An Overlooked Statistic

We all know the importance of the live release rate in evaluating a shelter’s performance. There is another very important statistic that is often overlooked, however, and that is the average length of stay. A shelter that has an average length of stay of 10 days has twice as much effective shelter space as a shelter that has an average length of stay of 20 days. And the animals are twice as well off, because they are spending half the time in the shelter environment, which can be stressful unless the shelter is very well designed.

It’s unfortunately rare to see the live release rate on a shelter’s website, but it’s almost unheard-of to see average length of stay. We need to make average length of stay part of the regular statistics that are kept and reported. This would allow us to identify shelters that are doing well on this metric and shelters that are doing poorly. It would allow us to recognize shelter directors who have been able to maintain a short length of stay along with a high live release rate, and to seek their advice on how other shelters can decrease length of stay.

There are several factors that influence how long an animal stays in the shelter, including stray-hold time (which is generally mandated by law), medical protocols, behavior evaluation, and marketing. The best shelters manage to combine high live release rates with a short length of stay. Maddie’s Fund has been a leader in identifying factors that affect length of stay and devising protocols for reducing length of stay. For example, check out this webcast.

One question is whether to include time in foster care as time in the shelter. I think foster care time should not be included because foster animals, although they may require some support from the shelter, are not taking up space and they are in a home environment. Plus, a foster home often turns into a permanent home.

It’s hard to think of anything else that could improve shelter productivity as quickly as cutting down on average length of stay. I think average length of stay is worth more attention than it’s getting, but certainly a first step in raising the profile of this metric is to begin to routinely capture the data as part of shelter statistics.

11 thoughts on “An Overlooked Statistic

  1. Regan

    Length of stay is a useful metric when everybody’s on a level-playing field, but how would we make it equitable when some shelters specialize in the most needy animals and others have highly-adoptable animals?

    Actually, now that I’ve typed that, I’ve realized that really applies to almost every metric, so you may have already discussed it. Point me to it if you have.

    • Susan Houser Post author

      I probably should have clarified in the post that I was talking just about municipal shelters — the ones that are the subject of this blog. Those shelters all take in strays and the great majority of them take in owner surrenders for their communities, so none of them “specialize” in the way I think you mean. You’re right that length of stay would not be very meaningful for an organization that ran a sanctuary-type shelter.

  2. Alison Hector

    Fantastic point. Average length of stay is a very useful statistic especially when determining where on the spectrum of the NKE a shelter falls and why. In a kill shelter a shorter stay isn’t always good news however. For shelters with a high kill rate the shorter stay isn’t usually because they are getting adopted or transferred. The reason and method of the animal’s departure should also be noted when evaluating this statistic.

    • Susan Houser Post author

      You’re absolutely right that a short length of stay isn’t good news in a kill shelter. As I tried to emphasize in the post, average length of stay has to be interpreted in conjunction with the live release rate.

  3. Evelyn Black

    This statistic is something that definitely needs to be included in the overall picture of a successful shelter. It could specifically point out the concept of “warehousing” animals; however I would hope that it wouldn’t affect a situation where a more difficult to adopt dog or cat is kept for a longer period of time (many months, maybe, while waiting to find a suitable home. There often seems to be the case where loud “hurray”s are heard when a long-term guest finally goes out the front door in the arms of a wonderful new family.

  4. Evelyn Black

    Another thought, and helpful statistic, would be regarding # of animal returns. Especially in light of the success of discounted or waived adoption fees (the biggest criticism is that animals would be returned (easily trackable) or dumped (much more difficult to quantify) in much higher numbers.)
    Not sure what time frame would yield the most significant info – whether that would be within 30 days, or 6 months or a year following adoption . . .

    • Susan Houser Post author

      Some shelters do report returns, but the basic Asilomar form does not have that item. I think the software programs used by most shelters do track returns, so that data should be readily available to most shelters. It could provide valuable information to the shelter on the effectiveness of their adoption matching protocol. On the specific point of discounted or waived adoption fees, Maddie’s Fund posted this article showing no negative consequences of free adoptions for cats:

  5. Freinds of Newark NJ Animal Shelter

    I wholeheartedly agree that length of stay is critical. You can come up with a rough estimate of length of stay by:

    1) Calculating average inventory of animals at shelter (beginning and ending numbers divided by 2 or average monthly numbers if available)

    2) Divide total outcomes by average inventory to determine average turnover

    3) Divide 365 by average turnover in #2

    4) Refine number to weed out returns by using percentage of returns and assume a 3 day average (KC dog blog suggests bulk of returns occur by this time). This then lets you determine average stay of adopted/euthanized, etc

    This is only useful if you use to compare against shelters with similar live release rates. In addition, the mix of animals is critical. For example, knowing what percentage of pit bulls are in shelter would be a good measuring stick.

    Obviously, shelters can calculate this more precisely and by specific animal categories. However, we the public are left to these rougher approximations.

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