Are People Less Likely To Adopt Black Cats and Dogs?

Many shelter officers and workers anecdotally testify to the existence of Black Dog Syndrome, and it's widely believed to be true in the animal rescue community.
Publish date:
April 9, 2014
pets, rescue pets

If you're an animal lover, like me and most of the xoJane crew, you may have heard of Black Dog Bias (also called Black Dog Syndrome). The claim: black dogs are the last to be adopted, and the first to be euthanized. Black cats, likewise, suffer from a similar imbalance in adoption and euthanasia rates at animal shelters across the US -- and the issue is so huge that many animal rescue organizations host "Back in Black" events to encourage people to consider adopting black animals.

Photographer Fred Levy became fascinated and concerned by Black Dog Syndrome after adopting a rescue pet of his own (oddly enough, his dog is white). As a dog owner, he started photographing the canines he encountered at local dog parks, and eventually zeroed in on black dogs, especially large breeds, who bear the brunt of Black Dog Syndrome. Now, with the Black Dogs Project, he's showcasing beautiful specimens of all breeds and sizes, countering some of the stigma swirling around black dogs.

But is Black Dog Bias actually real? Many animal lovers and rescue workers accept it as fact, often with anecdotes to back it up, like stories about black dogs being euthanized right off the dog catcher's truck, or black cats being the first for euthanasia when new cats and kittens come in to a shelter and need room. When I first started reading about the Black Dogs Project, I was among those who assumed the bias was a real phenomenon, and I was also familiar with many of the explanations that have been posited for it.

For example, some people argue that a superstition swirls around black animals, especially cats, making people unwilling to adopt them because they think black animals are unlucky. Winston Churchill (unfairly) referred to depression as the "black dog," casting his mental illness as something dark and shadowy that nagged at his footsteps, but his choice of phrase as notable. Why a black dog? Why not a shadow? Or a cloud?

Others fear that large black dogs in particular are perceived as more aggressive -- an issue not helped along by pop culture, which often uses large, powerful breeds with black coats as aggressive or bad dogs in film and television -- and there may be an intersection between "bully breed" discrimination and Black Dog Syndrome. There's also the fact that black animals often photograph poorly in dark shelter environments, especially when inexperienced shelter photographers with poor cameras are taking the photos.

Since many people looking for pets to adopt "shop" online before they arrive at a shelter, they may write off black animals before they even arrive. (Organization One Picture Saves a Life actually addresses this issue for all shelter animals, offering training and mentoring to help shelters showcase their animals in gorgeous photos.)

Some people also claim that black animals are "less desirable" as adoptive animals, a nebulous statement that doesn't really provide any information or context. This can result in staying at shelters longer, creating the illusion that black animals aren't adopted or making shelters appear glutted with black animals.

These all sound like potential factors in the phenomenon, but they're explanations, not evidence that the issue is real. And the actual evidence on the subject is surprisingly conflicting. There are very few quantitative studies on the subject of adoption, surrender, and euthanasia rates by coat color, and that's what would be needed to illustrate Black Dog Syndrome's existence. Many shelter officers and workers anecdotally testify to the existence of Black Dog Syndrome, and it's widely believed to be true in the animal rescue community, but believing something doesn't necessary make it reality. (Otherwise I've have $16 million and a pony.)

A 2013 study showed that coat color didn't make a difference in Length of Stay (LOS) at two shelters, while the ASPCA's research on the subject shows that "appearance" is the most important factor for many prospective adopters. The animal welfare organization has not, however, been able to demonstrate a firm link between coat color and adoption rates. In another illustration of the quirks of the bias, 27% of the animals taken in by Los Angeles Animal Services in 2008 had black or mostly-black coats...and 28% of the animals adopted out were black.

Other studies have shown that coat color may be a factor. Many of these studies are difficult to compare, because they weren't conducted under the same set of constraints; what's really needed is a comprehensive, detailed study of shelters across the US, controlling for a variety of factors in order to come up with useful results about whether Black Dog Bias is real, or just a very well-established urban legend.

Some aspects of the myth are real, though: Large-breed dogs tend to have a harder time getting adopted overall, and are more likely to have a longer length of stay. Each year of age adds an average of one extra day in a shelter, which is a serious issue in kill shelters with high turnover rates. So-called "bully breeds" are also discriminated against in shelters -- which is one reason why shelters are careful about how they describe adoptable dogs.

2.7 million healthy, adoptable animals are euthanized in US shelters every year. That's a huge improvement over historic euthanization rates, but it illustrates that we still have a way to go when it comes to spaying and neutering our pets, actively seeking out shelter pets when we're looking for new four-legged friends, and instilling people with a respect for the lives of nonhuman animals.

While I am not normally an advocate of perpetuating erroneous information, if maintaining the myth of Black Dog Syndrome means that people are more aware of animal adoption efforts, and shelter workers put out the extra mile, and it results in more adoptions, I think it's worth it. The beautiful images of the Black Dogs Project and One Picture Saves a Life highlight the fact that a little bit of extra effort can make an adoptable animal shine, and get that much closer to a forever home.