Length of Stay (LOS) is the amount of time that an animal spends in a shelter between impoundment and disposition. It is a particularly important measure for No Kill shelters, but often doesn’t get the attention it deserves. LOS is so important that it ought to be routinely made available by shelters as part of full disclosure, along with their other statistics. Yet it is very rare to see LOS reported. This is partly historical. Back in the days when public shelters had some 5 times higher intake per person than they have today, and there were far more homeless animals in the environment, most shelters set a time limit on an animal’s stay. Today’s No Kill shelters keep an animal as long as they need to. That means that LOS for a given animal can range from as short as 1 day (for a healthy owner surrender who is quickly adopted or diverted to rescue) to 365 days or more.
When the public shelter in a No Kill community has a short LOS, that means the shelter is not only saving all healthy and treatable animals, it (1) is exposing animals to less disease risk, (2) can care for more animals with the same amount of resources, and (3) will have fewer animals developing shelter-induced behavior problems. That makes LOS one of the most powerful predictors of efficient and effective No Kill performance.
Keeping track of LOS can help No Kill shelter directors figure out what programs they need to emphasize to get the best return on lifesaving. For example, let’s say a shelter has the common problem of “too many” pit bulls. As Dr. Emily Weiss points out, longer LOS for pit bulls equals a higher percentage of pit bulls in the dog population at the shelter. If a shelter’s dog intake is 25% pit bulls and pit-bull LOS is twice as long as that of other dogs, then far more than 25% of the dogs in the shelter at any given time will be pit bulls. In that circumstance, a failure to market pit bulls effectively may be the problem. If, on the other hand, pit bulls have the same LOS as other dogs, the shelter’s resources may be better spent on a program like Pets for Life that micro-targets free spay-neuter services for under-served populations.
The usefulness of knowing the LOS is not limited to established No Kill shelters. In fact it may be even more important for shelters that are in the process of making No Kill transitions, because LOS can indicate whether No Kill programs are being properly implemented. If LOS starts to rise significantly during a transition to No Kill, it may be an early indicator of a problem. Finding the problem quickly and fixing it can save the No Kill effort from crashing and burning. A good LOS is important in refuting allegations that a shelter in transition to No Kill is “warehousing” animals. If the shelter director can say that its LOS is average or better for the industry, that’s the very best answer to those critics.
A short LOS can also help increase adoptions, since it can allow the shelter to “right-size” its capacity. It’s important that an adoption venue have the right amount of animals available for adoption. Studies have shown that if a potential adopter has a large number of animals to choose from, it makes it harder for the adopter to make a choice and decide on one particular animal. If the shelter has too few animals the adopter may not be able to find a compatible pet (too few animals is rarely a problem with a public shelter and when it does occur it is easily fixed by transports).
Finally, if you doubt the importance of LOS, think of this: If a shelter can cut LOS in half while continuing to save all healthy and treatable pets, it has the same effect as doubling the size of the shelter. And it does that with no increase in cost or staffing.
There is help for shelter directors who want to know more about LOS. The ASPCA has a series of webinars that go into detail about LOS, and a page that explains the usefulness of distinguishing between average and median LOS. A webinar from Maddie’s Fund discusses how LOS relates to shelter flow-through. The new book Every Nose Counts explains how to use shelter statistics, including LOS, to increase lifesaving. For shelter directors who simply want quick, proven tips to reduce LOS, check out Brent Toellner’s blog on the issue, as well as several articles from Maddie’s Fund.