- Ancient Egyptians treated black cats as royalty, and killing them was a capital offense.
- In several countries, the apparitions of black dogs were believed to be the unquiet ghosts of wicked souls.
- The Germans of the Middle Ages believed a black cat was an omen of death if it jumped on the bed of an ill person.
- Black cats are considered good luck in Japan, France, and Scotland, where they are thought to bring prosperity and ward off danger.
- In many cultures, black dogs are viewed as protectors and helpful guides to travelers, while in others, the ghosts of black dogs are thought to haunt bridges and crossroads.
- A black cat sneezing on your wedding day foretells a happy marriage.
Of course, these beliefs now seem silly and outdated. But is there another myth about black dogs and cats that is not only alive and well, but affecting their chances for adoption from local shelters and rescues?
The “Black Dog and Cat” Syndrome
It’s been widely reported that when it comes to finding homes, black dogs seem to suffer from a bias against them known as “Black Dog Syndrome” (a bias that’s been reported for black cats as well). These theories state that black dogs and cats in shelters take longer to adopt than their lighter-colored counterparts – and if you happen to be a big black dog, unfortunately your prospects for adoption are even worse.
A 2011 study by the ASPCA confirmed that appearance does seem to play a primary role in potential adopters’ decisions on which shelter pets to adopt. However, coat color is only one part of an animal’s appearance. “Appearance” can also include facial expression, length of hair coat, breed type, face shape, size, eye color, and a host of other factors.
So does “Black Dog and Cat Syndrome” really exist, or is it just another myth?
In Support of the Myth
If you ask many shelter and rescue workers, there does seem to be a certain amount of anecdotal evidence to support the existence of the “Black Dog and Cat” phenomenon. According to many shelter organizations, black pets seem to take an average of 2 to 4 days longer to be adopted than their kennel mates with lighter hair coats.
Many people have speculated as to why this could be. Some have hypothesized that would-be adopters could be worried about black hair on furniture, or that black pets may appear older, or be perceived as “boring” or even menacing (perhaps due to their depiction in entertainment over the years as sidekicks to villains).
In 2013, a study conducted by psychologists at Penn State concluded that people tend to find images of black dogs scarier than those of brown or lighter-colored dogs. Respondents in the study also rated dark-colored animals as less friendly, less adoptable, and more aggressive. For cats, the study found that white cats were considered the friendliest, orange cats second, and black cats were considered the least friendly.
However, these beliefs tend to be self-propagating. There is a psychological concept called “backfire” that says humans tend to grip hard to myths, and when beliefs are challenged by data, it causes them to grip even harder – even when those beliefs are not supported by science.
Disproving the Myth
Despite the apparent acceptance of the “Black Dog and Cat Syndrome” when it comes to adoption, a new report from the ASPCA says reports of this syndrome are way overblown. And they have the statistics to prove it.
Dr. Emily Weiss, Senior Director of Research and Development for the ASPCA, examined data from their Comprehensive Animal Risk Database, which gathered numbers from 14 different groups and almost 300,000 dogs and cats.
Dr. Weiss found that, although euthanasia numbers for black dogs and cats were at or near the top (both black and white dogs were about 19%, black cats were at 30%, gray cats at 28% and white cats at 26%), the total adoption numbers for black pets were also the highest of any color.
In 2013, 32% of canine adoptions were black dogs, with brown dogs coming in second at 22%. Cat numbers were similar: 31% of feline adoptions in 2013 were black cats, with gray cats coming in second place at 20%. And perhaps more surprisingly, it was actually brown dogs who were euthanized at the highest rate: 25%, vs. euthanasia rates of 21% for black dogs.
So what’s actually happening here?
It all comes down to the number of animals being taken in. There are more black dogs and cats in shelters than any other color: 30% of the dogs taken in by shelters in 2013 were black, with brown coming in second at 23%. For cats, 33% of those taken in were black, with gray cats coming in a distant second at 22%.
So, if you do the math, it looks like this: if 3 black dogs and 1 light-colored dog come into a shelter, and 1 black dog and 1 light dog are adopted, that still leaves 2 black dogs waiting for homes. So because there are more black dogs and cats entering the system, it makes the likelihood of seeing more black animals than any other color in the shelter very high. It doesn’t automatically mean that black dogs or cats are being overlooked because of their color.
So the existence of “Black Dog and Cat Syndrome” may simply be because there are more black animals in the overall pet shelter population.
Other Factors to Consider
When it comes to placing black dogs and cats for adoption, however, there are certain other factors that may influence adoption rates.
Unfortunately, black dogs and cats do not seem to photograph as well as lighter-colored pets. Their features tend to “get lost”, and it’s often hard to see their unique facial expressions. They also seem to get lost in their kennels as well due to poor lighting and shadows, so they may be overlooked simply because they aren’t as visible as white, brown, or yellow dogs. To combat this, some organizations are training their black dog residents to sit in the front portion of their kennels during visiting hours so people are able to see them better.
And when it comes to who actually gets adopted, with cats, Dr. Weiss says that the most common factor is the behavior of the individual cat, not the color. A cat who solicits attention (by being interactive and reaching her paw through the bars of her cage to make contact with a potential adopter) is more likely to get adopted.
An Upside To The Myth
If there’s an upside to the myth of the Black Dog and Cat, it’s that more people are coming into shelters asking specifically to see black dogs and cats because they’ve heard that they are the hardest for shelters and rescues to place.
Shelters have also begun using other tactics to call attention to their dark-colored residents, such as giving black animals brightly-colored blankets or bandanas to offset their dark fur, or making sure they don’t group similar-looking animals together so individuals stand out more.
But perhaps one of the most successful campaigns has been to enlist the assistance of professional photographers to take photos of adoptable black dogs and cats. These photographers use a black or charcoal-colored background, which allows the lines of the face to appear brighter and more defined.
One of these photographers, Fred Levy, has begun championing black dogs by founding the “Black Dogs Project”, a stunning series of photos that highlights the beauty of black dogs. Over the last 2 years, he has photographed both family and shelter dogs, and has recently compiled these striking images into a book (Black Dogs Project: Extraordinary Black Dogs and Why We Can’t Forget Them), due to be released in September, 2015 (also available on Amazon).
Levy also uses his site (caninenoir.tumblr.com) to actively promote black shelter dogs currently available for adoption. In a recent online article from Slate Magazine, Levy says “It’s just so irrational that people would think the color of a dog’s fur has anything to do with its character.”
Old Myths Die Hard
The obvious takeaway is that when it comes to behavior, temperament, and personality, black dogs and cats are no different from any other pets.
And a pet in need of a home needs a home, regardless of color. So why not help further debunk the Myth of the Black Dog and Cat and welcome one into your home? It may not guarantee you good fortune or a happy marriage, but I can promise that it will bring you all the love your heart can hold. 🙂
Had you ever heard of the “Black Dog and Cat Syndrome”? What do you think of it? I would love to hear your thoughts in the comments below!
1 Photo Credit: Fred Levy Photography