Blog: Survey of young pet owners calls shelter marketing into question


'Problem pets' stigma is driving down adoptions, experts fear.

A recent survey, described here in The Columbian of Clark County, Wash., sheds an important and fascinating light on pet owner attitudes toward sources of pet dogs.

The study was conducted by Best Friends Animal Society and focused on people 18 to 34 years of age. The results? Nearly half—46 percent—of these young people found shelter animals less desirable than animals purchased from breeders or pet stores. This study will draw a lot of attention, but not necessarily for obvious reasons.

Many groups may want to use the data to make Gen X and Millennials feel guilty for considering sources of dogs other than shelters. Guilt is a powerful marketing tool—and the force underlying much of what we see on television fundraising tied to canine adoptions.

But the survey could serve as a wake-up call to national animal rights and welfare organizations to rethink media advertising that paints a picture of damaged dogs in shelters, however genuine the motive behind the ads might be.

A growing number of shelter leaders are concerned that the public has come to think of shelter dogs as problem dogs. If potential pet owners in the 18- to 34-year-old demographic believe that shelter dogs are "damaged goods," then it should be no surprise when they look to other sources for family pets. Veterinarians and others familiar with local shelters know that this image is rarely the case, notwithstanding the pictures in heart-tugging TV spots.

When potential dog owners, young or old, understand that it’s easy to find terrific companion animals (dogs and cats) in shelters, then these survey results will change. The Best Friends study may be the spark to cause long-running TV ads to try a different tack, leading the next generation of pet owners to give shelters a chance. Not out of guilt, but in the hope that they will find great pets who deserve great homes.

Mark Cushing, JD, is founding partner of the Animal Policy Group, providing government relations and strategic services for various animal health, veterinary and educational interests. He maintains offices in Portland, Ore., and Washington, D.C., and is a frequent speaker at veterinary conferences.

The Veterinary Policy Notes blog on helps veterinarians and other animal health professionals keep abreast of the growing number of issues, political challenges and regulatory initiatives affecting the veterinary profession, animal health industry and animal welfare movement.

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