Sunday, November 25, 2012

What Effect do Kittens Have on the Adoption Rates of Non-Kittens?

For high volume shelters, moving animals out the door as quickly as possible is crucial, and running a successful adoption program is one way to achieve quick movement. There is a plethora of ways to create adoption success: strong adoption promotion, open adoptions procedures, and reasonable adoption fees. But, have you ever thought about what impact the mix of animals in the adoption room has on the overall adoption rates? Specifically, does the presence of kittens help or hinder the adoption rate of older cats?

Dr. Kate Hurley and Dr. Sandra Newbury of the UC Davis Koret Shelter Medicine Program ( have lectured and researched this concept. According to their lectures, in adoption rooms across the nation “the more, the merrier” notion is often employed without much thought to animal presentation or organization. We pack as many cats into the adoption room as possible, and leave it up to the animals to sell themselves. Those shelter animals are so darn adorable and do a great job of it, but research and data are actually showing that a little forethought and planning can improve adoption rates. In his book, The Paradox of Choice: Why More is Less, author Barry Schwartz argues that eliminating consumer choices can greatly reduce anxiety for shoppers. So, extrapolating this concept to an adoption room is another way that animal shelters can work to improve their adoption rates.

To investigate one aspect of this concept, I looked at data for a medium open-admissions shelter in a large city. As mentioned above, I was curious to know if the adoption rates of adult cats rise or fall when kittens are also available for adoption. One might argue that having kittens in the adoption room will increase older cat adoption rates because kittens are like ‘eye candy’ and draw-in more would-be adopters. On the other hand, one might argue that kittens decrease the adoption rates of older cats because kittens are inherently more desirable.

A few notes about these data:
  1. Kittens are 4 months and younger; non-kittens are 5 months and older.
  2. Two months were chosen because kitten intake rates fluctuate seasonally (February = lower kitten intake; August = higher kitten intake) so looking at two different months can help account for this fluctuation.
  3. If no kittens were available for adoption on any day in the month, the day was removed from the dataset, thus there are less data points than days of the month.

That being said, let’s look at the data:

We can ascertain from the negative slope of the trend line for both months that having kittens available for adoption actually detracts from adoption rates of non-kittens. But, the negative slope improves in August—a time when kitten intake is at its highest:
  • In February, for every 4 additional kittens available, this shelter looses about 3 non-kitten adoptions
  • In August, for every 3 additional kittens available, this shelter loses about 1 non-kitten adoption

So, does this mean that shelters should not make kittens available for adoption? Certainly not! But, analyzing data in this way can be the first step towards understanding adoption patterns and choices. Knowing that kittens will take away from adoptions of other cats will help shelter managers space kitten arrival in the adoption room or increase their use of foster-to-adoption programs (an emerging trend in animal sheltering to “foster” underage kittens to families with the eventual hope/mutual understanding that the family will adopt the kitten when it is of age) for young and underage kittens.

Moving forward, shelters can analyze their data in this way for various types of scenarios including:
  • Adopter preferences of males vs females
  • Adoption rates of different colors (black vs. non-black) or coat patterns (solid vs. tabby)
  • Adoption rates for various kennels or rooms housing available animals (do animals housed in the kennels near the front of the room get adopted at different rates than those housed near the back?)

And, to further analyze this topic, I would look at each month of the year separately, and then the entire year as an aggregate. In addition, I would play with the age of kittens a little to see if the data change in any way. For example, define a kitten as anything under 6 months old, or twelve months old. And, then further split the age groups: kittens vs. seniors, kittens vs. young adults, kittens vs.adults, etc...

Let me know if you have any questions about this particular analysis, I’d love to hear how your shelter’s data stacks up!

Wednesday, October 17, 2012

Dog Kennel Enrichment Ideas

One of the challenges for staff working in a shelter is keeping the animals stimulated while in their care. In fact, boredom for dogs is a primary contributor to negative behaviors such as excessive barking, jumping, inappropriate chewing or licking, and even resource guarding. The dogs in the shelter cannot directly communicate they are bored or stressed, but they do indirectly let us know through these undesirable behaviors. So, it is of crucial importance for shelters to do everything they can to keep the dogs entertained and ward off any negative behaviors possibly attributed to stress and boredom.

