Monday, May 22 2017 Heather Mohan-Gibbons shares some tips for signage that creates an inviting space and results in the behavior change you’re seeking.   I live in a small town in central California. There are rules about what kinds of signs shop ...

What’s Your Sign? and more...

What’s Your Sign?

Monday, May 22 2017

Heather Mohan-Gibbons shares some tips for signage that creates an inviting space and results in the behavior change you’re seeking.


I live in a small town in central California. There are rules about what kinds of signs shop owners can hang, and it ensures that tourists experience—and want to come back for—the “feel” of the town. This sign at our local outdoor bookstore is a great example of my town’s feel, and it has a clear message to send: Trust. It instructs people to leave money for a book if the shop is already closed for the night. The owners create an optimal, inviting environment so that all their books can go home.




Signs matter.

The words we use matter.

What about the signs in our shelters?
Once when visiting a shelter, I saw signs in the adoption room in red bold font that stated “ADOPTERSDO NOT TOUCH CATS.” Now, this is probably one of the first pieces of information communicated to prospective adopters when they entered the room, and I would suggest an alternative for a couple of reasons. For one, did you know that we have important evidence that shows the opposite is true?! Interacting with cats is a driving force for adoptions. Cats who are touched and talked to have a lower incidence of disease. And the UC-Davis Koret Shelter Medicine Program found that staff’s clothing are 35 times dirtier than adopter’s hands. So, let them touch cats!  

Even though the shelter thought they were keeping their cats healthy, signs like this do not create an inviting environment to help ensure their cats go home (remember the bookstore sign?). Signs can be more impactful and effective when they instruct the person rather than relaying what not to do. And the more instructive, the better! For example, many shy dogs will cower or go out their guillotine kennel door when adopters approach with direct eye contact and bending over. As a result, I often see notes on these dogs’ kennel cards that say:


Instead, try rephrasing the sign in a softer tone with more instruction. Can you see how the example below creates a different emotional response to a potential adopter?



In this second example, the shelter might also change the environment to help people do the desired behavior. They can put this sign on a towel across the top half of the kennel, intentionally blocking the view of the dog from a person when standing. A placement of a small stool next to the kennel will direct people to sit or crouch. Attach a cup with tasty treats to the kennel or chair (easily reached while sitting on that stool), and you may have an adoption! 

As an animal behaviorist, I can say sometimes it is easier to change the behavior of the people than the animal. Case in point: My dogs would pull packages under the fence when deliveries were left against the side gate. As I am often on the phone, I was unable to train them in that moment, and restricting access to the doggie-door would reduce their quality of life. The solution? I put up a sign on the gate to change the delivery person’s behavior:




Look around your shelter. Are your signs instructive? Do they support policies that benefit your animals, create an inviting space for staff and public, and result in the behavior change you are seeking? If not, what signs could you remove, change, or add?


Related Links

Blog: "Why Do Adopters Choose the Pet They Do?"

Blog: "Making Important Announcements"


Rising From the Pit

Friday, May 19 2017

Dr. Emily Weiss takes her annual dig into shelter data and shares the top 5 breeds with the greatest intake and outcome rates.


For the past few years, we have been taking a closer look at shelter data to learn more about intake and outcomes based on breed type. As certain breeds and breed mixes gain popularity, this may impact their outcomes—so remaining nimble through analysis will allow us to better adapt to the shifting risk and speak directly to any potential dangers. While we may not know what a dog’s actual breed is in some cases, having a sense of the type and level of risk can be very useful in developing strategies and solutions—inside and outside of the shelter walls.

The data we used for this analysis is from shelters that submit their data to our ASPCA database. In 2015, that encompassed 60 agencies; in 2016, 68 agencies submitted their data. We focused on determining the top five primary breeds (these could be breed mixes or a single breed) with the greatest intake, adoption and euthanasia rates for each year. According to our 2016 data, the 5 top breeds account for 54% of the total intake, 53% of adoptions and 67% of euthanasia.

