Article by Serena George, University of Wisconsin-Madison Class of 2023
July 10, 2020
The human-animal bond dates back to as many as 15,000 – 40,000 years ago when dogs became the first organism that humans domesticated.1,2 Today, approximately 62% of Americans live with a pet,3 and the American Veterinary Medical Association states, “The veterinarian’s role in the human-animal bond is to maximize the potentials of this [mutually beneficial relationship.]”4 It seems that as veterinarians, we are not only animal healthcare physicians, but also guardians of human emotional, psychological and physical well-being. Around 97% of human doctors believe in the health benefits of pet ownership.5 The top two reported reasons for owning pets are alleviation of loneliness and motivation to stay active6 – needs that have been highlighted during social isolation amidst the COVID-19 pandemic. Americans believe pets provide as much social support as their siblings or parents;7 they are family.
This bond is profound, but not equally available to everyone. White Americans are about 3 and 5 times more likely to own a dog and cat, respectively, compared to non-whites.3 People with full-time employment status and those living in homes and in rural areas have higher likelihood of pet ownership.3 Is the access to the human-animal bond an inherent human right? Could animal welfare benefit if we consider it as such? The University of Wisconsin Shelter Medicine Program (UWSMP), a leader in shelter medicine outreach, education and research, believes so. The team states, “Progressive animal services recognize that an animal shelter is not the best place for an animal to stay, so strategies are selected that focus on stabilizing communities and animal care givers […].” Supporting the human-animal bond by empowering pet owners is an emerging way to positively influence animal welfare.
In shelter environments, policies that increase length of stay (LOS) unintentionally threaten animal welfare. LOS directly impacts a shelter’s capacity for care (Daily Population = Daily Intake * Average LOS), and it is one of the most substantial risk factors for illness such as upper respiratory infections in shelter dogs8 and cats.9 Increased LOS can cause crowding, subsequently increasing shelter noise, which sometimes exceeds 100 dBA (45 dBA is typical in pet households).10,11 Noisy environments interrupt sleep-wake cycles, disrupt dog communication, and can subject shelter animals to physiological and psychological stress.10,11 Stress has been linked to compromised immune systems, decreased reproductive and cardiovascular health, insulin resistance, intestinal problems and more.10,11 Other stressors include lack of routine, exercise, enrichment and socialization.12 Resulting illness and behavioral abnormalities may negatively impact adopters’ perceptions of the animals and the shelter, further elongating LOS.
Essentially, longer stays strain shelter resources, space, and staff time, ultimately leading to one of three undesirable outcomes: (1) decreasing the overall number of animals a shelter can care for while operating within its capacity for care, (2) crowding the shelter and surpassing its capacity for care, consequently decreasing animal and staff welfare, or (3) unnecessary euthanasia. Thus, placing shelter animals into homes as quickly as possible is critical. In a Shelter Medicine course led by Dr. Sandra Newbury, Program Director of the UWSMP, our class was challenged to question the premise that the goal of adoption is to find each animal the “perfect home.” It is natural to wish for pets’ future homes to meet our expectations of love and care, but do our imposed ideals become a barrier to animal welfare? Is there a “right way” to love an animal?
With the best intentions of finding the “perfect home” for every shelter animal, screening processes become barriers to adoption and lost pet reclaim that increase LOS. Despite studies that show these processes are not predictive of adoption success, policies like adoption fees, extensive written applications, landlord permission checks, home visits, fence requirements, breed restrictions, and adopter age restrictions are examples of commonly implemented adoption barriers.13,14,15 Dr. Alexandre Ellis, a Maddie’s Shelter Medicine Resident on the UWSMP team, commented,
“An interesting exercise we like to do is go through the requirements shelters have and determine who on their staff is eligible for adoption at their own organization. Usually very few! We did this at an animal sheltering conference a few years back and only 2 people out of a room of 140 were eligible to adopt a dog based on common adoption barriers!”
How many “good” families are denied in hopes of finding a “perfect” one? Removal of these barriers hinges upon viewing potential adopters as inherently good. Our class was presented with the idea that well over 99% of the time, people coming to the shelter have good intentions. Policies in place to protect the 1% may actually harm the 99%. This was difficult to accept. Through social media and fundraisers for rescue organizations, we are constantly bombarded with animal cruelty stories portraying physically and mentally abused animals up for adoption. Students could all too quickly recall personal experiences with neglectful owners or appalling instances of violence. Sympathy for animals is natural, empathy for humans is hard. Stephanie Koester, Certified Veterinary Technician and Assistant Director of the UWSMP, encouraged us to keep in mind that fewer than 6% of pets enter the United States shelter system13:
“I think it is really easy to become jaded or angry in this field of work when it is a very emotionally charged field. An ‘aha’ moment of mine was when someone shared that shelter staff, particularly intake staff, are often seeing and interacting with the small select percentage of pet owners that need some sort of intervention or assistance from the shelter, and we aren’t seeing the large majority of the public that are going about as loving pet owners that don’t ever need support from the shelter […] This makes it even harder and more important that we work on reminding ourselves that people are inherently good and that we regularly do exercises […] to find the good in the story, to not only help us practice empathy for the pet owners, but to help ourselves work through decreasing our own judgments and biases that are a part of human nature.”