Here are a few simple ideas to introduce kennel enrichment in your shelter:
  1. Physical Exercise: it’s no secret that a tired dog is a well-behaved dog. In a shelter, exercise can come in the form of walks, agility or fly ball training, time off-leash in a large outdoor kennel, or even supervised play groups with other dogs in the shelter. In many shelters staff is stretched thin with day to day operations and volunteers are the primary providers of exercise for dogs.
  2. Basic Obedience Training: sitting in a kennel for extended amounts of time can make even the most well-adjusted animal stir crazy, so mental stimulation is extremely important. Basic obedience training can achieve the mental stimulation as well as time out of the kennel and interacting with people.
  3. Mental Stimulation/Entertainment: here are some great ideas for providing kennel enrichment for the dogs for when staff and volunteers are unable to directly interact with them. If you cannot volunteer with your local animal shelter, consider donating some of these items:
    1. Frozen thick rope chew—dunk a rope chew in water and freeze overnight. For an even tastier treat, dunk it in meat broth and freeze.
    2. Kong—stuff with peanut butter, frozen water, or treats. If your shelter has space, consider freezing them—the treats will last a little longer! The Kong Company © has a donation program (; consider registering your local shelter or rescue for donations!
    3. Squeaky toys—any stuffed toy with a squeaker inside could be hours of fun for a dog.
  4. Meal time—even feeding time can be an opportunity to provide enrichment for shelter dogs.  Here are a few inexpensive ideas for making dinner stimulating:
    1. Crinkle up some kibble in a wadded piece of paper—the dog will have to rip through the paper to get at the kibble bits.
    2. Remember paper towel rolls for cat enrichment ( Dogs can get in on the action too! Shove kibble bits in a paper towel roll for dogs to get out. You can fold or bend the edges to make it more challenging.
    3. Freeze some kibble in an ice cube. Dogs usually go bonkers trying to get the kibble in the middle!
    4. Layered cereal boxes—hide kibble between the layers of nestled cereal boxes. This will be a challenge for any dog to get the kibble out
It is advised to always have supervision when the dogs are playing with any toys or food items. As easy as these ideas are to put together, it's could be just as easy for the dogs to inadvertently ingest something that may harm them. 

For shelters with a large and eager volunteer pool--put them to work collecting, creating, and distributing these enrichment ideas, and then ask them to also monitor the dogs while they enjoy!

Friday, July 27, 2012

Statistics for Managing Your Volunteer Program

How can you measure the volunteer's contribution to your shelter?

Most, if not all, animal shelters these days have volunteer programs.  Some may be long-established and running smoothly, others may be in their infancy and struggling with some growing pains, while most probably fall somewhere in between these two scenarios.  Whatever the case is for your shelter, statistical reporting of the accomplishments and contributions of your volunteers is essential.  These statistics can justify to your supporters and board of directors why the volunteer program is important to the organization and can also justify having paid staff oversee the program.  Statistics can be used as a measure of the goals of the volunteer program and to give future direction to any work the volunteers are doing.  And finally, tracking volunteer program statistics will give you a better understanding of the services and care you are providing to the animals in your organization.

Simple statistics: these are statistics that, at the very least, every shelter with a volunteer program should be tracking.  They do not require much mathematical manipulation, but are a great start to painting the picture of your volunteer contributions. 
  • Total active volunteers / month.  What each program considers active may vary (click here to read about the administration of a volunteer program), but whatever measure you use, keep track of how many from your volunteer list is actually hitting the mark each month (or whichever time frame you are collecting statistics for).  For example, shelter XYZ considers a volunteer active if they contribute 3 hours each month.  In the month of June 50 volunteers of the total of 125 volunteers on their roster hit this mark.  That translates to 50 / 125 = 40% of their volunteers were active in June.

  • Program specific volunteer participation rates.  Now take that same concept as above, and calculate for each program/area of volunteer opportunity.  How many volunteers participated in the adoption room?  How many volunteers logged hours for the offsite adoption event?  How many volunteers worked the fundraiser?

  • Total hours. Collectively, how many hours did the volunteers donate to your organization?  Standing alone, this statistic does not give you much reference, but over a period of time, tracking this statistic will help you measure the consistency of your volunteer program, the growth of your program, and will help you understand seasonal volunteer trends.

