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Match pets with the right owners
Prevent heartache: Match the right pets and people for a lifetime of love.
I recently met an elderly gentleman whose beloved Labrador had passed away at the grand old age of 14. That old Lab had been his dearest friend and confidant for years. They were inseparable, an old Lab and a little old man. He managed life for several months without a pet, but an empty home and lonely life was just too much. He said to me, "I used to walk the beach every day with my dog, and people would talk to me. I walked the beach alone for months after he passed away and nobody stopped to talk to me. I was lonely, so I got a puppy."
He purchased an adorable Labradoodle puppy. The puppy grew, and he enrolled the pup in obedience classes so the dog could learn to walk without pulling the 86-year-old man over. As time went on though, it became apparent that this dog was just too much for him to handle. He even contacted dog walkers and additional trainers, and in the end he had to find a new home for his exuberant house mate.
Though the details of the story may differ, how frequently do you hear this story? Somebody purchases a pet that is not the right fit. Or owners purchase a pet that they can't afford. Or the owners don't have the necessary time to meet the many needs of their pet.
Don't leave it to a roll of the dice
Between 6 and 8 million pets enter shelters each year, and some of these pets are relinquished. In a study conducted by the National Council on Pet Population Study and Policy (NCPPSP) and published in the Journal of Applied Animal Welfare Science, researchers went into 12 animal shelters in the United States over a year and found out the reasons for animal relinquishment. (See figures 1 and 2.) If we know the top 10 reasons for animal relinquishment, we can help keep this sad story from repeating.
Figure 1: Top 10 reasons dogs are relinquished
As a profession that cares for the needs of animals, we can reduce the number of relinquishments over time by properly educating pet owners about pet ownership. We need to develop programs and systems for the benefit of our clients and their pets.
Figure 2: Top 10 reasons cats are relinquished
Where should you start in this giant endeavor, you ask? You can begin by establishing your clinic as a community resource to pet owners as they tackle the task of selecting their next pet. We all laugh at the silly commercials where people have the wrong pet for them—the active person trying to jog with a bulldog, or a tiny elderly person being dragged down the street by the happy chocolate Lab. We know the pet isn't the right fit, and we could have helped them in advance if they had only asked.
People don't know what they don't know unless you tell them. We need to educate them during the pet selection process. If the pet requires constant grooming that's time consuming and costly or the pet requires two hours of running a day and the owner can't meet those needs, the result may be behavior problems—or ultimately relinquishment of the pet. Just look again at the list above.
There are multiple tools available online to assist in pet selection. You can find links to a few at dvm360.com/petselection. If your clinic provides care for exotics, you may want to link to a pet selector that includes reptiles, fish, birds and other animals.
Small steps, big difference
It isn't necessary to spend hours with potential clients helping them in the selection process. Simply linking that pet selector to your hospital's website and social media pages is a giant step in the right direction.
You could go further and have a dedicated pet selector concierge available at your clinic to field questions and direct clients to the pet of their dreams. The older gentleman I mentioned earlier could have been directed to a lovely senior Lab, who would have met his needs of companionship and social interaction he craved. Instead he purchased a large breed puppy, whose needs were beyond what he was able to provide. More than that, this dog was dangerous for the man who purchased him.
If we had reached out to him after his pet had passed—a simple phone call two months out to see how he was doing—we may have been able to help him in a search for an appropriate new pet.
I would challenge your clinic to go above the routine condolence card and reach out to see how the client is doing. How are the remaining pets doing, if there are any? Find out if they are thinking of another pet. Beyond caring and bonding, this lets pet owners know that you are willing and able to help them if they decide to select another pet.
Tough talks: Money
How many times do you hear from a client of an adopted shelter dog, "Is all of this really necessary? It's so expensive. The shelter said everything was covered."
Pets cost money. Even the "free" or close-to-free pets from the shelter require a significant financial commitment. Our clients deserve to know that in advance. One way you can address this problem is to produce an attractive cost of pet ownership handout and post it routinely on your practice's Facebook page. Print out a stack and take them to the local shelters. Ask the shelter manager to pass them out to prospective adoptive parents.
It's important that potential pet parents understand the cost of pet ownership before they adopt the pet. Of course, there are instances of economic hardship that hit a family after they've adopted a pet. Be sensitive in these cases. And if your practice has developed a benevolent fund, make it available for these families.
Foster loving relationships
Another less often utilized method of matching pets with prospective pet parents and educating the owners about the pet's requirements in advance is foster care. Encourage your clients to connect with the local rescue groups and volunteer to be a foster parent. It's a great way to try out a pet in your home without the commitment of pet adoption. Then post some human interest stories on your hospital's page recounting recent foster stories. Who knows, you may find yourself with more clients who have become the "foster failure" if they decide to make their recent charges permanent residents.
Your clinic could also partner with a rescue group or two in your area and host a matchmaking event. Think of speed-dating with fur and you have it just about right. Provide photographs of prospective pets along with a list of each pet's care requirements on a covered sheet below the pet. As your clients arrive, they each receive a questionnaire containing items such as:
> How many hours of care are you willing to provide for grooming?
>How much time can you devote to exercising your pet daily?
> How much are you prepared to spend on food daily?
Once they answer the questions, they can go around to look at the photographs and lift the flaps to see if their answers match the pet's requirements. If they match on 75 percent or more, they can arrange a meet and greet with the prospective pup or kitty. Serve some fancy refreshments, and have some fun.
Even if there are only a couple of matches made at each event you can feel good that you provided guidance for others. You can help clients remain grounded in facts when faced with the emotional decision of adopting a new family member—and perhaps stop that emotional response from becoming a matchmaking error.
Animals can't talk for themselves. The cats, dogs, bunnies, birds, reptiles and others can't decide who will purchase or adopt them. These animals are at the mercy of their caretakers. When these caretakers then become unable or unwilling to provide care, the animals are relinquished. We need to step in the gap and help our clients during the decision-making process.
These ideas only address a few of the listed reasons pets are relinquished, but they are a start. Begin incorporating some of these into the framework of your facility and watch what happens. Brainstorm some ideas with your team to address the other reasons for relinquishment on the list. You will find yourself on the end of many love connections and forever families. Take a step, even a tiny one, for change. The animals will thank you.
Julie Mullins is a Firstline Editorial Advisory Board member and lead trainer at Doggone Healthy in Calabash, N.C.