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Rethinking the Narrative When Marketing Shelter Pets for Adoption

I see so many sad appeals to adopt while scrolling through my social media. Dogs surrendered to shelters because their owners could not find housing, dogs and cats found as strays in terrible condition, and videos of dogs quivering in their kennels, all designed to pull at the public’s heartstrings. But unfortunately, I think we are missing the mark—this type of marketing is not working. We cannot guilt pets into loving homes. What’s worse is that we are all doing it. I am just as guilty as the next person because I see these sweet pets in desperate need of homes and jump onto social media so that others see them as well. But some shelters have already changed their narrative, and it is working.

Annually, there is a demand for seven to nine million dogs in the US. We need prospective families to choose our pets, the homeless, first. Whether we like it or not, we are competing with breeders. Responsible breeders, puppy mills and “accidental” litters produce millions of dogs and cats annually. Breeders tell their story of healthy puppies—even when they are not—through pictures of pups playing outside or in a fluffy bed. While the animal welfare industry shows upsetting videos of shelters filled to the brim, puppies in pop-up crates, barking and jumping at the kennel doors with slip leads around their necks. So often, our industry lures in families with the promise of a well-adjusted pup while threatening potential adopters with looming euthanasia. To get pets that were a part of loving families out of the shelter as quickly as possible, we need to focus on how many are well-adjusted and house-trained. I have met so many great dogs and cats during my shelter visits that could seamlessly transition into an adopter’s home.

The sad stories and pleas for help get attention, but it is not the attention we want. Would you want someone to choose you because they feel sorry for you or because you have qualities they like in a partner? If we can’t find a way to keep these pets in their homes, they should be moving out of shelters to new homes quickly. Shelter pets are fully vaccinated and spayed/neutered. We also have every size, coat type, color and personality type anyone could want. So, let’s highlight the positive.

I know this is a hard shift for many, including me, but we created this situation and need to work together to find a way out. We have wonderful pets that are ready for a couch and loving family! Here are some creative marketing efforts from shelters that are rethinking how they market their pets:

❤️ Showcasing Single Dogs

Susquehanna SPCA is marketing their dogs that need to be an only-dog through what they have dubbed “Singles Night.” Their message is, “If you are looking for a pet that prefers a single pet household, we have the perfect dog for you.” A single rose is placed on their kennel, and the public is invited to visit them on Friday evenings with a sponsorship from a local pub.

❤️ Signage Matters

The SPCA serving Erie County has removed all the kennel stickers and messages that say no blankets, no balls, no cats, no toys, etc. These are adoption conversations, not signage. We don’t know if the dog that shreds toys in the shelter will do it at home.


Finally, local adoptions are vital. To move pets quickly from the shelter into homes, we have to market within our own communities because, in many cases, transport is no longer an option. Embrace the community, invite them into the shelter and show them what they are missing! You might even get new volunteers when they hear all the positive stories.

Recently, on a facilitated BPF transport, Humane Society of Midland County (HSOMC) in Michigan took six dogs from a rural North Carolina shelter. They were adopted within seven days—even the shelter’s longest-term resident! I can assure you there was a home in North Carolina for each of these sweet dogs, but HSOMC solicits the community with fun, positive messaging. It works—they went right home.

It’s a big goal to end pet homelessness, but if we all reframe how we present adoptable animals, we know we can make it happen. View and SHARE this heartwarming video about the love of shelter pets here.