More complex statistics: these are statistics that give a more detailed look at the well-being and productivity of a volunteer program.  All shelter volunteer managers should consider tracking these for their program.
  • Volunteer retention/attrition rate.  Knowing how long you can keep a volunteer will help determine the practicality of your program and will also drive your recruitment efforts.  There are many ways to go about calculating a retention rate, here is one

1.     Count your active volunteers at a certain date (lets say, January 1, but it can be any date)
2.     Track on a monthly basis, the gain and loss of active volunteers
3.     Count all the active volunteers 12 months later (December 31)
4.     The % change from the beginning of the year to the end is your retention.  You can talk about this statistic either as retention (how many volunteers remain active) or attrition (how many volunteers you lost)
  • Training and orientation retention/attrition rates.  Similar to general volunteer rates discussed above, of the volunteers that sign up for your orientation, go through training, etc how many actually become an active volunteer?  If you have a multi-step training approach, how many volunteers do you loose along the way?  This will help you measure how many volunteers to invite to your initial training sessions.  For example, if I know that only 50% of the volunteers will finish the orientation process and I need 10 new volunteers in my program each month, then I will invite 20 volunteers to orientation to fill my program.

  • Volunteer to animal ratio: just like every parent wants to know how many kids will be in each teacher’s class, shelter supporters want to know how many volunteers are taking care of the animals.  Take your average monthly animal population and divide by your average active volunteer monthly participation.  20:1?  10:1?  0.5:1? If you have more volunteers than animals, express the ratio as: volunteers:animals with animals always being 1 (example, Shelter XYZ has 12 volunteers for every animal).  If you have more animals than volunteers, express as: animals:volunteers (example, Shelter XYZ has 12 animals for every volunteer).

  • Volunteer care days: much like the concept of Animal Care Days, tally up all of your volunteer hours for the month and convert that number to days.  Now, take that a step further and compare your volunteer care days to your total animal care days for the month.  How do they match? 

Not for the faint of heart statistics:  and finally, this set of statistics for volunteer management reporting is the gold standard of all.  Pat yourself on the back and be proud if you are already looking at these statistics, and congratulations if you decide to start measuring your program in this way now!
  • Volunteer Return on Investment (ROI): for the amount of resources (time, staff, money, etc) you put into recruiting, training, and maintaining your volunteers, what type of return do you see?  How do the contributions of the volunteers balance with what you invest in them?  Calculating volunteer ROI will enable you to gage a truer measure of the worth of volunteers to your organization, and again, can justify expanding and growing your program. No need to calculate volunteer ROI on your own, us the ROI calculator provided by Volunteer2 to see the value in your investment.  Within the industry, there are many approaches to calculating ROI, and this tool from Volunteer2 addresses them all! 

  • Value of volunteer time: This is another way to define the worth of your volunteers to your organization.  The Independent Sector releases statistics on the hourly value of volunteers and a volunteer manager can use the value for their state and multiply it by the total hours of volunteer participation for the month, quarter, year, etc.  If you do an annual review for individual volunteers, this is a great statistic to calculate for them. 

I’d be remiss if I didn’t at least mention that the most important factor in calculating any volunteer statistic is that you have to collect accurate volunteer statistics first.  That, in and of itself, is quite an undertaking especially since most groups depend on the volunteer themselves to report their hours.  To convince your volunteers how important it is, share this post with them and do a preliminary statistical review of your program and share the results with them.  Hopefully seeing the numbers on paper will remind them to report their hours each day/week/month. 

Monday, June 4, 2012

Open Adoptions - A Call to Action for All Animal Shelters

There is a concept in animal sheltering that is slow in moving through our community, and in my opinion it is the next turning point in making a significant impact on placement statistics for shelters.  Open Adoptions is the practice of opening your adoption criteria to include a larger number of potential adopters. 

To begin, it might be a little easier to explain what Open Adoptions is not.  Open Adoptions is not punishing a person because they had to give up a pet 10 years ago; Open Adoptions is not turning away an adopter because they don’t have all the answers about how to train a dog; Open Adoptions is not penalizing a person because they chose to not vaccinate their indoor house cat last year; Open Adoptions is not sending home empty handed an adopter wanting to bring a new pet home for his/her significant other.  And on the same token, Open Adoptions is not giving a pet away to any person that walks into your shelter.  Rather, Open Adoptions is shifting the approach of adoption counseling to utilize the process as an educational tool and in doing so, ensuring the best possible match of person and pet is made.   