The top 5 breeds of highest intake
Looking at our latest data, we again find that dogs labeled as “pit type” continue to be the breed or breed mix of highest intake. Chihuahuas were once again the second highest intake type, followed by Labrador retriever as primary breed, then German shepherd dogs, followed by the global term “terrier” in the fifth spot. Most fascinating is that the ratios are unchanged from 2016 compared to 2015, with dogs labeled as “pit type” holding steady at 19% of total intake, and Chihuahuas at 15%.

Which breeds had the highest adoption rates?
When we peek at the adoptions, pit-type dogs remain ranked as the second most common breed type adopted, and make up 15% of the total dog adoptions, a slight uptick of 1% from the year previous. This, to me, remains an important point, just as it was last year. There are clearly adopters who want to adopt dogs labeled as pit-type—and yet there are many barriers to adoption! With such challenges as unfair breed restrictions in housing and breed-specific legislation, our work is far from done. And just a brief look at what’s in the final column on our chart really drives that point home.

Courtesy of ASPCA Animal Stats Database


Looking at euthanasia rates, we see an incredibly sharp contrast, with 40% of all canine euthanasia being of pit-type. The sharp, and I mean sharp, drop for the next breed type of 9% for Labradors is compelling, and points to an urgent need for continued innovation and live outcome opportunities for those pit-type dogs who simply need rehoming. There is a hint of potential improvement, with the rate decreasing from 2015 by 2 percentage points.

The movement to remove breed labels
I write this blog post and wonder if we will be able to do the same comparison next year. I am very excited by the innovation in the field and the movement to remove breed labels for adopters in their initial view of a pet. When I developed Meet Your Match® Canine-ality, it was with this very idea in mind—let’s not first think about him as a Pomeranian, Jack Russell or Am Staff; let’s start with “Is he a couch potato or a go-getter?” Once the person sees the particular dog as an individual, we can then weave in the conversation of what the dog’s breed or breeds may be (or are, when known).

Here’s where I worry about the shift to fully remove breed labels: We then can potentially lose proper tracking on the back end to help ensure that we can identify what types are most at risk and then support them. We don’t want to miss the opportunity to track and identify a sudden increase of intake of a particular breed type (which may hint at a community shift or potential mill activity), a shift in the euthanasia of breed types, or the ability to illustrate the inherent risks individual dogs have simply because of what they look like.

I am encouraged by the overall trends we are seeing across the country in shelter data and am motivated to seek change in that euthanasia category. How about you?


Related Links

Blog: Research Update: New National Estimates Are In!

ASPCA Position Statement on Breed-Specific Legislation









Decoding Spay/Neuter Research, Part 2

Wednesday, May 17 2017

In Part 1 of his 2-part series, Dr. Vic Spain revealed some limitations of recent studies on the health effects of spay/neuter. Today he’s back to help interpret news reports on these studies, as well as arm you with some ammunition to defend your neutering practices if you encounter objections.


You probably have heard the cautionary words, Correlation is not causation. So, we should ask: Even if there are correlations in the data between neutering status and certain disease outcomes, do those correlations represent a cause-and-effect relationship? One common relationship that is not cause-and-effect is known as reverse causation. Consider, for example, a group of purebred puppies whose owners were advised to have their dogs neutered at a young age because a littermate had an unusual gait or improper conformation that has a genetic cause. An analysis of the data on these dogs later in life—that does not account for the reasons for neutering and the order of eventscould very well make it look like the early neutered dogs were at higher risk of joint problems. But the interpretation is erroneous: The propensity for joint problems prompted the pediatric neutering; the neutering did not cause joint problems.

The studies we discussed in the first part of this series did not collect data on reason for neuter, and made little attempt to assess which relationships could be explained by a reason that is not cause-and-effect. As a result, readers are left with the false impression that all the outcomes were caused by the choice to neuter (or choice to neuter at a particular age). They are also left with the implication—likely incorrect, in some cases—that the health outcomes could be averted by delaying or avoiding neutering. Unfortunately, in these studies, it is nearly impossible to tease out which of the relationships are cause-and-effect and which aren’t.

