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Home sweet rehome

A little rehoming handholding can ease the burden on pets, owners and shelters alike

From Animal Sheltering magazine November/December 2015

We are looking to rehome her now that we have a toddler and can’t give her the environment she needs. We will be sad to see her go and want to make sure she is going to a better home.” – Asheville Humane Society rehoming courtesy listing

Emily Gelb has been with the Asheville Humane Society (AHS) in North Carolina for only five months, but she’s already a diehard proponent for what’s become known at shelters and rescues as a “courtesy rehoming service.” When contacted for this story, she quickly sent two pages of rehoming success stories and statistics. One number stands out: 166 animals kept out of the shelter in 2014.

Allowing owners who can’t keep their pet to have a say in their future placement is a relatively new trend among shelters. There was a time when owners surrendering pets were judged harshly, but many groups now realize that a range of complex issues can play into the decision to give up an animal—and that many owners who do so are heartbroken.

Animal welfare groups nationwide are asking themselves: If owners want to help rehome their animals, why shouldn’t we let them? They’ve had a front row seat to the pet’s wants and needs, and housing their pet during the search for a new owner reduces stress on the animal and saves scant space and resources at shelters.

Launched in August 2012, AHS’s rehoming service is a free online listing of animals that allows owners or guardians to advertise and rehome pets—personally choosing a new owner—without relinquishing them to the shelter. Part of AHS’s larger Safety Net program, now overseen by Gelb, the goal is to keep animals in homes and out of shelters.

Many people first hear about the rehoming service when they seek to surrender their pets, says Gelb. The Safety Net program has grown “tremendously,” she says, offering pet food assistance, help with veterinary care, temporary boarding, behavioral counseling and low-cost or free vaccines and spay/neuter services in an effort to keep pets in homes. But when preventative resources aren’t enough, the rehoming service is the last bastion between pets and the shelter.

“Before surrendering your pet to a shelter, please consider finding your dog or cat a home without them ever leaving your side.”
– AHS rehoming toolkit

As part of its rehoming service, AHS provides an online rehoming toolkit—a sympathetic “how to” with sample rehoming posters. Among groups providing similar services, rehoming manuals are common. They range from all-inclusive (including printable questionnaires and adoption forms for potential new owners) to quick and dirty tips for the current owner (like “Be honest. You want this transition to be successful for your pet.”).

We take [rehoming] on as a full case—we’re literally doing everything we would if we owned the animal except providing the housing.”
– Stephanie Montemerlo, Our Companions Animal Rescue

AHS also posts pet photos and biographies on both its website and Petfinder.com; to participate, owners must provide proof of vaccination and spay/neuter and agree to keep animals until they are rehomed. If needed, AHS provides veterinary care vouchers and free microchipping to pets rehomed via the service.

Like those who surrender their pets, people have varied reasons for using AHS’s rehoming service—a good Samaritan fostering a kitten she found on the side of the road; an older couple who couldn’t handle their young dog, an enthusiastic escape artist; a woman who temporarily took in her deceased neighbor’s cat; an owner who had to move and couldn’t take her much-loved dachshund.

Many want to keep their pets or animals they’ve taken in but are unable to do so. Some, like the older couple, are simply at the end of their rope. But they’re consistent in one thing: They want some control over the animal’s fate.

The rehoming service moves animals to new homes, and thus still achieves the same goal of keeping pets in homes and out of shelters, says Gelb. The rehoming service isn’t yet a game changer—2,235 animals were surrendered to AHS in 2014 compared to the 166 who were rehomed or kept in the home—but it’s a valuable option. With the average rehoming time hovering around two weeks (a little longer for cats), the service effectively gives owners peace of mind while allowing AHS to “focus those resources on other animals,” she says.

“You are doing the right thing by taking personal responsibility for your pets’ fate.”
– Our Companions’ Forever Home manual

Some organizations get more involved with the process. Along with a 23-page Forever Home manual for those who want to go it alone, Our Companions Animal Rescue in Manchester, Conn., offers each rehoming service participant an individual helpline caseworker.

Our Companions is not a standing shelter, but an array of rescue programs and three limited-capacity sanctuaries (“rescue cottages”) for pets who need extra medical or behavioral rehabilitation (the group is currently in the early stages of a sanctuary project that will result in 16 cottages). A rehoming service means never having to say, “Oh, sorry, we’re full—call somewhere else,” says director of programs Stephanie Montemerlo.

With a motto of “doing the right thing for animals,” the organization has one full-time employee who oversees the rehoming program and roughly 12 volunteers who handle, among many other activities, a helpline similar to that of AHS—often fielding rehoming calls.

“These are volunteers who put more hours in than probably your typical volunteer opportunity,” says Montemerlo. “We take [rehoming] on as a full case—we’re literally doing everything we would if we owned the animal except providing the housing.”

When a helpline caseworker receives a “placement assistance request” via phone or online application, handling it can include pet evaluation, veterinary care and behavioral assistance, listings on Petfinder, pet introductions, help with adoption agreements and post-adoption follow-up.

Many who use the service are “just nice people rescuing strays,” Montemerlo says, estimating that strays make up half of the cats in the rehoming service. “[The cats] don’t have an urgent need to be surrendered then—they just can’t be kept long term,” and the service is an unhurried solution.