Open Adoptions asks us to rethink our adoption criteria and rather than create barriers for an adopter, aims to set up building blocks that become the foundation of a long-lasting relationship between pet, adopter, and your organization.   The main focus in Open Adoptions is meeting the needs of adopters and their new pets during the adoption process and after adoption.  This is achieved when animal shelters commit to an inviting and non-judgmental adoption process culture and think first about how they can facilitate a conversation with adopters and educate them about pet care and animal needs.  It is time to abandon the inflexible adoption guidelines of the past and move forward toward a friendly and conversational approach to adoptions.  In doing so, shelters and rescues stand to increase their adoption numbers, increase their influence on adopters, and also gain community support.

On the opposite end of Open Adoptions is the process of maintaining communications with new adopters, ensuring the bonding and acclimation periods are going well.  Again, this is a necessary shift of resources for many organizations; many groups adopt pets and then send them home with their new family usually never to have contact again.  With an Open Adoptions culture, it is essential to maintain contact with new adopters (and even ‘old’ adopters for that matter) to provide them with support, advise, and resources should they need help. 
There are a multitude of ways an Open Adoptions culture can be achieved, and the roadmap to achieving this at your shelter will look a little different for everyone.  Here are some ideas to get started:

1.     Institute a pet match program at your shelter.  Meet your Match from the ASPCA is probably the most well known, but a homegrown version will work just as well. 
2.     Consider prescreening applicants and approving their application even if they have not yet found a suitable animal in your shelter.  Make the application approval good for 60 days (or whatever time frame makes sense for your organization) and they can come back to your shelter within that time and select an animal.     
3.     In the same spirit, maintain a request list for adopters.  If they are looking for something very specific (eg: neutered, all-white, front declaw, 4 year old cat), give them a call when you get an animal that fits their description.
4.      Send all adopters home with a resource packet, both in print and electronic.  This will give your adopters a point of reference for any questions they may have post adoption.  Even if your organization cannot provide for all their post adoption needs, give them resources for other organizations or businesses who do.
5.     Hire staff or volunteers to make follow-up calls/checks on adopters at various points post adoption.  This will remind the adopters you are committed to the success of their placement and the resources available to them.  As an added bonus, it will widen your circle of supporters, probably increasing donations and return adoptions when adding to the family.
6.     Speaking of return adoptions, go ahead and give return adopters a “Go Directly to the Front of the Line” pass.  You already have their information and know they have successfully adopted from you in the past, so make the process even easier for them the second (and third, forth, fifth, etc!) time around.   

Open Adoptions can increase your live release rate
*Photo courtesy of Chris Tanaka

I challenge all readers of this blog to do an internal examination of their adoption process and start implementing some of the ideas presented above.  It will be worth your time to take a look at your recent adoption applications and do a mini-analysis of the percentage of applications you turn down and for what reason.  Based on this data, decide how you can make the process easier for adopters and guide them through the process rather than turn them away and risk losing their support now and in the future.  Of course, in the animal sheltering business we want to do what is best for the animals in our care, and it is very difficult to decide if someone would be a good fit for an animal in just a few hours.  Therefore, utilize these Open Adoptions concepts and create a long-lasting relationship with adopters in which your organization continues to be instrumental in the connection between the adopters and their pets thus ensuring the animals are well cared for long after they leave your doors.   

Tuesday, May 8, 2012

The 7 Habits of Highly Effective Shelters (Statistical Version)

