning partnership

An astute marketer, Arms knows that all successful promotions require significant financial capital  — a resource that many shelters lack. One of the first calls he made when he got the idea for Home 4 the Holidays was to his contacts at Iams pet food.

“I convinced them to donate a ‘holiday meal’ for each adopted pet,” he says. Iams participated in the event from 1999 through 2012, playing an instrumental role in donating both food and marketing support.

In 2013, Blue Buffalo took over as campaign sponsor and has expanded the program even further, offering participating shelters and rescues many resources, including free marketing guides to help them plan successful adoption events, social media promotions, in-store marketing, advertisements, prizes and free adoption packs to give out to adopters. “With such a committed partner as Blue Buffalo, there’s no limit to how many homeless animals we can save,” Arms says.

Arms hopes that the success of Home 4 the Holidays will serve as inspiration for shelter and rescue groups that still discourage holiday adoptions. “These organizations don’t prevent people from getting a pet at the holidays,” he says. “They prevent people from getting a homeless pet.”

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Diana Laverdure

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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