I’ve been on a bit of a Debby Downer tear about what doesn’t work in sheltering so I thought I’d turn to a couple things which do work! Over the next few days I’ll focus on effective programs. A couple of these target the dirty little secret of the animal adoption world: adoption returns.
Clearly, not every adoption will work out when half of all marriages fail eventually. However, anything we can do to reduce the likelihood of a pet being returned helps the pet, helps the adopter, and helps our shelter by reducing incoming numbers.
We can either minimize the likelihood of adoption failure before the animal is adopted through high quality adoption counseling and excellent matching or we can minimize the chances of failure once the animal is at home by addressing identifiable reasons for adoption returns (better yet, we should do both). One area of post adoption failure which can be addressed is related to the health and wellness of adopted pets.
Many years ago at Berks Humane we crunched the numbers and saw that there were both specific windows for adoption returns (more on that tomorrow) and specific reasons associated with those windows of returns. Health related issues topped the list for animals returned in the first month following adoption and the type of health issue was directly related to the time window of return. Finding a way to prevent, avoid, or treat the health issue offered an enormous opportunity to boost early adoption success in that first critical month.
Shelter have touted that the best defense against an adoption return is a veterinarian. That’s why we’ve all tried to work with local vets, to greater or lesser success, to provide a “free” vet exam for adopted pets. Those “free’ exams tended to come with a laundry list of costs associated with vaccinations, testing, flea products, not to mention the extra costs should the animal come down with one or more of the common post adoption ailments like upper respiratory infections, kennel cough, or digestive upset. Most of these ailments are stress related and treatable, but that doesn’t mean they won’t cost the adopter a few hundred bucks on top of the “free” exam.
What if there was a way to offset that cost? Many years ago, VCA Animal Hospitals came up with just such a program and began offering partnerships to shelters near VCA hospitals which would provide a 14 day adoption health guarantee. If used in the first 14 days, they offered free exam, discount of diagnostics, and free treatment of typical post adoption illnesses. For many shelters this is a great program and it certainly helps VCA obtain new clients, so it’s good for them. For any animals which get treated and don’t get returned, it’s really good, too.
Berks Humane enrolled in this program many years ago but had mixed success. One problem was that the 14 day window did not line up with the windows of failure we had demonstrated through our data crunching. The program was pretty good but the timing was bad. We wondered if we couldn’t offer the same benefits but make them fit the health issues and time windows we knew we faced. It turned out we could and thus was born the HSBC 30 Day Adoption Health Guarantee!
All animals adopted at HSBC- and now Humane League of Lancaster County- get a free exam, too, if using our veterinary services in the first 30 days following adoption. We will also treat a long list of illnesses and conditions which can be common in shelter pets due to the stress of adoption or from a sometimes unknown health background. If your new pet comes down with an upper respiratory infection, infectious tracheobronchitis (kennel cough), diarrhea or vomiting of infectious origin, intestinal parasites, common skin disorders, ear and eye infections, or a urinary tract infection, our vets will treat it for free. If you’ve had a pet with any of these common ailments, you know who much treatment for them can cost.
Why do we do this? First, if we can save one adopter a couple hundred bucks on treating a simple ailment and keep that animal safe in its new home, we have a happy pet, a happy adopter, and one more open space in our facilities for another animal. Second, if the animal was returned, we’d end up treating it anyway, only in a more stressful environment- our shelter as opposed to a home- where recovery is less likely, so it’s cost effective for us. Third, when our clients see what a great job our vets do, they may consider sticking with our vet services in the future, which is great for our charitable bottom line. Every dollar they spend in the future is a dollar we can apply to other adopted pets’ health guarantees and to treat sheltered animals.
I know this is where vets start to grumble but I say, hey, you could offer this to your clients, too. We’ll even tell every adopter and give them your card. Anyone? Anyone? OK, so stop grumbling and let us go back to helping our animals stay in a new home.
These programs can be provided at some level or scale by any shelter with a veterinarian on staff. We worked up to our full, comprehensive program but we started in a more limited fashion when we just had one vet and one little exam room. This is where some shelters start grumbling about not being “lucky” enough to have a vet on staff. To you I say, hey, stop whining and hire a vet. If you don’t have one in the 21st century it’s because you are choosing not to. It’s your job as a director to find the resources and make it happen.
I am excited that we are expanding this lifesaving program into Lancaster County, and that we are expanding and upgrading the services provided under this program in Berks and Lancaster Counties over the coming year. This program is good animals, it’s good for people, and it’s good for our shelter. Adoption health guarantees work.