A black dog kisses a black cat in the grass.

Black Dog Syndrome and Black Cat Syndrome

Anecdotal evidence has long suggested that black-coated pets wait longer to find homes than their sheltermates. Residing in shelters for extended periods, animal welfare experts note, means that black dogs and cats are often more likely to be euthanized. These related phenomena are so well-known that they even have unofficial names: Black dog syndrome and black cat syndrome.

Black Dog Syndrome and Black Cat Syndrome

Why do black dogs and cats struggle to find forever homes? It could come down to an innate reaction based in superstition. Black cats, in particular, are victims of myths and misconceptions. While certain countries regard black cats as lucky, that’s certainly not the case in the US. Here, they’re often regarded as harbingers of misfortune. Their status as popular Halloween icons reaffirms these old feelings every year.

Black dogs have their fair share of bad associations as well. Like cats, they’re often regarded as a bad omen or even an outright threat. One of Sherlock Holmes’ most famous cases finds the literary sleuth investigating the origins of a fearsome, seemingly-demonic black dog. In 2013, a team of psychologists from Penn State University found that survey subjects consider black dogs “scary” in comparison to others. There’s also the more abstract association between coal-colored canines and depression. Sir Winston Churchill famously characterized his own melancholy as a “black dog,” a term borrowed from Samuel Johnson.

Alternatively, black-coated pets may be able to blame their bad luck on sub-par lighting and photography. In an era of online adoption, many pet lovers are asked to make decisions based on photographs alone. Animal shelters aren’t studios and their employees aren’t photographers. Often, it’s difficult to capture the facial features and expressions of black dogs and cats with quick snapshots. Photos of these pets may look non-specific, like a silhouette with eyes and a tongue. A pet parent purchasing from a photograph alone is unlikely to read much personality or affection into such an image.

Are Black Dog Syndrome and Black Cat Syndrome Real?

Various organizations and universities have conducted studies to determine whether or not black dog syndrome and black cat syndrome are actually measurable phenomena. Over the years, they’ve landed on conflicting results.

A 2013 study led by Dr. Christy Hoffman, an assistant professor at Canisius College, concluded that age and breed group played a far bigger role in dog adoption rates than color. Dr. Hoffman found that “bully breeds” like Pit Bull Terriers and American Staffordshire Terriers waited longest for adoptions and faced the highest rate of euthanasia. She acknowledges, however, that black dog syndrome may have been a serious and widespread issue at one time.

Though she generally discredits black dog syndrome, Dr. Hoffman’s results suggest that black cat syndrome may still persist. Analyzing data from a popular adoption website, she determined that black and smoke-colored cats received far fewer clicks than others and were available much longer. She encourages shelters and rescue organizations to conduct research and leverage their own data to better prioritize their marketing and public outreach efforts.

The Association for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (ASPCA) isn’t so sure. In 2011, the organization conducted a pair of studies to get to the bottom of the issue. They sought to determine which types of pets stay longest in shelters and why adoptive pet parents make the selections they do. Dr. Emily Weiss, the organization’s Vice President of Shelter Research, believes the pair of studies “busts this myth completely.” Dr. Weiss also offers her theory as to why the misconception remains popular. It’s possible, she suggests, that some shelters simply have an overabundance of black dogs. She concludes, “I think some beliefs are hard to change especially if someone has anecdotal evidence.”

Celebrating Black Cats and Dogs

Shelters, researchers, animal advocacy groups, and everyday pet lovers are all fighting the stigma against black cats and dogs. In fact, many organizations have been founded for the express purpose of helping black-coated pets find homes. Photographer Fred Levy set out to put black dogs in the spotlight and rehabilitate their image through his art. His Black Dogs Project features high-quality, expressive photos and videos that prove these dogs are just as great as any others. Cats have passionate folks in their corner too. Black Cat Rescue in Los Angeles is just one of the nation’s many nonprofits dedicated to rescuing, rehoming, and repairing the image of black felines.

Whether or not there’s really a measurable stigma against black-colored cats and dogs, pet lovers across the country are working to find homes for every shelter pet. Check to see if a shelter near you is hosting a “Black Friday” adoption event this year.