Intentionally misleading headlines?
To compound the limitations of these studies, reports on them cherry-picked findings that supported an anti-neuter perspective. A friend of mine, for example, shared articles on Facebook featuring Dr. Hart’s study with headlines that stressed the negative outcomes in the studies:

  • Early Neutering Poses Health Risks for German Shepherd Dogs, Study Finds
  • Early neutering triples risk of joint disorders in German Shepherd Dogs

These reports either did not mention the conditions that were reduced with neutering, or they only mentioned those findings near the end of the story, long after many social media readers would have stopped reading. And the reports certainly didn’t cover any of the studies’ limitations. While technically accurate, these reports appeared to be intentionally misleading and, as a result, verging on fake news.

Transparency about funding sources is also critical for earning readers’ trust and helping them make an informed decision about possible influence of the funding sources on data interpretation and reporting. None of the reports I read mentioned the complete name of the funding source (the American Kennel Club Canine Health Foundation), an organization which might be expected to have an opinion on the topic of neutering purebred dogs, and the reluctance to mention the full name of the funding source is concerning.

In these 2 blogs, I have covered a few (but not all) of the limitations of the recent studies on health effects of neutering and their reporting. So, what can you do if you see a new study claiming to find health risks or benefits of neutering in dogs? Or if clients or veterinarians are using studies to oppose your practices?

3 questions to ask about research reports
Consider asking yourself—and the folks you’re discussing the topic with—a few questions, such as:

  • Did the researchers study a general population of dogs (rather than those seen at a specialty center)?
  • Is the reporting fair and balanced? Does it cover both risks and benefits? Does it cover the study limitations?
  • Is the reporting transparent about who funded the study?

If the answer to any of these questions is “No,” then I would be concerned about biases in the study or its coverage. And of course, if in doubt, never hesitate to consult with your friendly neighborhood epidemiologist!

How does your organization approach spay/neuter of shelter petsand services provided to your local community?



Dr. Vic Spain is Senior Director, Applied Research, in the ASPCA’s Research and Development department.  His current research includes effectiveness of animal-related legislation, assessing state and local emergency preparedness for animals and methods for connecting consumers to higher welfare animal-based food products. Vic received his Doctorate of Veterinary Medicine from the University of California, Davis and later attended Cornell University, where he received a PhD in Epidemiology with a graduate minor in biostatistics.


Related Links:
Blog: “Decoding Spay/Neuter Research, Part 1” 
Benefits and Best Practices of Pediatric Spay/Neuter



Protecting Animals Against Infectious Disease, Plan A (and Plan B!)

Friday, May 12 2017

Dr. Stephanie Janeczko shares two strategies to implement simultaneously, along with a list of tools for your toolbox.


“What is the best thing we can do to protect the animals in our care from infectious diseases?”

It’s a question commonly asked of the ASPCA’s Shelter Medicine Services, and it’s a good one! We all want to do the best we can for the animals in our care, and that includes minimizing the risk that they become ill. It would be great if there were a magic bullet out there—something that we shelter vets could say, “Just do this.” While that unfortunately is not the case, the good news is that there are a number of key tools in our tool box that we can rely on to greatly minimize the risk of infectious diseases in shelters.

Broadly speaking, I think of the various preventive strategies we have available to us as falling into two big buckets.

Plan A: Prevent exposure to the organisms that cause disease


Plan B: Strengthen the animals’ ability to resist infection if exposure occurs

Notice the great big bold “AND” there? Although I named them Plan A and Plan B, we should be implementing the plans simultaneously. This is critical in giving ourselves a bit of a built-in safety net, because the reality is, despite our best efforts, we can’t eliminate all disease exposure that might occur… and we don’t want to be scrambling to try to put Plan B into effect after the need arises!



Preventing exposure may sound like a daunting task, one that might not even be worth trying to tackle. Our efforts don’t have to be perfect to have a big impact, and there are lots of things that we can do to minimize exposure and reduce the dose the animals are exposed to. This is critical, as the dose an animal is exposed to can influence whether or not he or she becomes sick and, if they do become sick, how severe their symptoms are and how long the illness lasts for.

