CSU study: Superstition might partly explain black cat shelter adoption rates

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Its silhouette is a Halloween icon: Back arched, tail upright, eyes gleaming, claws drawn.

The black cat. Folklore presents it as a frightening figure, with the devilish ability to impart bad luck if its path is crossed.

This superstition might partly explain lower adoption rates for black cats in animal shelters, rates that carry fatal implications for the felines, said Dr. Lori Kogan, a Colorado State University associate professor and licensed psychologist who studies human-animal interactions.

Kogan and CSU colleagues recently examined color-coded adoption data, and verified a long-held belief that cats with black coats stay longer in shelters. That’s worrisome for black cats – even cute black kittens – because of high rates of euthanasia and feline disease among shelter cats, Kogan said.

“Our results suggest that it requires approximately three more days for adult black cats to be adopted compared to cats with black as a primary coat color, such as ‘tuxedo’ cats, and it takes four to six more days for black cats to be adopted when compared to cats of other colors,” concluded Kogan, who works in the CSU Department of Clinical Sciences. “Interestingly, this trend remains consistent, regardless of whether the cat is an adult or juvenile.”

Kogan and fellow researchers examined nine years of adoption data from the Larimer Humane Society in Fort Collins and 18 years of data from the Dumb Friends League of Denver to determine the impact of coat color on adoption rates. The CSU team evaluated adoption time for cats and kittens with black coats, primarily black coats, and coats of other colors.

Longer shelter stays spell trouble for cats, the researchers note in a paper titled, “Cats in Animal Shelters: Exploring the Common Perception that Black Cats Take Longer to Adopt.”

That’s because the prevalent outcome for shelter cats is euthanasia: More than 70 percent of all cats in animal shelters are humanely killed, about 25 percent of shelter cats are adopted, and a small percentage of lost cats are reunited with their owners, studies have shown.

Set aside euthanasia, and having a black coat is still bad news for shelter cats because of higher rates of potentially fatal illness and disease in the stressed shelter population.

“It is important to note that just a few additional days at a shelter carry serious ramifications for the health and ultimate fate of a sheltered cat. As several studies have indicated, the likelihood that a cat will contract an infection is significantly impacted by their length of time in a shelter,” Kogan and colleagues write. “In other words, days matter.”

Kogan cannot say with certainty that myths surrounding black cats are to blame for longer shelter stays.

It’s equally likely that general perceptions about color – the color white is often associated with “good,” and the color black is often associated with “bad” – play a role in animal adoptions. Likewise, she noted, black cats simply don’t photograph as well, so she recommends that shelters put more effort into positively portraying black cats on websites, in advertisements, and through other outlets that encourage pet adoption.

The bottom line, Kogan said, is that human perceptions and notions have a bearing on animal health.

“How people think about animals influences pet health and well-being,” she said. “This is true whether people’s ideas are fact-based or based on myth. We need to take these ideas into consideration when we are working to promote animal health.”