Proven Strategies

Tan and white puppy in a crate

Data about Shelter Trends Provide a Blueprint for Animal Services moving forward

It’s been roughly six weeks since COVID-19 started impacting most of our lives. And wow, what a strange few weeks it’s been.  

Shelters and rescue groups have spent the past six weeks re-writing all their “normal” rules and SOPs. Through necessity, groups are trying new things—and with amazing results. Whether it’s implementing managed intake for the first time, going to emergency-only intake, making appointments for adoptions, moving more animals into foster homes than ever before, starting foster programs, using social distancing during transports, doing drive-through (or delivery!) adoption, etc.; almost none of us are operating the way we did only a few short weeks ago.  

And it seems clear that social distancing, in some form or another, is here to stay for... a while.  

Change is always hard, but a bright spot in the pandemic is that it has forced all of us to change—and quickly—and learn to do our jobs in a new way. Six weeks into this new world and we already see phenomenal changes that have opened new doors and made us look at doing things very differently. If we’ve learned anything, it is that we are really good at managing change. So, what should we take from the past few weeks that can propel us forward?  

Let the Data Guide Us 

Best Friends has always focused on using data to help guide our decisions. Sometimes we FEEL like something is true, but the data proves otherwise. Using data to guide us ensures our decisions are rooted in facts, not just feelings. It’s the ultimate gut check. 

Recently, our organization spent several years and countless staff and volunteer hours collecting data from every shelter we could find (and we found a lot of shelters we didn’t even know existed). Why did we do it? We knew that to truly help this country become no-kill by 2025, we had to stop relying on anecdotal information and use empirical evidence instead, which we compiled on the lifesaving community dashboard.  

Now that we can see which shelters are facing the biggest challenges and which animals are most at risk, we have built strategies that put us squarely on the path to getting to the finish line we marked for ourselves. 

Looking at your data is something we encourage you to do. And although we have only four weeks’ worth of data to analyze since sheltering in place began, a path to the future is revealing itself. 

Petpoint, Shelter Animals Count Deliver the Numbers 

Last week, Shelter Animals Count (SAC) shared March information on the 1,127 shelters in their database to show statistical trends. Each week, PetPoint Animal Management Software has been sharing trends with aggregated data on their 1,191 clients. Both are unique data sets (although there is some overlap), yet the data is very consistent across both reports. 

According to the SAC report, shelters saw an average 24% decrease in intakes for the month as compared to March 2019. This percentage was consistent across private organizations, municipal organizations and private organizations with a municipal contract; it was also consistent across all regions.  

Adoptions and other live outcomes were also down, but that only makes sense with fewer animals entering the shelter. And in total, both reports noted an amazing 25% decrease in shelter euthanasia!  

PetPoint, which is tracking statistics, has noted that the declines have continued but are starting to level off, with the week of April 4 to 10 showing a 60% decrease in intake compared to the same week a year ago.  

The most impressive statistic of them all is the influx of pets going into foster homes. Wow. 

Fosters Step Up in a Big Way  

With fewer intakes, it’s not surprising that there are concerns about where all those animals are going.   

Turns out when you ask the public to help, they do. When PetPoint ran a report for April 10, it showed 43% more animals in foster care as compared to the previous year. In raw numbers, that means there are close to 25,000 pets sitting in comfy foster homes instead of cages. Not only is it better for the pets to be in homes, it is better for the kennel staff too. The lower shelter populations have allowed shelters to keep staffing numbers down and enforce social distancing policies among concerns about the coronavirus.  

Those fosters families are no slouches, either. Data shows that many people are actively seeking new homes for the animals in their care. 

A report from and comparing the activity on their sites for the weeks of March 7 to 13 (one week prior to the shutdown) and April 6 to 12, found the number of site users went up by 64% and the number of pet page views increased by 100%.  

It’s Time to Trust  

With both anecdotes and hard data to prove it, it’s time to admit that we can not only trust the public, we can ask them to do more. We can ask for their help and support, and they will deliver for us. That not only means we can save more pets’ lives, it means we can often do it without the pets having to spend time in the shelter in the first place.  

The public is willing to adopt—even if it means they have to wait for an appointment. They are also willing to arrive, en masse, to foster pets when the shelters ask for their help.  

With more community support, this means shelters can evolve into something more akin to a community resource hub and social service provider and leave the notion of “traditional shelters” behind for good.  

We have proven that we can slow down intake and make it immediately available for only the neediest animals in our communities. We can make pet surrenders appointment-based, without confusion or concern from the public. Those changes will allow us to spend more time with people and pets prior to them entering the shelter, assess their collective needs and ensure that entering the shelter is the best solution.  

This means shelter staff—intake specialists, kennel attendants, adoption counselors—can use their specialized knowledge and animal care expertise to provide guidance to the public about keeping pets in homes, whether their own or another within the community. Instead of service calls being immediately routed to animal control officers, a skilled customer service team armed with tools like scripts and decision trees can help find positive outcomes for pets without them having to languish at the shelter. 

These experts could advise the public about fostering, rehoming their own pets, solving behavior problems and finding vet services—including scheduling appointments if their shelter has a veterinary team on site.  

This means ACOs can spend less time picking up strays and more time sharing information and resources with the public. They can spend time proactively ensuring both people and pets are safe.  

With fewer animals on site, animal care staff will have time and capacity to build enrichment programs for the animals that do end up in their shelter, and work on developing ways to help animals with behavior challenges. They can also offer training to community fosters and be more involved in matching pets to people who come in to adopt.  

No Looking Back 

The pandemic has given our industry an opportunity to develop pioneering SOPs; let’s not waste it and let fear of change stall our progress. We have seen that not only are the public and our staff willing to accept change, they’re eager to step up and embrace it.  

We’ve also learned that it’s OK to try new things even if they don’t work. I’ve seen more new ideas tried in the past six weeks than I have in the past 10 years. Many have worked. Some have not. And you know what? That’s OK; no policy has to be permanent. If you have an idea, try it. If it works, keep it. If not, that’s OK; go on and try the next idea. Our public and our staff can handle it.  

The public, shelter staff and the animals will all benefit from us continuing to explore new ways of working. Our work may change from cleaning and caring for animals to helping support people and animals in our community. And that feels like a good thing. 

Brent Toellner
Senior Director, National Programs
Best Friends Animal Society

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