Your Guide to Plan A

Some of the strategies (many of which overlap) for minimizing exposure include:

  • Avoiding overcrowding—operating within the organization’s capacity for care
  • Reducing length of stay
  • Excellent sanitation procedures
  • Fomite control
  • Using personal protective equipment (PPE)
  • Hand hygiene protocols
  • Strong biosecurity protocols, including attention to traffic patterns within the facility, staff assignments and order of sanitation and animal care
  • Appropriate use of animal housing
  • Segregating animal populations

Many of these strategies are foundational elements of our animal care operations, and their importance should not be underestimated. Constantly reviewing SOPs—both as they are written and as they are carried out by staff and volunteers—is invaluable in helping ensure our efforts are as impactful as they can be in keeping the animals healthy. However, it is a virtual certainty that no matter how exemplary, our efforts under Plan A will sometimes fail us for a variety of reasons. And that is why working on Plan B strategies at the same time is so critical.





Your Guide to Plan B

Strategies that strengthen the animals’ ability to resist infection include:

  • Excellent animal husbandry and care
  • Adequate nutrition
  • Vaccination
  • Treating concurrent medical conditions
  • Reducing stress

Which tools are you currently using? Which ones might you want to add to your tool box or consider upgrading to a ‘newer model’?

Stay tuned to this space for more, as I’ll be digging in to the details on some of these strategies in future blog posts.


Related Links

Length of Stay: Resources, materials and even a cool game to play

Good nutrition for shelter animals: Tips & tools


What We’ve Got Here Is Failure To Communicate (Not)

Monday, May 1 2017

Dave Betournay gets strategic on how to best put a dry erase board to work at your agency.


Communication tools—everybody has them, everybody needs them. But there is a big difference in how everybody uses them. Shelters, rescues and clinics all have some need for in-room, editable visual tools for people to communicate the status of an animal and easily modify that tool with new or different info as needed. Many use a custom-formatted dry erase board for this function, and in all of the shelters I have been in, I have never seen two boards exactly alike—because what people want and need to convey is always a little different.


Six Questions To Ask When Planning Out Your Board Design

When helping to craft tools like this, ask yourself the who, what, when, where, why and what for—before designing the tool for each room or function:

  • Who will use the board—who will write on it, and who will be reading it?
  • Why do these people need this information?
  • When is information being added, removed, utilized or modified?
  • Where is the information going to be used? Where is the optimal location for this information to be maintained?
  • What is all of the information that needs to be conveyed?
  • What for? What will the person reading the information do with the information?


When you have answered each of these questions, you can decide if a dry erase board does the trick. If so, you can determine what size you need and how to lay out the information. Most people utilize a grid system and abbreviations for all common terms (with an abbreviation key posted next to the board). The grid can be drawn with dry erase ink, permanent marker or thin electrical tape, but be prepared for some adjustments as the board becomes utilized and the need for any modifications becomes apparent.


Florida Keys SPCA uses a large dry erase white board that includes columns for training, walking, quiet time, play time and in-kennel enrichment—their way of making sure that all dogs get individual attention each week and volunteers know who to focus on.


Santa Fe Animal Shelter & Humane Society’s custom dog walking board displays a handy overview of the kennels, allowing volunteers to see at a glance which dogs have been walked and when.


Alternatives to Dry Erase Boards

Other options to consider include custom cage cards, printed on card stock or laminated, with all of the same needed info. You can also use color coding (e.g. blue dot or clip is for an animal on medication, red for an animal who has exhibited aggressive behaviors, and so on). 

If you are ready to go high tech, you’ve got lots of options. There’s the in-room tablet or computer with access to your organization’s shared drive, animal management software or an Excel workbook with your searchable information.


Dave Betournay, Senior Director, Community Outreach, has more than 25 years of animal welfare experience and works with ASPCA Partnerships and Initiatives in Charlotte, NC, Miami, FL, and throughout the northeast.



Related Links

Free Download: Communications Survey




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