Ah yes, another take on the infamous “7 Habits…”!  Below are some thoughts on why statistics are just as important as good husbandry techniques for adequately managing a shelter population.  Statistics are more than just an afterthought, or “I’ll get to them as some point” kind of mentality, and need to be added to the forefront of shelter operations.  Capturing good data and then using that data to plan and adjust to changes in your population will help your shelter go the extra mile in every aspect of shelter management possible.  Admittedly, the following is geared towards brick and mortar animal sheltering facilities, but I think any type of rescue organization can relate to these ideas.  Read on to explore the 7 Habits of Highly Successful Shelters (the Statistics Version):
  1.  Garbage In-Garbage Out.  The single most important factor in using statistics to your advantage is to gather good data in the first place.  Don’t wait until later to record an intake, medical exam, outcome, behavior test, etc.  Do it now, and do it correctly.  You have no hopes of your software producing good reports if the data going in are incorrect or missing.  Shelters are so dependent on measuring time and making sure that animals move through quickly and efficiently, therefore it is vital to record events and observations AS THEY HAPPEN.  You are dead in the water if you are not recording data as events occur.
  2. You have to do a regular head count.  Depending on the capacity of your shelter, this might mean every day.  This can be accomplished when shelter managers/veterinarians are doing rounds, or when staff are going through the rooms each morning for first feedings, or this can be one person’s job to do each and every time.  I have even heard of shelters using bar codes and scanners to take inventory counts!  Whatever works best, just make sure it happens.  There is no way you can produce good statistics, if you are not 100% certain of the animals in your population and where they reside at every point in time within your facility.  As an added benefit, this will also help to reduce ‘lost” or “missing” animals. 
  3.  Know your carrying capacity and its limits.  By this I don’t mean know how many cages you have; carrying capacity is more than just number of cages.  Carrying capacity means calculating your intake “comfort zone” based on your usual “outcome activity”, rather than the other way around.  It means adjusting to unusual intake patterns such as kitten season or puppy mill raids to account for the needier (ie, resource draining) events/populations.  It means having an action plan in place for when you are reaching that carrying capacity—watching statistics on a weekly or monthly basis will allow you to be proactive and notice even subtle trends/changes in your data.  Managed/limited admissions facilities will find this task slightly easier to accomplish than open admissions shelters, but that just means those shelters will have to be a little more creative and flex a little more mental muscle.
  4. Set benchmarks. Once you are consistently gathering quality data, go ahead and set benchmarks (ie, goals) for the statistics that you most closely watch.  This will give you even further insight into the health and well-being of your shelter.  Are you consistently meeting your benchmarks?  If you are not, what action items will be put in place to adjust for the discrepancies?  Increasing the benchmarks themselves does not count!  Benchmarks will also provide direction for staff and hopefully increase productivity if they have in mind what goal they are working to achieve.
  5. Share your stats with staff.  This is important for a couple reasons.  First, it’s always good practice to have many eyes looking at the data to notice any discrepancies, errors, and to make observations/interpretations.  But in addition, this is a great way to give all shelter staff an appreciation for their work beyond direct contact with the animals—in other words, this will give them a glimpse at more of the “big picture”.
  6. Talk with your shelter management software company, and often—you do have a specific animal shelter management software company, right? (We need to talk, if you don’t, this is an integral part of keeping good data)! Tell them what you need and why.  Maintaining an open line of communication with this group will ensure that your data management becomes a fluid, efficiency creator for your daily operations.  Furthermore, it has been my experience that many of the developers of these types of software are computer people and not “animal people” or “helter people”.  So, from their perspective, the software is performing just perfectly, but from your perspective—someone in the trenches daily—you might think the software needs a little tweaking.  Go ahead and speak up!
  7. Collect basics statistics and report on a regular schedule (weekly or monthly is preferred).  Every shelter regardless of size should at least be collecting the following, and be able to report it by variables including animal type, animal age category, etc: a. Intake numbers, b. Outcome numbers, and c. Length of Stay/Animal Care Days.  Basically, you need to know what is coming in, what is leaving, and how long they are staying.  I would guess that about 80% of all meaningful shelter statistical analysis would in some way include these three stats in the respective calculations, so make sure you start with these.

Friday, March 9, 2012

Tracking Length of Stay Statistics

*How will this kitten group affect the overall shelter's LOS? 

While we have discussed length of stay (LOS) in a few different contexts already, we have yet to talk about the myriad of ways it can be calculated and what information each of those calculations lends to managing an animal populations.   Similar to calculations for human patients in a hospital, LOS in its most simplistic definition is the intake date minus the outcome date, and again related to hospital computing, if a group finds itself lucky enough to have a relinquished animal come in and leave within the same day, I always advise groups to count that animal’s LOS as one day.  Individual animals have personal lengths of stay and groups of animals contribute to average lengths of stay.  It is within this latter aggregate group that the power of the LOS statistic shines through. 

The first step in gathering meaningful information from aggregate LOS is to define cohorts of animals you are interested in analyzing.  Presented below are some suggestions for analysis and descriptions of what benefits the data offer.  All the calculation proposals below can also be subdivided into animal groups such as all dogs, all cats, all animals, just puppies, just kittens, etc.

