Who says looks don’t matter? Certainly not prospective adopters of dogs, according to new research conducted by the ASPCA (The American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals).

The ASPCA’s study of nearly 1,500 adopters from five animal shelters across the country has uncovered the reasons behind why adopters chose the particular pet they took home. The results may surprise you.


Why someone chose a particular pet varied by species, with appearance driving the choice for dog adopters, while behavior with people drove cat adopters.

Digging deeper, we learned that the greatest number of puppy and kitten adopters reported that appearance was the most important factor in their decision.

The discovery that appearance drives choice for those adopting puppies, dogs and kittens is an important one, as Dr. Kat Miller, an ASPCA expert who worked on the study notes,

“While this study indicates there is such a thing as love at first sight, a lasting commitment is based on more than a pretty face. Adopters' reliance on an animal's appearance is an invitation to shelters to open dialogue about a match that lasts even after the honeymoon is over.”

Research has shown that unrealistic expectations can put the bond between an adopter and his or her pet at risk.

When adopters choose animals based on their looks, shelters can help assure the adopters go home with realistic expectations about their pets.

For example, the ASPCA recommends shelters implement a Meet Your Match program through which the pet’s behavior is assessed and the adopter’s expectations are analyzed to find the best match. In addition, shelters should provide simple fact-based descriptions of each individual animal’s behavior, such as “Rover pulls a bit on his leash.”

Cats often get a bad rap because “non-cat-people” don’t know how social cats can be. They may be shocked when they meet a shelter cat who approaches them, meows loudly, or rubs on them. Even if a prospective adopter enters a shelter thinking that he wants to adopt an orange cat, a black cat may make him forget all about looks by being interactive.

What we found for adopters is opposite of what we tell our children. That is, we advise adopters, “Don’t just look – touch.”

The data also revealed that for both adopters of cats and dogs, seeing the pet's behavior when interacting with them was more important than seeing the pet behind the cage door, or seeing the pet's behavior toward other animals. Shelters can use this information to help assure adopters have the space and time to interact directly with the dog or cat they are interested in.

You may wonder why all of this matters.

Quite simply, dogs and cats are dying every day in shelters simply because there is no room and an adopter did not choose them.

By learning what motivates adopter choice, we can develop programs and processes to increase the likelihood that more dogs and cats are chosen.

One of the most fascinating data nuggets from the research was from a question that asked, “What else was important in your decision to choose this particular pet?” Adopters were asked to choose all that applied. Factors such as the age, health and playfulness were more likely to be checked than the choice, “I wanted to help an animal.”

While saving an animal is what happens when you choose to adopt from a shelter, you do not need to come to save an animal; you just need to come to find your next best friend.

Emily Weiss, Ph.D, CAAB is Vice President of Shelter Research & Development for the ASPCA.