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Overlooked no more

Using length of stay to identify and promote long-term animals

From Animal Sheltering Magazine January/February 2014

Lucy was surrendered to MHS because her owner was moving. She was with the shelter for 84 days, but fun photos of her wearing a girly decorative collar, plus a trip to one of the shelter’s PetSmart adoption sites, eventually caught an adopter’s eye. Black cats are notoriously more difficult to adopt out, but staff at the Michigan Humane Society drew attention to Batman by dressing him up in a special collar befitting his superhero name. Finding a home for a bonded pair of dogs can be a challenge. Peaches the shih tzu and Buffy the poodle were very attached to each other when they came to MHS. Staff decked out the duo in matching “flair” for an ad on the website, and an adopter gave them a home.

Is it harder for you to adopt out black cats than those of other colors? How about chubby felines? Ones who don’t tolerate other animals in the home? If your answer is “yes,” you’re not alone.

Many adoption agencies struggle to find homes for animals in certain categories: senior, dark-coated, independent, etc. So it also makes sense that these animals stay longer in your adoption wards and foster homes, taking up space needed for incoming animals and pushing up the average length of stay. Every additional day an animal remains in your care—whether in the shelter or in foster care—costs money in the form of staff and volunteer time, food, medication, and more.

Animals may also experience behavioral and health declines over time, especially in caged settings, which can negatively affect adoptability and further extend length of stay. If you could only find a way to move the most difficult-to-adopt pets, it follows that your entire adoption system would run more smoothly and be more cost-effective.

Here at the Michigan Humane Society (MHS), when we noticed a single cat waiting in a back area day after day for cage space in one of our adoption rooms, we developed the Overlooked Pets program. Launched in November 2011, it was a joint project of the operations, marketing, and animal welfare departments. That cat turned out to be the tip of the iceberg when we reviewed our daily cat inventory through the lens of length of stay, and found more animals waiting long periods of time for adoption. First developed for felines, the new program quickly grew to encompass dogs and other companion animals.Now, two years later, the program acts as a safety net ensuring animals of all types do not get lost in the busy MHS system. It has given staff and volunteers a tool enabling them to move more than 1,500 longtime resident cats into homes, and cut the time of the weekly tracked “longest stay” feline (originally 220 days) in half! Length of stay of the longest-time animals is dropping, as black, chubby, elderly, and independent animals move more quickly into homes.

At MHS, we think of a sheltering or rescue system as a kind of “adoption pencil.” Imagine that all your adoptable cats fit inside your pencil, with the newest arrivals being added at the eraser end and adopted cats flowing out of the pencil point. If you have cats who do not get placed quickly, they bunch up behind the point. These “overlooked cats” keep your pencil from writing smoothly. We have to “sharpen” the pencil by focusing staff and volunteer efforts on the overlooked cats near the point in order to unplug the system.

Shelters and foster-based groups alike can use the Overlooked Pets program to help move along languishing animals using a three-step process: identify, promote, and track.

Step 1: Identifying Overlooked Pets

The MHS sheltering and adoption system includes three large full-service animal care facilities and seven offsite adoption centers, plus more than 300 active foster homes. On a busy day, upwards of 1,000 animals are being cared for. Putting focus on individual animals can be quite the challenge, especially for those slowest-to-move-pets. Animals chosen for special promotion in print and social media were not always selected with their length of stay in mind.Our solution was to create and distribute a regular Overlooked Pets report. Using the MHS online database, a single volunteer spends about two hours a week compiling the report. MHS uses Shelter Buddy software, for which the “In Care Inventory” report provides length-of-stay information. So, for example, all cats and kittens available for adoption and showing 30 or more “Days Here” qualify for the weekly list. (Adoption groups handling fewer animals than MHS may be able to identify their overlooked pets without using data analysis, but it is still a good idea to list them for all to see.)

The Overlooked Pets report comprises three separate lists: one for dogs, one for cats, and one for small furries and other pets. All three lists are organized by length of stay, with the longest-time animals appearing at the top. The report lists adoptable cats and small furries who have been in the MHS system for at least 30 days, and dogs who have been with us for at least 21 days. While the dog and small furry lists are short (one to two pages), the overlooked cats list is longer, and thus divided into three sections for ease of use: Catwatch (30-39 days at MHS); Cataction (40+ days); and Overlooked Cats (top six longest-time cats). Each section has different marketing approaches for promoting the cats.

The Overlooked Pets reports provide animal name, identification number, physical location, number of days in the system, and identifies pets with special adoption conditions (such as health or behavior issues) requiring waivers. Space is provided for noting adoption promotion efforts and animal outcome. The list is color-coded for easy identification of juveniles; pets not appearing online; and adoption, transfer, and euthanasia outcomes. Only adoptable animals are listed, but they may be located in foster homes, in our shelters, or at offsite locations. A new update from Shelter Buddy includes the number of days in foster; these numbers can be backed out of the total to provide a more accurate reporting of days available for adoption.