  1. Intake Cohorts:  Calculating an average length of stay for animals grouped together by the month (or week, or day, etc) they came in to the shelter.  Tracking LOS in this manner will give you insight to any seasonal variations in your shelter’s operations and how your population management handled things.  Does the January Intake Cohort move through quickly compared to the July Intake Cohort?   Using historical LOS data from last year’s Intake Cohorts, shelter managers can make decisions about enlisting additional resources such as foster homes, staffing, or volunteers to help alleviate anticipated increases in LOS during particular time periods.  One limitation to using this calculation is that you might not get stable data until many months  (or weeks, or days, etc) after the intake month under consideration has passed.  If your group routinely moves animals through within 15-20 days, then this will not be such a problem, but if your shelter does not, then it may take a while for all members of this cohort to have an outcome, and have their data contribute to the calculation.   For example, if the shelter manager was calculating the February Intake Cohort’s LOS, he or she might have to wait until April to do so as those animals that came into the shelter in late February will need time to pass through the system.
  2. Outcome Cohorts: Calculating an average length of stay for animals grouped together by the month (or week, or day, etc) they left the shelter.  This can show insight into the health of a shelter’s adoption and/or transfer program.  And, opposite of the Intake Cohort limitation mentioned above, Outcome Cohorts can be calculated immediately for their specified time period.  For example, if a shelter manager was calculating the February Outcome Cohort’s LOS, he or she can do so on March 1.
  3. Current Cohort: Calculating the average length of stay for all animals at your facility at this moment in time, regardless of intake date.  This is probably as close to real-time shelter data as a shelter manager can get!  Again, this particular calculation can give insight into the shape of your adoption/transfer program, but can also give a shelter manager clues about the overall well-being and health of the population.  Animals that are ill or need extended care will increase this calculation, whereas a healthy population will move through the system quickly and therefore have a shorter LOS.
  4.  Stage/Location Cohorts: It is also useful to calculate a LOS statistic for animals in specific stages or locations within a shelter system.  Much like the calculation for Current Cohorts, monitoring the data from a Stage/Location Cohort will ensure that bottlenecks for whatever reason are noticed and addressed before they affect the greater population.  Examples of possible stages and locations to monitor include:
      1. Intake/Processing
      2. Medical
      3. Holding
      4. Adoption Rooms
      5. Foster Stays
      6. Rehabilitation Rooms
  5. Intake Type Cohorts: Calculating LOS for intake types such as owner guardian surrenders, strays, transfer animals, or emergency response intakes, can give a shelter manager understanding of the burden that these subcategories of animals place on the global shelter system.  For example, if a shelter takes in a large transfer group from another shelter or even a hoarding situation, it will be useful to track both the transfer group’s LOS, as well as all other animal’s LOS.  If we see a rise in the LOS for all other animals (compared to data for this group from pervious months or time period), that is an indication that perhaps the transfer group was too burdensome or overwhelming for this shelter’s operations as it affected the data for these other animals in the shelter’s care at that time.  From this, shelter managers can create operation protocols for dealing with such burdens so that the rest of the population is not affected.
  6. Outcome Type Cohorts: Calculating LOS for outcome types such as adoption, transfer out, euthanasia, etc.  This will inform shelter staff as to the efficiency of daily operations, as well as the health and well-being of their population.  For example, if a shelter euthanizes animals, it is imperative to watch this LOS so that efficiency is managed.  Although euthanasia is not always a predictable outcome and shelters would like to give all animals as much of a chance as possible, if Outcome Euthanasia LOS increases, it might be indicative of unnecessarily delaying inevitable outcomes.  

The second step in monitoring LOS statistics is to set goals or benchmarks for each of the categories of data a shelter is tracking.  I would recommend monitoring data for a year before determining baseline statistics.  Although one year seems long, you must account for seasonal fluctuations and therefore need the entire year to see a complete picture of your shelter.  Once baseline is established, go ahead and set goals for each category.  This will help focus operations and will certainly drive decisions made around the shelter.  And again, based on any seasonal fluctuations recorded in your baseline data, it would be good practice to set fluctuating benchmarks to accommodate the ups and downs.  All of us shelter workers know all too well what the warmer months (i.e., “kitten season”) can do to a shelter’s numbers, so it is acceptable to adjust your expectations at this time based on what your baseline is telling you.

