Black dogs and cats have a tough time in shelters

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While working at the Washington Humane Society (WHS) in Washington, DC, I was thrilled when I found out that King, a large and handsome black Labrador mix was finally adopted after spending many months at WHS.  King had been at the shelter for so long, everyone knew and loved him.

young black lab

King is a black adoptable dog at Washington Humane Society.

King, like so many other black dogs in shelters, spent more time waiting for his new home than his lighter-colored kennelmates. In the sheltering world this is known as Black Dog Syndrome (BDS). When I left WHS to pursue graduate work in anthropology at The George Washington University I conducted research into BDS.

BDS is observed by shelters and rescue groups throughout America and affects black dogs, as well as cats. It is possible that there may simply be more black pets in the shelter and rescue population. However reports from across the country seem to illustrate the problem, and  multiple national organizations have long recognized BDS as an issue that adversely affects the adoption rates of black pets.

In 2008, USA Today’s story “Large, black dogs less likely to be adopted” the vice president of the ASPCA was reported as saying, “we hear from shelter after shelter: big black dogs just don’t get adopted.” In 2011, MSNBC published a story quoting Inge Fricke from the Humane Society of the United States stating that Black Dog Syndrome “is not a hoax” and that “it is something commonly accepted by shelter workers as truth.”

What is Black Dog Syndrome?
In a recent survey, Petfinder member shelter and rescue groups reported that most pets are listed for 12.5 weeks on Petfinder, whereas, less-adoptable pets (such as black, senior, and special needs pets) spend almost four times as long on Petfinder. (See what else the survey showed on our Adopt-A-Less-Adoptable-Pet Week page!)

Through my research I learned that Black Dog Syndrome may be caused by a combination of:

  • Size
  • Unclear facial features
  • Dimly lit kennels
  • The “genericness” of black pets
  • Negative portrayals of black pets in books, movies and other popular media
    • A big, frightening black dog can be seen in The Hound of the Baskervilles, the Harry Potter series, both movie versions of The Omen, and even on the common “Beware of Dog” sign.
    • Black cats are readily associated with witches, superstition, and bad luck.

What you can do

Whether or not you’re currently looking to adopt, you can do a lot to help pets who suffer from BDS!

  • Display your love of black pets proudly to demonstrate that there is nothing wrong with them. Share our Black Fur Badge on your website (see it below)!
  • Encourage friends to look past their first impressions of a black pet.
  • Tell people about BDS! It’s generally an unconscious prejudice and most people will move past it once they’re aware.
  • Remind people that their parents were right: personality is more important than appearance. It’s just as true for pets as for people!
  • Share your favorite black pets from our Adopt-A-Less-Adoptable-Pet Week Gallery!


For more information on Black Dog Syndrome, read the article I published out of The Kroeber Anthropological Society Papers, “The Plight of ‘Big Black Dogs’ in American Animal Shelters: Color-Based Canine Discrimination,” or visit

Adopt-A-Less-Adoptable-Pet Week 2012