Oct. 9, 2009 — -- They're just as friendly and just as furry, but black dogs sitting in animal shelters are often overlooked by prospective pet owners, according to animal rescue professionals who have dubbed the problem the "black dog syndrome."
"What we've learned is that large black dogs, and also black cats, tend to be the last ones to get adopted from shelters," said Kim Saunders, the head of shelter outreach for Petfinder.com, a Web site often used by people looking to adopt pets.
"As a result, there are more of them in shelters and are euthanized more because of the lack of space," said Saunders, who says that one of the reasons she believes black dogs are overlooked is because they don't photograph as well as lighter-colored animals.
On sites like Petfinder.com that list more than 300,000 animals that are up for adoption, bad photographs of dogs can result in them being ignored altogether, said Saunders.
For some shelters, the problem is so bad that they've developed special promotions to help draw attention to their black pooches.
Hope Hancock, the executive director of the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals of Wake County in Raleigh, N.C., said that her shelter offered a sort of blue plate special to help get their black dogs adopted.
As part of the campaign, Hancock said a poster was developed to promote the black dogs in the shelter and it was decorated with a string of blue lights. People who decided to take home the black dogs were given a discount off the routine adoption fees.
"Sometimes black dogs are seen as scarier by people," said Hancock. "It's very, very unfair – you can get a bite from a little yellow Chihuahua faster than one of the bigger black dogs."
"It's not a fair assessment but it's the one that's made a lot of the time," she said.
Hancock said that the Raleigh shelter has also offered a deal on black cats, who also tend to go unnoticed.
The shelter developed a special portion of their Web site dedicated to these black cats and gave them each a superhero nickname, handmade them capes, and photographed them in the costumes.
"Many times, the black cats with no markings, much like the black dogs, appear to be a little bit plain, even though they're bursting with personality," said Hancock, "So we have to accentuate that."
Why Are Black Dogs and Cats Ignored More Than Others in Shelters?
Sherri Skidmore, the owner and founder of the Utah-based Black Dog Rescue Project, started her Web site to bring attention to the animals that are overlooked, which she says is a result of several factors.
"In the online age, photographs of dark-colored animals are much harder to see," said Skidmore.
In addition, the shelter atmosphere can sometimes offer no natural light to look at a dog's face in, said Skidmore.
"People are looking for a face to fall in love with and if that dog doesn't stand out in a crowd, they just get overlooked," said Skidmore. "If you put a black dog and a lighter dog next to each other, people will be drawn to the lighter one."
Superstition about the bad luck of having a black cat or the way black dogs are portrayed as villainous or dangerous in movies also contributes to the problem, said Skidmore.
But Julie Morris, the senior vice president of the American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals, says that while the Black Dog Syndrome is talked about a lot, there are no hard numbers to support the theory.
"There is no research data and no controlled research to support [the Black Dog Syndrome theory], which doesn't necessarily mean it's not true, but just that there is no data," said Morris.
"There are lots of compounding factors," said Morris. "Are there just more black dogs in shelters or is the real problem because most black dogs are also big dogs?"
According to Morris, the majority of people adopting dogs – especially those in urban areas – prefer smaller, easier-to-handle dogs which often times are not black.
"It's not really clear if shelters see this as a problem just because there are simply more black dogs out there," said Morris.
Even if the black dog syndrome isn't proven, Morris said that any adoption is a good adoption and there is no harm in these shelters drawing extra attention to dark dogs and cats.
Hancock is planning another special campaign to attract cat lovers to help deal with a recent influx of black cats at her North Carolina shelter.
"Human nature leads people toward things that are more vibrant and riveting in color," said Hancock. "It's very, very superficial... there is no inherent difference in these animals, they're just angels."