What types of LOS does your shelter track?  Has knowing your LOS been beneficial to your organization and staff?  Does your shelter set goals or benchmarks?  What happens if you do not hit your benchmark?

*Photo courtesy of Chris Tanaka

Thursday, February 16, 2012

*Microchips versus Municipal Registration for Dogs—Let’s Get Crackin’ Animal Welfare Supporters!

*Warning—slightly controversial post below, read at your own risk!

I recently stumbled onto a fantastic blog dedicated to interesting correspondences, and while perusing through the posts hit the jackpot when I found a letter from children’s book author E.B. White written to the ASPCA back in 1951.  Apparently, he was cited for harboring an unlicensed dog and his amusing response to the citation got me to thinking about animal licensing and identification and a shelter’s role in it all.    
I am just coming off a tour of duty at Chicago’s municipal control facility and learned more than I ever thought necessary about animal licensing laws in Chicago.  The thing that sticks out most for me is that no one really pays attention to the mandatory licensing law and even with incentives built around spaying and neutering and discounts for senior citizens, the compliance rate is pretty abysmal.   In fact, according to this Sun-Times article, Chicago’s compliance rate is under 5% of all dogs in the city, and that is even after a 2005 upgrade of the licensing software to cross reference against the county’s rabies vaccination list.  Obviously, the city and its citizen’s are not paying attention, so what is the point?  From experience, the only time fines are imposed for not having a city dog license is when a dog has a run-in with animal control for some other reason (bite, off-leash, noise ordinance violation, etc), and of course, licensing fees are imposed for any stray animal reclaimed by its owner.  And, that leads me to the meat and potatoes of this post: redemption rates. 

Historically, return to owner rates at Chicago Animal Care and Control hover around 10% (source: CASA; this number is possibly higher, but the data provided do not split intake numbers by type).  This is slightly worse than the suspected national average of 15-20%.  Although not the primary reason municipalities require dog licenses, one of the benefits of it being law should be a higher stray redemption rate because (in theory) we have ownership information about the dog.  To put this in other terms, we can measure a direct increase in Live Release Rates if more dogs were licensed. However, because we have such low compliance, Chicago is never going to see an increase in its rates.  And to make matters worse, some people who do have licenses may not actually put them on their dogs’ collars as eloquently hinted by E. B. White:

So if said dog turned up at the city pound, staff would never know the dog is licensed and ownership information is on record.  This is a missed opportunity to reunite the animal with its owner, and subsequently, increase shelter live release rate.  So, I am proposing it is in the animal shelter’s best interest (regardless of whether they accept strays or not) to encourage their municipality to explore alternatives to dog licensing.  From an animal shelter’s perspective, what is a better method to identify animals?  Microchips!

While not a new technology and already thoroughly embraced by the animal welfare community, microchips provide the perfect substitute for licenses: they are permanent, they are reliable, and they are gaining in popularity.  Many studies have time and again reported a higher rate of return for stray animals with microchips, than those without chips.  And, when disaster strikes, local animal shelters and rescue groups are the first to jump in and assist with the homeless and displaced animals, so again an additional benefit of having the community’s animal population microchipped. 

Can microchips replace traditional dog licenses?
It appears that legislators and local government leaders are aware of the benefits of micochipping, but the new laws are targeted in the wrong direction, or at the least, not in a helpful direction.  I find it odd that a new measure was signed into law in Illinois effective since January 1 of this year requiring all Illinois animal shelters to scan for a microchip at least two times during an animal’s tenure with the shelter in effort to reunite lost pets with their owners.   In Governor Quinn’s own words, this really is making law policies shelters already have in place: “The bill that I’m signing is really a best practices bill, it’s used already in many places in Illinois”.  The Governor is right and in fact, most shelters and rescues have stronger and even more thorough microchip scanning procedures in place.  So, I really don’t see the point to this law—it’s missing the first step: require all animals to be microchipped in the first place!  And again, this is where I see the role of shelters acting as consultants to legislators to steer them in a more productive direction.   

I am not na├»ve enough to think microchipping is anything more than a substitution of municipal dog licenses and will solve all our animal identification problems.  The same compliance and enforcement issues exist, but from the perspective of the animal shelters responsible for reuniting lost pets and their owners, microchipping will go a whole lot further at effectively accomplishing that task than will paper licensing alone.  So, let’s get crackin’ and start talking to your local City Clerk’s office to encourage a better licensing system. 