It may take substantial “retraining” of our brains to change the tendency to initially distrust people. Examples of potential adopters coming into appointments intoxicated, with a history of inconsistent veterinary care, or worse, with a history of animal abuse were extreme cases that made students wary of eliminating policies like criminal background checks and veterinary reference calls. Do people deserve second chances when an animal’s well-being is on the line? It seems discouraging to just resign ourselves to the idea that we can’t prevent bad things from happening. Dr. Ellis offers,
“It is perfectly true that we can’t prevent people with bad intentions from adopting, but I’d also wager that this population won’t usually come to a shelter to acquire an animal since shelters usually require personal information, adoptable animals are often microchipped, etc. We have to remember that dogs and cats are not a scarce commodity and that people coming to the shelter usually choose to do so out of compassion and support of the organization.”
Pets really are all too easy to acquire in our society. Potential adopters who are turned away at the shelter or simply deterred by the many adoption barriers can easily obtain pets through pet stores, puppy mills, breeders, taking in strays, or purchases and giveaways from online sellers, family and friends. Secondary abandonment and shelter overpopulation have been linked to relinquishment of cats acquired from these unregulated sources, which often fail to provide new owners with adequate education, services like vaccination and spay/neuter, and post-adoption support.15 By increasing the number of shelter adoptions, the Humane Society of the United States explains that we create a “positive ripple effect on animal welfare” because as fewer people support inhumane and unregulated pet sources, fewer animals at risk of relinquishment enter the community.
A study by the American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (ASPCA) found that “The move away from policy [barriers] was not increasing the likelihood of adoption to an individual who intended to harm animals, but instead provided an opportunity for both client and counselor to have a more relevant and concrete conversation around their lifestyle and the pet they were interested in adopting.”14 Nonjudgmental conversations can empower adopters with the education and resources they need to be successful pet owners, or help people come to the conclusion on their own that a certain pet may not be the best fit for their family. When comparing owners who adopted through a policy-based process versus a conversation-based process, ASPCA reports no significant differences in the quality of care, bond between pet and owner, or adoption return rates.14
Our class was also encouraged to consider how adoption policies may perpetuate discrimination. People are differentially affected by poverty in the United States on the basis of race; are economic adoption barriers complicit in this systemic racism? Given the limited resources shelters commonly operate under, what level of responsibility do shelters have to help families facing these crises? Many questions on adoption applications, such as those regarding employment status or home ownership versus rental, indirectly inquire about economic status. As Dr. Ellis puts it, “No one wants to have to prove they are poor, and it’s also very circumstantial (kids, sickness/injury needing healthcare, etc.).” Detailed financial questions risk shaming potential adopters, and as one student pointed out, “people will go out of their way to avoid shame.”
The Wisconsin Humane Society was among the first to develop fee-waived adoption promotions in response to shelter overpopulation.15 Proponents of adoption fees maintain that waiving fees will attract unfit owners or lead to potential adopters’ perceived “devaluation” of the animal that may impact the quality of care they choose to provide. However, a study that evaluated outcomes of cost versus no-cost cat adoptions found that when fees were waved, adoptions increased, LOS decreased, return rates remained the same, and pet-owner bonding levels were similar.15 Wisconsin Companion Animal Resources, Education, and Social Services (WisCARES) is an exemplary organization with a mission to protect the human-animal bond within vulnerable populations by providing subsidized veterinary medical care and social support services.16 Veterinarians hear people experiencing homelessness say, “my pet is my home,” and they respond with support for the person, animal and community. By empowering pet owners regardless of economic status, animals are kept out of shelters and the human-animal bond is safeguarded.
As discussion stretched out and students exchanged several “what if” scenarios, conversations kept returning to the topic of the illusion of control. Dr. Ellis points out:
“It’s hard to relinquish control! However, the truth is that we never had it in the first place! All the applications and pre-screenings in the world cannot control what will happen after the adoption. A perfect adopter on paper might get into a car accident or lose their job the next week. Life happens regardless of the vetting we do on an adopter. Once we get accustomed to that fact and allocate our resources/energy to supporting those who need it, it actually helps bring our stress levels down!”
Dr. Ellis also suggests that even by keeping animals in shelters, we do not have ultimate control: “I can be the best clinical veterinarian, with the best preventative protocols in place in my shelter– if my animals don’t leave, they will get sick. It’s unavoidable.” Shelter veterinarians, even if not directly involved in adoptions, can use their position of leadership to enact positive change.
Ultimately, seeking the good in each person and practicing empathy are skills that will serve veterinarians, pet owners, and animals well in a shelter situation and on the clinic floor. Breaking down the adoption barrier of judgment creates space to celebrate a community’s support of the shelter. If we maintain that the human-animal bond is mutually essential, what must we change to make it more accessible and sustainable? Perhaps the goal of shelter medicine is less about finding a “perfect home” for each pet and more about cultivating a healthy, lasting relationship between pet and adopter, and adopter and shelter.
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