Evaluating the effects of a temporary fostering program on shelter dog welfare


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One of the greatest stressors for dogs living in animal shelters is social isolation. Many studies have demonstrated that human interaction reduces cortisol in shelter dogs, with the possibility that longer periods of interaction may yield greater effects. These types of interventions are contingent upon removing the dog from the kennel and any such reductions in cortisol are often lost when the dog returns to the kennel. More recently, animal shelters are utilizing short-term fostering programs to provide relief from the perceived stresses of kennel life; however the effects of these programs are not well understood. This study assessed the impacts of one-and two-night fostering programs on the urinary cortisol levels, resting pulse rates, longest bout of uninterrupted rest, and proportion of time spent resting of dogs awaiting adoption. Five animal shelters, open and limited-admission facilities, from across the United States participated in the study. During the study, dogs' urine was collected in the morning before, during, and after fostering stays for cortisol: creatinine analysis. Non-invasive health monitors were worn by the dogs, which collected heart rates and activity levels, in the shelter and in foster homes. In total, 207 dogs participated in the study, and 1,076 cortisol values were used in our analysis. Across all shelters, we found that dogs' cortisol: creatinine ratios dropped significantly during their fostering stay, but returned to baseline levels after return to the shelter. However, the observed reduction in cortisol varied in magnitude across shelters. We found that dogs of greater weight, age, and average resting pulse rate had higher cortisol levels; and dogs with longer bouts of uninterrupted rest had lower cortisol levels. Dogs had their longest bouts of rest during sleepovers, followed by in the shelter after their sleepovers. Lastly, significant differences were found when comparing in-shelter cortisol values at our five shelters, differences that were in some cases greater than the impact of the fostering intervention itself. Considering the diversity of facilities that participated in this study, it is possible that as yet unstudied, shelter-specific, environmental factors could be contributing to the overall welfare of shelter dogs. Thus while a reprieve from the shelter is impactful for dogs awaiting adoption, mitigating the stressors present in kenneling conditions should also be addressed to improve the lives of shelter dogs.



Dogs, Animal shelter, Cortisol, Welfare, Human-animal interaction, Stress, Enrichment