Canine and feline behaviour evaluation at shelters

There would appear to be no safe and comprehensive personality and behaviour testing procedures to assess dogs and cats at shelters with accuracy. Nathan Winograd, American’s expert on animal shelters, states that “current temperament testing regimes for dogs do not qualify as objective criteria as they have been found to be no better than a coin toss”. The same must apply to shelter cats.

The big obvious problem is that you’re trying to assess dogs and cats thrust into an alien, noisy environment with much less human interaction, which alters their behaviour and emotions to the point where they mask any possibility of an objective accurate assessment. I don’t know how you get around that except to remove the animal from the shelter.

Assessing cat and dogs at shelters
Assessing cat and dogs at shelters. Infographic by MikeB
Until September 7th I will give 10 cents to an animal charity for every comment. It is a way to help animal welfare without much effort at no cost. Comments help this website too, which is about animal welfare.

Below are some summarised extracts from two studies on the topic. I’ve tried to keep the wording simple. That’s because studies can be very technical and overcomplicated.

The reason why I wrote this article is because of a fresh New York state law just signed off which allows shelters to euthanise (a euphemism for killing) cats and dogs they deem to be suffering psychologically. A terribly open-ended situation. How can people assess whether an animal is suffering psychologically with precision and accuracy at a shelter? In any case, as stated, shelter animals are liable to be suffering psychologically because of the horrible environment they are in.

Nathan Winograd strongly objected to this law but the governor of New York State signed it off, encouraged apparently by the ASPCA.

“There is ‘no evidence that any canine behavior evaluation has come close to meeting accepted standards for reliability and validity.’ Some of the tests were wrong as much as 84% of the time (a combination of poor tests and poor testing practices by pound workers).” – Nathan Winograd.

“Letting dogs see people and dogs in shelters by removing visual barriers that block such access reduces stress in shelter dogs. Stressed dogs are likely to fail their behavior evaluations.” – Nathan Winograd.

“…..dogs should be able to see and interact with other dogs and people in order to ‘reduce frustrated attempts to see what is going on beyond their kennel.'” – Winograd.

Summarised from a study: “What is the evidence for reliability and validity of behavior evaluations for shelter dogs? A prequel to “No better than flipping a coin”

A study conducted a literature review to assess the validity and reliability of canine behavior evaluations used in shelters. They found that despite a number of studies being published on the topic, there is little evidence that any behavior evaluation or individual subtest has been validated for routine use in shelters. They also found that the false-positive error rate for these evaluations is quite high, both in study populations and in more typical shelter populations.

The authors suggest that this may be due to a number of factors, including confusion around the use of terms like “validated” and “reliable,” the limitations of statistical methods for demonstrating predictive ability, and the failure to account for the difference between the predictive validity of an instrument in a research setting versus its predictive ability and error rate in real-world settings.

They argue that these findings indicate the need to acknowledge what has been learned so far and bring all stakeholders together to consider the real needs of shelter dogs and what the future might look like.

Summarised from a study: “Methods of Assessment of the Welfare of Shelter Cats: A Review”

Assessing the welfare of cats in shelters is a complex task because of the many factors that can influence their well-being. These factors can include the size and type of shelter, the housing conditions, the presence or absence of other animals, the length of stay, the adoption programs, the level of veterinary care, and the capture programs in place. There is currently no consensus on the best indicators to use in welfare assessment tools, or on the validity and reliability of these tools.

This makes it difficult to create a comprehensive, reliable tool that can be applied in a variety of different shelters. However, there are efforts underway to develop such a tool, which could have a significant impact on the welfare of shelter cats around the world.

Below are some more articles on shelters.

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