For those who do need to urgently rehome pets, Our Companions can also offer substantial PR. It doesn’t post rehoming listings on multiple adoption sites—it only uses Petfinder and sometimes Facebook—but through media relationships, it’s able to advertise one or two pets from the rehoming service in rotating TV, radio or newspaper ads. The group has found that newspaper ads, especially, spark interest from an unexpected “new” audience. “Our seniors aren’t using Facebook to find a cat,” Montemerlo says.

Perhaps surprisingly, the rehoming service also works to nudge owners who call the helpline into working on their pets’ behavioral issues—with the hope that owners will keep their pets. Montemerlo jokingly says she will say something like, “We do have a rehoming program, and we welcome you to sign up for it, but it’s going to be really hard to find your peeing cat a home!”

Our Companions then offers affordable training programs and counseling to help owners resolve common behaviors that are often cited as the reason behind rehoming or surrender. A “decent amount” of owners who want to rehome their pets because of behavioral issues choose to keep them once the behavior has been resolved, she says.

“I am a shy cat when I first meet you, but once we become friends I will be a Velcro cat. I will even join you in the bathtub if you let me!”
– Kentucky Humane Society courtesy rehoming listing

The Kentucky Humane Society (KHS) in Louisville also offers a pet rehoming service with the aid of a pet helpline staffed by coordinator Shelby Schulz. A former domestic violence helpline operator and shelter admissions counselor, Schulz is uniquely qualified to talk emotional pet owners through the potential surrender or rehoming process.

Funded by the ASPCA and Banfield Charitable Trust, the helpline has received more than 1,700 calls over the past six months. The top three topics of conversation are pet medical assistance, behavioral advice—and the rehoming service. Once owners are on board, Schulz calls them every two to three weeks to update pet information and offer advice.

As a managed admissions shelter, KHS offers the service as a way of reducing shelter intake while providing owners with an alternative to surrendering their pets. Many owners seek out the rehoming service intentionally, while others (especially owners with larger pets) are offered the rehoming service while they wait, on average, a month for a surrender appointment at KHS.

Because KHS doesn’t take in many animals with challenging behavioral or health issues, owners of pets with such problems use the rehoming service as an alternative to surrendering to an open-admissions shelter. In the first six months of 2015, 132 pets were listed on the KHS rehoming page; only five were ultimately surrendered to a shelter.

Like the Asheville organization, KHS offers an encouraging online rehoming manual, and owners whose pets are not fully vetted are referred to low-cost services. Once Schulz ensures animals are vaccinated, spayed/neutered and microchipped, she interviews owners, obtains photos or enlists the services of a volunteer photographer, writes a jaunty biography and posts to the KHS website and Facebook page—powerfully sharing each animal with 60,000 KHS page likers.

“[Rehoming] your pet by yourself can be a stressful process. You want what’s best for your pet, but also don’t want to be too picky and not be able to find the right match.”
– KHS rehoming manual

Their rehoming service isn’t perfect, says KHS public relations and marketing director Andrea Blair. Compared to an animal in the shelter, it can take twice as long—an average of 55 days—for an animal on the rehoming site to find a home. Adopters just don’t get that same feeling of “saving” an animal, she says, when the animal is still in a home—an ironic side effect of a rehoming program designed to keep animals out of shelters.

But the program still helps to delay surrenders long enough that many owners are able to find pets new homes in the meantime—through the service or otherwise—without passing their pet through a shelter middleman.

And it gives owners power over the rehoming process and time to think over their decision. In 2015, five owners have already changed their minds; one woman’s dog has been on the rehoming page for a year. She has so many requirements for the animal’s new owner that it looks like her dog might stay with her forever. And that might be just fine.

The KHS program helps to delay surrenders long enough that many owners are able to find pets new homes in the meantime.

But many who use the rehoming service are temporary guardians of pets whose owners have suddenly passed away or fallen ill, Blair explains. One pet owner was in and out of hospitals for a year, leaving her 12 cats to neighbor Kim McDaniel, who, with permission, placed nine on the rehoming page.

After finding that every shelter within a five-hour radius was full to the brim with cats, McDaniel was elated to discover the KHS rehoming service. She has a conversation with new owners and checks vet references before placing a cat; she has an open return policy for any cats who turn out to be mismatched with their new owners.

Such was the case with one of the cats, Teeny, who found living with her new owner stressful, even going so far as to urinate on him while he was sleeping. Although amused, the new owner thought perhaps Teeny might be more relaxed with someone else. Teeny was returned to McDaniel, and then rehomed once more within two weeks. She’s now “happy as a lark” with her new new owner, says McDaniel, who consistently receives pictures and updates after rehoming.

As of August 2015, six of the nine cats had been successfully rehomed without setting paw inside a shelter. The rehoming service is “really a godsend,” says McDaniel. “It’s saving the lives of a lot of cats.”

About the Author

Bethany Wynn Adams is an editor at Animal Sheltering, a quarterly magazine for anyone who cares about the health and happiness of animals and their people, and animalsheltering.org. From tales of shelter mascots to guidance on backyard chickens, Bethany works with experts from across the country and within The Humane Society of the United States to bring wide-ranging, engaging print and web news to the animal welfare community. Winner of the Cat Writers' Association's MUSE Medallion, she lives in Maryland with her husband and two naughty rescue dogs.