At the beginning of each week, the reports are emailed to key staffers in the operations department. These folks distribute the lists electronically to staff and volunteers at all MHS locations, and to marketing and community outreach staff. Adoption volunteers and frontline adoption staff members receive the information through updates and morning meetings. The reports keep everyone informed of the animals in most need, and help track overlooked animals as they move among the adoption locations.

Step 2: Promoting Overlooked Pets

Many of the animals in your care will likely be able to find homes without extra help. Those who do not find homes quickly will appear on the Overlooked Pets report. Once your organization knows which animals are overlooked, the next step is to focus promotional activities on those animals.MHS uses a variety of methods to promote overlooked pets. “Pet of the Week” spots on television, radio, and in print feature one or more animals, but we also do special promotions for overlooked pets on Facebook and other social media sites. Moving overlooked animals to offsite adoption locations and events has proven highly effective. Highlighting animals by providing them with colorful collars and tags; decorating their cage cards; and displaying them in the shelter lobby have also worked. Updating photos and descriptions seen online after a certain number of days can help animals seem new. At MHS, trained photography volunteers use seasonal and other props to help each pet stand out from the crowd. Adding video footage to overlooked pets can give them an edge as well. Adoption fee reductions and add-ons like gift baskets or prepaid insurance are other ideas.

Think carefully about the words you use to describe overlooked pets. “Lost” instead of “stray,” “sensitive” to replace “fearful,” and “petite” instead of “small” are examples of words that avoid adopter turn-off. Add a qualifier to the color black: smoke black, jet black, silky black, shiny black. Focus on animals’ eye color (“sea green eyes”) or a unique feature (declawed, bobbed tail). Animals who dislike other pets “prefer to be king/queen of the house.” Crabby cats can be described as “cat-lover’s cats.” Pets are “chubby,” not “overweight”; older pets are “mature.” Don’t be afraid to write from the perspective of the pet or mix up the approaches you use. Different people respond to different verbal descriptions.

The MHS Overlooked Pets program assigns a general sequence to the various promotional possibilities, but allows for flexibility as well. It is important that staff and volunteers who know the animals best are involved in choosing the promotions for individual pets. (Not all pets are appropriate for offsite adoptions; for example, cats who don’t travel well or animals who require daily medication from shelter staff.) Animals are selected for media promotion by those who have daily interaction with the pets, helping ensure that behaviorally stable animals are selected. Promotional language may be written by savvy marketing staff members or volunteers.Cats on the MHS Catwatch list (30-39 days) are moved to offsite locations whenever possible. Since they have not found homes in their original setting, getting them in front of a new set of potential adopters can help. MHS uses an internal animal transport system that moves cats, dogs, and other animals among its locations seven days a week. Dogs and small furries are frequently chosen for offsite adoption events in different communities based on the Overlooked Pets report.

Cats on the MHS Cataction list (40-plus days) qualify for media promotion. Some overlooked black cats receive colorful collars/tags, which are purchased at a discount when our host pet supply stores run clearance sales.

Finally, six overlooked cats—plus four dogs and three small furries—are highlighted on a themed Overlooked Pets Web page launched in May 2012. While the top six overlooked cats automatically qualify for the webpage, the featured dogs and other pets are selected by facility staff or the program coordinator.

We have held “Race for the Right House” leading up to political elections and “Home for the Holidays” during November and December. Overlooked pets on this webpage feature reduced adoption fees ($20 for felines and $50 off the regular adoption fee for canines) and upbeat, engaging write-ups with new photos.

Step 3: Tracking Overlooked Pets

Midweek electronic updates highlighting successes are sent pre- and post-weekend, so that staff can learn the outcomes for animals no matter the location. Seasonal trends, along with the effects of adoption promotions, can be easily communicated graphically (see chart above). In this graph, the big drops in the numbers of overlooked cats in early May and July correspond to cat-specific adoption promotions. Such a graph can also help an organization decide when an adoption promotion is needed. Overlooked cat numbers peak in Michigan in midsummer—when litters of kittens are most prevalent—and level off in midwinter.

Midweek emails also publicly congratulate the specific staff and volunteer teams responsible for adopting difficult-to-place animals. Individual animal examples are provided to board members and featured in social media as success stories.

Spending a few volunteer and staff hours every week to identify and promote the overlooked pets in your system can play a role in reducing length of stay in all types of animal adoption organizations. An Overlooked Pets program can also help your organization analyze trends and time your adoption promotions. Staff and volunteers will rally around those animals waiting the longest for homes, sharpening your agency’s “adoption pencil” and reaping the benefits of reduced length of stay.

Linda Reider is the director of statewide initiatives at Michigan Humane Society. For more information and sample documents, contact MHS at 248-283-5697 or email​


Longtime cat outcomes over the first year of the Overlooked Pets program. The small number euthanized were for significant health or behavioral issues that developed during care.

About the Author

Linda Reider is the director of statewide initiatives for MHS, where she has worked for eight years. She has been in the animal welfare field for the past 29 years.