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How Does Your Return Rate Measure Up?

Dr. Emily Weiss wonders what a low return rate might really mean. (Spoiler Alert: There‘s more than one answer to this question.)


I received a great email this past weekend from a woman I had not heard from in quite a while. Rosie was updating me about her dog, Carlton, whom I had rehomed to her. Her note ended, “I can't thank you enough for giving me the most wonderful and loving dog in the world. He makes me smile EVERY day. He makes friends everywhere we go. We are very happy together. Thank you, thank you, THANK YOU!!!”

Yes, I had to rehome a dog once—and it was a difficult decision. Was it Rocco, my hard-driving, multiple-trigger, behaviorally imbalanced pup? Or Carlton—the kindest, most behaviorally sound, sweet, lovely chow mix we had ever met? As hard as it was, it was clear that Carl, who was challenged by our Jack Russell terriers, could live a better life if he were not in our home.

Rosie heard about Carlton and came to visit. Her eyes lit up when she saw him, and she immediately dropped onto the floor and buried her head into Carl’s big, soft head and kissed him. He melted into her lap and we knew Carlton had just met his new mom. Rosie still sends me pictures of Carlton, who she takes to work daily in her job as a therapist for children. Rehoming Carlton made at least 3 hearts bigger.

Carl and Rosie at work helping a little girl.


Recently a question came to the ASPCA R&D team, asking us what is considered a good return rate. Boy, did that question open a can of worms… and brought back memories of my adopted Carlton. Did I skew the shelter data by rehoming instead of returning him? Our team had a great, juicy conversation about returns, and I thought you might like to join in.

So first, let’s make clear that just because a dog or cat is not returned, that does not mean he stayed in the adopter’s home. Data from American Pet Products Association and other resources shows that many people obtain their pets from friends and neighbors, which suggests dogs and cats are likely being rehomed at a fairly significant rate without ever entering the shelter system. A report by American Humane also showed that a minimum of 10% of adopted pets are not staying in the adoptive home. And, of course, there is the story of Carlton (and I suspect many of you have your own stories, too)…

What does a low return rate mean anyway? Here are some of our thoughts as to what it could mean—and I would love to hear what you would add:

- A low return rate may mean that the organization has militant adoption policies and folks are uncomfortable with how they may be perceived if they return the animal to that source, so they choose to rehome elsewhere.

- A low return rate may be due to an organization’s transparency about their shelter data (not at all a bad thing). If the shelter is up front with the adopter—letting them know that if they need to bring the animal back, that animal’s chance of leaving alive is not 100%—and the pet turns out to not be a good fit for that home, that kind adopter may find a way to rehome the pet instead.

- A low return rate may mean exceptional matching of lifestyle and expectations of the adopter to the potential pet, or exceptional communication of the ways in which the pet’s behavior may not match all of the adopter’s expectations—allowing the adopter to shift expectations and leave with realistic tools to mitigate challenges.

- A low return rate may mean exceptional follow-up post adoption to help adopters through the inevitable bumps.

- A low return rate might also mean that the organization had stressed that this must be a “forever home” throughout the adoption process. As we know that in many cases, “a forever home” is just not realistic, these folks may opt to rehome elsewhere rather than return to the shelter where they may feel judged.

I started this blog post sharing a personal story about rehoming. I personally am a fan of those who might choose to not bring the pet back to the shelter if they need to rehome. Obviously I am a bit biased, but it has opened my mind to what return rates might tell us—and how we can best support those dogs and cats in our communities.


What might a high or low return rate mean in your community?


Related Links

Blog: “What Is Most Important?”

Blog: “Returns Reframed”


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