Short-Term Fostering Programs Reduce Stress For Shelter Dogs
A stay at an animal shelter might be one of the most socially isolating experiences a companion dog faces in his or her lifetime. The dog’s space and physical activity is limited, social attachments may be lost and they are exposed to disruptive sounds on a regular basis. As a result of the loss of control dogs experience over their daily life in the shelter, apathetic behavior sometimes sets in and they remain at the back of the kennel, showing little interest in visitors.
The hormone cortisol is commonly used to measure stress response in dogs. Previous studies have shown that shelter dogs experience higher levels of cortisol than companion dogs and that just 30 minutes of human interaction can decrease a shelter dog’s cortisol levels. Once the shelter dog returns to the kennel, however, cortisol levels once again increase.
Researchers wanted to determine whether short-term fostering could improve the longer-term welfare of dogs awaiting adoption. Five shelters across the U.S. participated in the study: Utah, Arizona, Texas, Montana, and Georgia. Dogs in Utah were placed in foster homes for one night, while dogs in all other locations stayed in foster homes for two nights. Shelter staff chose the participating dogs, who had no history of aggressive behavior. Researchers measured urinary cortisol:creatinine (C/C) ratios of dogs awaiting adoption before, during, and after their foster stay.
The researchers were also interested in the amount of time the dog spent resting in their foster home compared to time spent resting in the animal shelter, so fosterers were asked to complete and return a behavioral questionnaire about the dog’s stay. Health-monitoring collars were used in all locations apart from Utah, measuring dogs’ temperature, pulse, respiration, activity, and positions. For this study, each dog’s average resting pulse rate, their longest bout of uninterrupted rest, and proportion of resting activity were measured before, during, and after the sleepover.
Mean cortisol values from before, during, and after sleepovers were analyzed using a linear mixed model, with the addition of statistically significant covariates of weight, age, and mean length of stay. It was found that dogs’ mean cortisol values were significantly lower during the sleepover compared to before and after the sleepover in the shelter. There was no difference in cortisol levels before and after the sleepover.
Significant differences in cortisol values were also observed between shelters, both before and after sleepovers; dogs in Utah had significantly lower mean cortisol values than those in Arizona, Montana, and Georgia, while those in Texas had lower mean cortisol levels than dogs in Utah. These differences between in-shelter cortisol values across locations were often even more significant than the reduction provided by short-term fostering.
It was observed that dogs in Georgia had longer periods of rest while away from the shelter than dogs in Montana, but more significant differences between resting bouts were noted at different points in time during the study. Dogs in all locations had their longest spells of uninterrupted rest during sleepovers. Resting bouts in the shelter after sleepovers were longer than before the dogs left, but shorter than during the sleepovers.
In the four out of five shelters in which health-monitoring collars were used, higher average resting pulse rates and more time spent resting were associated with higher levels of cortisol, while the longest bout of uninterrupted rest was associated with lower C/C values. Dogs had their longest bouts of rest during sleepovers, followed by their subsequent return to the shelter. In Utah, where short-term fostering programs were already in place before the study, the number of sleepovers a dog experienced was associated with lower cortisol levels.
The Arizona shelter, whose dogs had the highest in-shelter cortisol values, experienced the greatest benefit from the short-term fostering program, with a reduction of almost 25% in C/C ratios. In Utah, where dogs had the lowest baseline cortisol values, C/C ratios decreased by only 12%.
There were some limitations to the effectiveness of the study. Fearful or ‘unsafe’ dogs were ineligible for participation. Urine sampling was also conducted in the morning, so the C/C levels that were recorded may not necessarily reflect a dog’s full-day experience in the shelter — this is especially relevant if the shelter environment tends to be quieter during the evening, potentially overstating the effects of shelter living conditions on dogs’ welfare.
Nevertheless, this is most likely the first study to examine the impact of temporary fostering on the cortisol levels of shelter dogs awaiting permanent homes. The researchers conclude that such sleepovers should be viewed as a form of enrichment for shelter dogs. Because researchers and methods were consistent across all five locations, the researchers were able to reliably compare cortisol values across shelters for the first time.
The C/C values at the end of the study were not significantly lower than the initial in-shelter values, suggesting that any benefits of the sleepover were short-lived. Although short-term interactions with humans, such as one- or two-night sleepovers, can provide relief for shelter dogs, positive changes to the design and daily functioning of shelters could result in even greater and longer-lasting reductions in stress levels and improvements to the general welfare of shelter dogs.