Please leave your thoughts about this below, I’d love to have a conversation about the pros and cons of mandatory microchipping, success and failures of communities that already have this as law, compliance and enforcement issues, return to owner rates, etc.

Monday, February 6, 2012

Calculating Staffing Requirements Based on Animal Population

I don’t think anyone would argue if I made the blanket statement that all shelters are on a limited budget and must carefully apportion their resources in order to manage their animal population best.  In that spirit, one of the most important resource allocations a shelter makes is deciding how many staff are required to clean and feed the animals in its population.  Too many staff can drain the shelter’s budget, and too little staff can compromise the health and well being of the animals in its care.  So, how does a shelter manager decide how many staff to assign?

To answer this question, let’s start with the animal care time requirements suggested by HSUS and NACA and also endorsed by the Association of Shelter Veterinarians in their 2011 Guidelines for Standards of Care in Animal Shelters document.  These groups estimate a minimum of 15 minutes is required for adequate animal cleaning and feeding.  This is a good starting point for calculations, but if you feel 15 minutes is too long or too short, you can adjust the calculations accordingly to hit your goal.  Next, we need to know how many animals are in the shelter.  We can use our historical data to make staffing projections, or we can use the daily shelter count to make real-time decisions.  Let’s use some faux data from Shelter XYZ:

Table #1: Shelter XYZ Daily Population, January
Total Cats
Total Dogs
Total Population

And, finally, the third variable of total time allotted for staff to finish the task is needed.  For our calculations below we will use four hours, but based on each individual shelter’s operating procedures, this may differ.  

To calculate for real-time staffing decisions (using January 21st as an example day):
  • We had 159 total animals in the shelter that day: 159 x 15min/animal = 2,385min
  • 2,385min / 60min/hr = 39.75 care hours
  • Staff are expected to finish cleaning and feeding in 4 hours: 39.75 care hours / 4hr = 9.9 (10) staff required to complete the task

To calculate for projection staffing (using January animal averages):
  • On average, we had 177.5 animals in the month of January at Shelter XYZ: 177.5 x 15min/animal = 2,662.5min
  • 2,662.5min / 60min/hr = 44.3 care hours
  • Staff are expected to finish cleaning and feeding in 4 hours: 44.3 care hours / 4hr = 11.0 staff required to complete the task

What if you are curious to know how long it is currently taking your staff to clean and feed the animals?  One option is to time your staff.  But, I would not recommend this as anyone doing a task knowing they are being times/watched will at the least be suspicious, and probably perform differently as a result—in other words, your data will be significantly skewed.  The other option is to work the above math backwards to find a time per animal.   For example, if I have five staff cleaning and feeding for three hours, and 50 animals they are tending to, then they are spending 18 minutes per animal:

·      5 staff x 3 hrs x 60min/hr = 900min
·      900min / 50 animals = 18min/animal

Although I am not a fan of timing staff, now knowing the theoretical time per animal, a shelter manager can pull out their stopwatch to see how the data compare. 

Looking at the population numbers from the past year will allow shelter managers to plan appropriately for the upcoming year, and help save money and stress when high population season hits.  For example, if we know from last year’s data that June-October produces our highest populations, then the shelter manager can prepare for the staffing fluctuations needed to accommodate the rise in animals in February or March, rather than be taken by surprise in June and July and have husbandry and animal health compromised as a result.  When hiring seasonal help, I have found two techniques to be of great service:
  1. Begin the hiring process 2-3 months before you actually need the seasonal help.  This will allow you to train new staff during a period of lower population when stresses are less and you can dedicate more time and attention to training.  When the high season begins, they are all in place and ready to jump in.
  2. Consider rehiring the same seasonal help year to year.  This works great if you have a relationship with college students looking for summer work or even stay at home moms or retirees who would like a little work from time to time.  And again, having the same seasonal help will minimize the learning curve.

Photo from Health Technology Professional Products (

Once you do the calculations above, and set your goal for animal contact time, what should a shelter do if it can only employ so many paid staff?  Using the data from January for Shelter XYZ above, we need 11 people to accomplish the task in four hours.  Shelter XYZ only has budget for eight staff.  My suggestion is to get trained volunteers in to work along staff and fill in the staffing gap to hit the target.