Does Social Media Help Or Hurt Homeless Animals?

May 5, 2016: Milo needs your help! This 1 1/2 year-old dog needs a foster or adopter. His requirements are no kids, no dogs, and no cats. If we can find a home willing to work with him, we will provide a trainer to get him over his issues. This is an opportunity to save a dog’s life AND learn how to train. He is currently at a shelter and only has until this Thursday to find a place.—Nebraska No Kill Canine Rescue

miloMany of my friends and I often share pleas from animal rescuers. Unfortunately, we often never find out the results of our shares. Last spring I had a different experience. I directly contacted Nebraska No Kill Canine Rescue with a list of rescue groups that might take Milo. When none of them wanted to take on a dog that had growled at a child, I proposed another alternative. I recommended an open-policy shelter with a high adoption rate. I knew it was a risk, because open-policy isn’t no-kill, but I thought this shelter would be able to give Milo the time he needed to find a new home. I was happy when my hunch was proven right: Milo found a new home within a month!

“Social media has changed the lives of thousands of animals,” wrote an associate editor for the website Mashable. One rescue group featured in the article credited its sheer existence due to Twitter. Why? Because social media played a role in getting out its adoption message out “minus the steep advertising costs”. Furthermore, a featured shelter noted that a homeless pet’s average stay is just 10 days –in part due to use of Instagram. Social media “gives followers a behind-the-scenes glimpse, encouraging them to donate or volunteer, as well as adopt.” There’s even a study by Miranda Workman and Christy Hoffman (Canisius College) that shows the influence of internet profiles. The results revealed that 82.5% of people who have adopted a cat said that Petfinder influenced their adoption. Ah, the power of social media!

August 21, 2016: Poor Shine has been overlooked. A friend forwarded my pictures to a family who travelled quite some distance yesterday to meet him. They were at the point of signing the adoption papers when his excitement bubbled over and he jumped at Dad too excitedly. The ACO could not let him go with them. He is so depressed in the kennel that he has chewed the end of his own tail off. He shows no aggression to people just desperate excitement. He needs a rescue by 9/1 or a difficult decision will be made for his quality of life.–Sarah Matula, HeARTS Speak

shineWhen I first began to read about the power of social media to save animals, I mostly collected anecdotes. There’s the story from Ireland of an animal lover who rescued a cat with extensive injuries, posted the details online, and within 24 hours collected enough to pay for the cat’s surgery. “This Irish-American lassie feels great pride at this show of Celtic hospitality and spirit for a sweet kitty in need. Cara surely would have died on that road without help.” Closer to home, there’s a story of a professor from New York who took a year to photograph homeless dogs and post their pictures online. At the time of the article’s writing, 56 of the 73 dogs were in foster care or adopted. There’s also my own anecdotal evidence. In the case of Shine, the dog from Connecticut whose story I learned about from an animal photographer, many bloggers reached out on the dog’s behalf to their friends on Facebook. An acquaintance of mine even offered to drive to Connecticut if a foster provider would step forward. In the end, thanks to Shine’s post being shared extensively online, Shine was adopted by a truck-driving couple. The photographer announced the exciting news in an update: “Sharing worked! A great couple with fantastic references adopted this boy today—he’s their new long haul buddy after they lost their previous beloved pit.”


tnr_catadtextAs I became sold on the power of social media to save animals, I also started to pay attention to how to effectively use social media. In 2015, a debate ensued between members of an online Trap-Neuter-Release Community. One lady had posted the first of these two photos accompanied by a bio written in all-caps, lamented that no one had shown interest, and asked for ideas. Some simply encouraged her to persevere, while others recommended that she rewrite the bio, and a few suggested she enhance the photo. Although I normally like to stay in the shadows, I finally added my two-cents worth. First, I reassured her that just because she hadn’t received any responses didn’t necessarily reflect a bad design. “Some of the most beautiful and moving posts I’ve seen have failed to generate immediate response. There are simply too many cats with too few homes.” But then I did concur that the all-caps heading had the effect of shouting at readers. In addition, I tweaked the bio and, as you can see from the before and after versions above, her photo.

More and more articles are cropping up these days about the right and wrong ways to use social media. A few commonly-agreed wrong ways are:

  • Responding to a post if you can’t help. Why? Because doing so just adds clutters.
  • Sharing a post from miles away. Why? Because most adopters won’t drive the distance.
  • Writing overly dramatic posts. Why? Because while such posts may spur people to action, they can also make people feel hopeless to the point that they stop following shelters and/or rescue groups
  • Emphasizing restrictions such as “No children or other pets”. Why? Because people may draw the wrong conclusions. For instance, does the animal require a child-free and pet-free home because it’s easily frightened, or because it’s aggressive?
  • Combining adoption counseling (“Probably a feral cat and not well-socialized”?) with marketing. Why? Animal Farm Foundation has written an entire article on the topic. They contend that the mistake is equivalent to a resume which lists all your flaws.

