Are Black Cats and Dogs Really Adopted Less Often?

Cue the Sarah McLachlan music and start scrolling through sweet images from the Black Dog Project. That's right, we're here to talk about pet adoption. It's long been thought that black dogs and cats are adopted less often than their more colorful critter friends. As a result, many rescues and shelters offer discounts on black animals and run information campaigns about the importance of not passing up pets with black fur. However, research shows this idea isn't as simple as it seems.

When a Black Cat Crosses Your Path ...

... how likely are you to adopt it? According to an ASPCA study of nearly 1,500 animal adopters from five American animal shelters, you're most likely to adopt that cat if it purrs or vocalizes and greets you. The study showed that cat adopters take animal appearance, social behavior, and playfulness most into consideration when thinking about taking a pet home. Pet adopters do think about a pet's looks — dog adopters in this study did cite appearance as their most important factor — but they're not likely to ignore an otherwise playful, purring cat just because she's black.

But appearance is about more than just color. "We just conducted a piece of research looking at various traits that drive people to adopt and color did not play a role at all," said ASPCA Vice President of Shelter Research Dr. Emily Weiss when the study first came out. "It busts this myth completely."

Likewise, a study of adoption records from two New York no-kill shelters further showed that coat color had no influence on length of stay. The researchers were surprised. They expected to see "black dog syndrome" in action, but black dogs stayed no longer than dogs of other colors.

In today's PetFinder-heavy adoption world, though, not all pet owners get a chance to play with shelter animals before taking their pick. Instead, they take a scroll through online photo banks and choose the cutest puppy. Because black dogs are harder to photograph than lighter pooches, they might not be selected as frequently online.

The thing is, there might just be more black animals in shelters to begin with. According to the ASPCA study, the majority of both dogs and cats sheltered in 2013 were black. That could be a matter of genetics: black fur is a dominant genetic trait. Just as having brown eyes is a dominant trait in humans, leading to the fact that nearly 80 percent of the world's population has brown eyes, black fur being dominant in dogs and cats likely means that there are just more black pets in the world, period.

So if four black dogs and one white dog appear on the same day, and both the white dog and one black dog gets adopted, three black dogs will remain. But that doesn't necessarily mean people prefer the white dog.

So Why Does the Myth Persist?

Studies are pretty clear: People don't consider color very strongly when they think about adopting pets. But those who work in shelters still seem to think there's a prejudice surrounding black animals. Dr. Weiss says this could have to do with how close those shelter workers are to the animals.

"They might see that black dogs are staying around longer, but that might just be because there are more black dogs in the shelter," she said. "I think some beliefs are hard to change, especially if someone has anecdotal evidence that there have been one or two big black dogs that take longer to adopt."

And as other ASPCA research shows, adoption choices might just come down to which animal stands out most from the others. Imagine a shelter with 10 white dogs and one black dog and another shelter with 10 black dogs and one white dog. "The adopter might be more drawn to the unique dog whether that is the one white dog out of 10 black ones or the one black dog out of 10 white ones," said researcher Marion Zuefle.

In the end, it's a complicated issue without a single answer. "There are lots of compounding factors," Julie Morris, the senior vice president of the American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals, told ABC News. "Are there just more black dogs in shelters or is the real problem because most black dogs are also big dogs?"

Whether "black dog syndrome" exists or not, the truth remains that more black cats and dogs remain in shelters. And because of that, you might be able to get a deal if you choose to adopt one. That sounds like a no-lose situation: You get a sweet pet, you save a little money, and there's one less animal in a shelter. Nice!

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Love black dogs? Check out the book based on a viral photo blog: "The Black Dogs Project: Extraordinary Black Dogs and Why We Can't Forget Them" by photographer Fred Levy. We handpick reading recommendations we think you may like. If you choose to make a purchase, Curiosity will get a share of the sale.

Written by Kelsey Donk October 14, 2019

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