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All of Those Cat Photos on the Internet Are Actually Doing Some Good

A study looks at how Petfinder profiles influence adoption rates.
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Yusuf the kitten waits for adoption at the Best Friends rescue shelter group. (Photo: Mark Ralston/AFP/Getty Images)

Yusuf the kitten waits for adoption at the Best Friends rescue shelter group. (Photo: Mark Ralston/AFP/Getty Images)

Many may have assumed that Internet photos and advertisements play an important role in pet adoption these days, but now it’s possible to put a figure on it—at least for cats. More than 82 percent of people who adopted a cat from a shelter in Western New York said Petfinder strongly or moderately influenced their adoption.

The length of time cats waited for adoption varied from one to 126 days. Cats whose Petfinder profiles were clicked more than once a day were typically adopted in nine days, but cats with less than one click per day typically waited 23 days for a new home.

That's according to a study by Miranda Workman and Christy Hoffman of Canisius College, which also looked at preferred features of adoptable cats. Coat color made a big difference, with cream cats getting adopted in less than 10 days, but black or smoke-colored cats waited 22 days on average. Not surprisingly, younger cats were adopted faster. Male cats were adopted slightly faster than females (19 compared to 22 days).

The researchers took these features of the cats into account, and then looked to see if there was anything about the photographs that made a difference. The results will surprise many people, because most factors made no difference, including whether the photo showed all of the cat or just the head, was taken from the side or the front, the cat’s ear position, and even whether or not the cat was looking at the camera.

The thing that did make a difference was whether there was a toy in the photo. These photos were clicked more often, whether or not the cat was interacting with the toy.

"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 colour," the researchers write. "For instance, 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 Petfinder profile."

The study looked at all the cats whose Petfinder profile had at least one click during the study period, and who were available for adoption for at least one full day during this time. This was a total of 892 cats, out of the 3,835 the shelter adopted out that year. Nearly 250 people who had adopted cats in the study answered the survey.

This research shows how influential the Internet profiles of adoptable pets are. A larger study of adoptable dogs in the United Kingdom showed the importance of highlighting positive features of the animal (such as friendliness) in the profile. The quality of photographs has also been shown to make a difference for dogs. Although more research is needed on what leads people to adopt shelter animals, it seems that paying attention to both photographs and text in an animal’s Internet profile will pay off for shelters.