Black Dog Syndrome: How Fur Color Can Influence Choosing A Pet

Clear the Shelters

A sitting black Chow Chow puppy!A 12 weeks male puppy dog with a blue tongue on green grass.

On Aug. 17, NBC and Telemundo stations around the country will join forces with local animal shelters in the hopes of finding forever homes for pets in need.

But for certain types of adoptable pets, making it out of the shelter can be ruff. While it’s not unusual for older pets or pets with diagnosed medical conditions to wait longer for the perfect home, a surprising factor may come in to play when potential adopters evaluate shelter pets – color. In fact, many shelters and rescues have coined the term “black dog syndrome” to describe the frequency with which dark-coated animals are passed over for lighter-colored pets.

It should be noted that attempts to study black dog syndrome have had mixed results. Some questioned whether this puppy prejudice even existed at all, while others found that although black cats and dogs were eventually adopted, it took substantially longer for them to find the perfect match than for their light-colored counterparts. But seasoned shelter workers insist the phenomenon is real, and I have seen it for myself during visits to our local shelter. Here are some theories as to why these pets have a tendency to be overlooked.

Black pets are tough to photograph
As the owner of a black dog who is often featured on our hospital’s social media platforms, I can attest to this personally. Lighting, backgrounds, and the clothing of the people in the shot all have to be taken into consideration when trying to capture that perfect shot. And once we have it, we usually tweak it by lightening, cropping or adding filters. Busy animal shelters can not often spare the time needed for such fussy attention to detail. As a result, dark-coated pets may not present well on a shelter’s website or social media platforms.

Black pets don’t stand out
Dim lighting and shadows in shelter enclosures can swallow up a dark-coated pet. And if the pet is feeling overwhelmed, shadows are exactly where they want to be. In these types of situations, a potential adopter may not notice the pet at all.

Dark faces hide eyes and facial expressions
We often search animals’ faces in the hopes of making an emotional connection. The eyes of a black dog or cat are less likely to stand out than those of their light coated counterparts. When surrounded by dark fur, their facial expressions are less pronounced and therefore harder for adopters to read.

Media and cultural bias
In many cultures, the color black is associated with evil, misfortune, and bad luck. From Harry Potter’s Grim, to the Hounds of Baskerville, to the universal Beware Of Dog sign, aggressive dogs in popular culture are often portrayed as being black. And the superstitions surrounding black cats have been around for thousands of years. It should be noted, however, that in some countries, black cats are seen as harbingers of good luck, blessings, and excellent fortune. 

Perhaps the best way for potential adopters to avoid the traps of black cat and black dog syndrome is to simply be aware of its existence. Choose pets based on temperament and suitability to your lifestyle, and make sure you have the time and resources needed for responsible pet ownership. Once we’re reminded not to judge a book by its cover, we tend to correct that tendency. The same can be said of judging a pet by its coat as we get ready to Clear The Shelters.

Dr. Kupkee is the lead practitioner at Sabal Chase Animal Clinic

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