New AHA study finds adoption failure rate of 10% in six months

From ANIMAL PEOPLE,  May/June 2013:

WASHINGTON D.C.––Adoption failure rates may now be as little as half of what they were 20 years ago, suggests a newly published study by the American Humane Association’s Animal Welfare Research Institute ––but also appear to be about twice as high as is now conventionally believed. 

Funded by PetSmart Charities,  the AHA “Keeping Pets (Dogs and Cats) in Homes Retention Study” traced the outcomes of adoptions by six shelters in three U.S. cities,  interviewing 572 total adopters. “Overall,  more than one out of every 10 pets was no longer in the home six months after adoption,” summarized AHA publicist Mark Stubis.  “Half of the pets no longer in the home were returned to the shelters of acquisition and half had other outcomes,”  such as being given to another person,  becoming lost,  or dying. “Retention rates ranged from 87% to 93% across the six study shelters,”  Stubis said,  “with no significant differences in retention rates by state,  type of shelter,  or shelter services.  There were no differences in retention rates between dogs or cats,  or between male or female pets.”

The study paired major animal control agencies with nonprofit humane societies serving the same communities.  Pairs included Charlotte-Meckenburg Animal Control and the Humane Society of Charlotte;  Fort Worth Animal Care & Control and the Humane Society of North Texas;  and Denver Animal Services and the Denver Dumb Friends League.

Adopted pets who had been taken for veterinary visits were more likely to remain in homes,  but this finding might be misleading,  the study authors warned.  For example,  some pets might become lost or die before becoming due for veterinary check-ups and vaccination boosters.

“Owners aged 25-34 had the highest percentage of retention of their adopted pets,  followed closely by those aged 45-54,”  the study authors reported.  “Surprisingly, there was no difference in retention amongst owners who had done much research

on a pet before adopting and got what they wanted,  and those who made a spur-of-the-moment decision.

“Owners who sought advice and support about the pet from family,  friends,  or a veterinarian following adoption were three times more likely to retain their pets than those who sought no advice,”  the researchers discovered.  “Conversely,  those who sought advice from shelters were about half as likely to retain their pets.  One possible explanation for the phenomena,”  the study authors suggested,  is that “owners having more problems with their pets may be more likely to seek help from the adoptive shelter as a last resort prior to returning the animal.”

The most surprising finding may have been that “There was no difference in retention between first-time pet owners and those with prior pet experience.”

The new AHA study compared the current findings to older research.  For example,  “In 1992,  [A.H. & R.M.] Kidd et al reported that within six months of adoption,  20% of 343 adopters had rejected their new pets,”  a rate of adoption failure twice as high as the AHA study found.   A similar study done in Britain found that 15% of adoptions fail within six months.

ANIMAL PEOPLE learned in 1993 that directors of small to mid-sized shelters tended to guesstimate that they had adoption failure rates of about 20%,   consistent with the Kidd study,  based on the calculation that about half of all failed adoptions resulted in the animals returning to the adoption shelter,  while about half of the animals died,  were lost,  were passed along to other people,  or were surrendered to other shelters.

However,  very large shelters that rehomed 10,000 to 40,000 dogs and cats per year and kept closer track of adoption outcomes,    appeared to have much lower adoption failure rates.  These shelters were more likely to adopt out animals who had already been sterilized,  which at the time was still far from standard practice,  and were more likely to have active adoption follow-up programs,  including making calls to offer post-adoption behavioral counseling.  Two shelters,  the North Shore Animal League and the San Francisco SPCA,  had known adoption failure rates of less than 5%,  and had estimated total adoption failure rates of less than 10%.

Prior to publication of the AHA “Keeping Pets in Homes Retention Study,”  conventional belief was that adoption failure rates nationally had plummeted into the 5%-10% range,  as sterilizing animals before adoption became standard practice and shelters and shelterless rescues of all sizes added post-adoption follow-up programs.  But the AHA findings call into question the efficacy of post-adoption behavioral counseling,  in particular. National Council for Pet Population Study research found circa 2000 that about 57% of adoption failures occur for behavioral reasons,  most often dangerous behavior and inappropriate elimination in dogs, and inappropriate elimination and property damage by cats.  This has not significantly changed.

However,  the lack of change in the post-counseling adoption failure rate may not reflect failures of counseling per se.  Shelters today are rehoming animals with known behavioral issues who would not have been offered for adoption 10 and 20 years ago.  Dangerous behavior and inappropriate elimination persisting among the sterilized dogs and cats rehomed today may be harder to deal with than among the animals who decades ago were rehomed intact,  whose behavioral issues could often be addressed by sterilization.

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