A few commonly-agreed right ways are:

  • Share to the right audience.
  • Update: Mother Nature Network says that by sharing positive news, people will see how groups are finding forever homes for homeless pets. “This just may inspire them to look for ways they can help too.”
  • Use everyday language in your marketing.
  • See this as opportunity to make the right match.
  • Draw attention to a homeless pet by telling a story. Best Friends Animal Society offers this example: ‘BIG baby Burley! All muscles and cropped ears, but he’s a lap dog if you give him the chance. He’s all about the love and cuddling, and isn’t liking living in a kennel at all and prefers to snooze on a pillow up in the office. He’s ready to be in someone’s warm home, and he’s going to protest that fact until someone adopts this handsome boy.”
  • Turn the good into bad. How? HeARTS Speak recommends that when addressing any disadvantages, try writing as though you’re discussing your own beloved pet’s issues, and offers this example: “A little on the chubby side? More to love! Senior? Time to retire and reflect on a life of achievements. Uncomfortable with being handled? Parties best with the grown-ups.” Best Friends Animal Society elaborates by saying that if one needs to list a restriction, be gentle about it, and offers this example: “Joe is such a goofy bundle of energy, he might be a little too much for small children.”
  • Include relevant contact information.

To return to the study by Miranda Workman and Christy Hoffman (Canisius College) about the influence of internet profiles, the researchers also discovered that cats with Petfinder profiles averaging more than one click per day typically waited only nine days for a new home, but cats with profiles averaging less than one click per day typically waited 23 days. This suggests that as the importance of having a good photo or teaser for an animal’s profile. Specifically, the presence of toys in a photo were discovered to have an impact. “Shelters may benefit from including toys in photographs of cats who may otherwise be overlooked, while refraining from including toys in photographs of cats of a popular age or color. Placing a toy in a photograph of an older cat or a solid-black cat may be useful for drawing attention to that cat’s profile.”

July 31, 2016 Can anyone help cats in Ohio? My husband and I were on our return from vacation and saw three feral cats when we stayed at a hotel there. There are at least three cats. A black cat bolted from behind a garbage bin and under a truck. A white and black cat hid at the end of the row of rooms where we stayed. A third brown-patched cat slept outside of a hotel room. I’m guessing that they’re used to people. When we arrived at night, two of the cats were visible and made no attempts to leave. I’m also guessing the hotel isn’t bothered by them. There was a bowl of food outside one of the rooms. However, at least one cat needs medical help. It was stiff, thin, and injured. I don’t live anywhere near them, but hope someone in Ohio can intervene. PM if you need further details. Thank you!

ohiocatsFor those of us who are novices, we’re more than likely still going to stumble about in our use of social media. When my husband and I saw feral cats who needed help, I did almost all the wrong things. Instead what I had going for me is the determination to find help. I kept asking questions until I found a lady who stepped forward.

ohiocats_moonbeamDespite my mistakes, all cats in question received alteration and vaccinations. One even found a home! Since my initial contact with Terri Guidera, I have received updates telling me that the cats are okay and are being cared for by residents.

Anyone who is truly passionate about saving animals would do well to do their research. The use of social media to bring the plight of homeless animals out of the shadows has been around long enough now that there’s even an entire website, Animal Rescue Marketing, dedicated to the topic. In addition, Maddie’s Fund hosts dozens of resources about best practices. We owe it to animals to make our efforts count.

Editor’s Note: Please watch for follow-up interviews with Sarah Matula and Terri Guidera



30 thoughts on “Does Social Media Help Or Hurt Homeless Animals?

  1. I have to disagree on some things – esp sharing posts from miles away. Most people on social media have a circle of friends & family that extends FAR beyond where they themselves live. It’s all about networking and sharing a post is the easiest way to do that!


    1. I tend to share mostly posts from local rescue groups, so I can provide support to them. In addition, the bulk of my friends are local and very few are going to put in the extra effort to rescue an animal from another state.

      That said, I have shared posts from miles away, because my circle of friends isn’t limited to the area where I live. Since researching how to effectively use social media, I’ve also begun to directly contact friends who live closer to the area where a home is needed than me.

      Ironically, despite my partially agreeing with the point, I actually got into a conflict with someone who disagreed with my trying to help the Ohio Cats I mentioned in my article. That person felt that support should go straight to local cats in need, not ones that live a day’s drive away.


  2. Great post! Social media is such a powerful tool, but like everything else, there’s a science and an art to it, especially when asking for help and trying to pull at the audience’s heart strings. My favorite piece of advice from this was “try writing as though you’re discussing your own beloved pet’s issues” SO true and it can go such a long way! Thanks for sharing 🙂


    1. Thanks for the compliment! My intention with my article was to cause people to consciously think about how they seek help for homeless animals. There are so many ways we can improve on how we attempt to reach a potential adopter. But I also hope that people don’t get caught up with being worried about how to use social media. There are many people who have saved dozens of homeless animals simply by coming across as a caring person.


