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.