    1. Just after I posted this article, I encountered another example of the success of social media. A disabled kitten from the New England needed a home. Within a few days of many folks sharing like crazy (no matter where they lived), there were hundreds of applications for adoption. The power of social media!


  3. This is a difficult question to answer. When I first got involved with Twitter there was a huge campaign about a pitbull mix named Lennox in Ireland which has a BSL ban. It did not save Lennox. I don’t respond to the dramatic request to save an animal that will die because I honestly don’t think I can help. I think those kinds of request get ignored and don’t help.


    1. You’ve raised a good point. I think social media is perhaps most effective when direct action can be taken by people who see it. Like you, I got involved with a campaign to save a squirrel from being euthanized simply because it could no longer live in the wild but would need to live in a person’s home. The campaign didn’t work.

      When it comes to saving homeless animals through sharing of posts, I’ve seen it work enough times to be a proponent. In my article I referred to two dogs who were in danger of being euthanized. I had my doubts that sharing would help, but am so delighted to have been part of the experience of knowing the dogs found forever homes.


  4. Although I agree with almost everything here, I’m not sure about the not sharing from miles away. On my blog, I’ve featured lots of people who have driven more than 4 hours to meet a dog they found on Petfinder. Others have fallen in love with a dog that was transported across several states to be with their new family. I feel like the world is much smaller than it used to be, and rescues are always bringing dogs to other parts of the country. Plus, you never know if someone from Virginia will see a dog in Ohio, that is just perfect for a friend who lives near the rescue! Social media makes it easier to connect with people all over the world.


    1. The recommendation to share posts of animals only close to ones seems to have caused the most disagreement. I did find this alternative suggestion at Pawesome Cats: “Understand your audience location and share appropriately for maximum impact. If 95% of your social media following is based in your local neighborhood; focus on sharing the posts of animal shelters nearby. If your following is more widespread across the United States, then you can share posts from a broader geography.”


  5. I feel that whether it is in your State or another, when you share it is getting it out there and whoever sees it and might be in the correct state can share further. The comments do clutter I agree with you but I also think that the more info you give about the dog will make it easier to be adopted.
    I rescued Layla from LA and I am in San Francisco by seeing her online in and without even meeting her.


    1. Thanks for the reminder about info! I had intended to include this point and then forgot. 😦 One should include the location and postcode of the cat or dog in need and the best way to get in touch with the rescue/shelter.


  6. Great post. I sometimes see animals who need rescued, but there’s nothing I can do because they are so far away. I’m hoping the sharing on social media helps the animals because I sometimes find myself getting immune to all of the photos I see for rescues.


    1. I mostly share appeals from rescuers I know. Occasionally too, I’ll see a post about an animal like Shine that eats at me, and those I’ll share too. I hope that by being selective, I can really focus on the ones that catch my attention. We all have to decide for ourselves on how involved to get.


  7. What a fantastic post! These tips are so helpful & I really appreciate all the resources you’ve shared. I hate the doom & gloom posts that begin w/ things like “Urgent to be killed in x hours”. After awhile it feels very unauthentic. Ican’t even follow accounts like that anymore. Sharing this.
    Love & biscuits,
    Dogs Luv Us and We Luv Them


    1. Doom and gloom posts tend to discourage and turn off a lot of people. That’s one reason I wrote this post. We owe it to animals to give them positive media attention and to pet fosters/adopters to respect their emotional needs.


  8. I share on social media as much as I can. I currently live in London Uk and share dogs from around the world as I have such a huge global following


    1. Another point I didn’t make in my article is that the more connections one makes, the larger following one will have, and the greater potential one can reach the right person for the right animal. I still have a small enough following that I turn to my long-time rescue friends when a situation is bigger than my circles will be able to handle. But I’m working on changing this. 😉


  9. Such an important post. I tend to agree with most of it, especially the telling of the animal’s story. I will take leads of homeless Huskies folks have sent me and create posters and highlight their story. I always think, “lead with the positive.” The one thing – in my particular breed – I can not agree with is the “sharing from miles away.” With Siberian Huskies, they are runners and travelers. They can travel or be taken many, many miles away – even states – away. So I always ask my readers and followers to “Please share everywhere” for this very reason. Social media can be a very powerful and positive tool for helping animals in need if done correctly. It is a form of PR and if folks approach it as such – like writing an ad – it’s helpful. I’ve seen many, many Huskies find their way back to their families or other ones find forever families from the power of the social media “pen.”


    1. Thanks for your thoughtful comments and for sharing your experiences. The more I’ve read about social media, the more I’ve come to believe that it is a form of PR and as such there’s skill to it. That’s a reason why I wanted to write about the topic. The discussion here has made me so glad I did! I’m convinced that perhaps never before has there been such power in the social media “pen”. All the more reason for us to use it the best we can to help those without a voice: homeless animals.


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