Dr. Emily Weiss Discusses "Naked Data” and Mythbusting

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I recently had the pleasure of asking a few questions of the ASPCA’s Dr. Emily Weiss, an animal behaviorist and leader in the area of companion animal advocacy. We talked about the most interesting and important research for animal shelters and rescues, covering issues such as animal identification, sharing “naked data,” and using geographic information systems (GIS) to locate spay/neuter “hot spots.” Through these and other tools, the ASPCA represents the vanguard of innovation for companion animal issues (with a little research help from HRC along the way). See what Dr. Weiss has to say...


An Interview with Dr. Emily Weiss

Dr. Emily Weiss and SeaAs both a scientist and an animal advocate, what are your thoughts on the importance of research?

I think research is vital to forward our work and responsibly use our resources. Many in the field of animal welfare try the “kitchen sink” approach toward problem solving. However, by trying it all at once – and not measuring progress of any one approach, we can find ourselves exhausted, broke, and no further along in our mission. I feel so strongly that we must be able to answer the question – “how do you know it works” – by providing solid data to support our work; there are literally lives at risk. A systematic approach may feel as if it is taking longer… but it is a more direct and responsible route that often results in not only time saved, but also money saved and most importantly – lives saved.

What is the most exciting or interesting piece of companion animal research you've seen this year?

Oh gosh – that is a very hard question. There are always great pieces of research coming down the pike – but I guess if I had to choose it was a very simple piece of research conducted around cats and collars. The study (Lord, et al) involved placing collars on cats and then following up with the cat guardians through feedback diaries and surveys to see what happened over time. What they found is that the majority of cats continued to wear the collar and did not have any problems with the collar. It is the simple pieces of research focused on changing a paradigm that I find most exciting. Busting myths that can restrict lives saved is thrilling!

Can you tell our readers about the Louisiana SPCA study regarding fosters and adoptions?

Sure. LASPCA came up with a great idea to have the fosters not only foster dogs but also become the adoption agent for the dog in their care. The foster parent markets the dog, finds the adopter and conducts the adoption. The LASPCA used this program in the ASPCA $100K Challenge as one of their strategies in the contest. While the LASPCA did not win the grand prize, they did save lives with this program. We conducted some research on the efficacy of the program in a more controlled situation (LASPCA, as many of our challengers, used the kitchen sink approach to try to win – as they should!).

PuppyWe followed up with randomly chosen groups of dogs – one group was adopted the traditional route on the adoption floor of the shelter, while the other group went to fosters as adoption agents. We then followed up with the adopters from both groups with a set of questions regarding their experience and their history with shelters. We found that the fosters were finding people who were less likely to have gone to a shelter before and were more likely to have obtained their previous pet from a breeder. This is powerful in that we may be able to reach many more adopters simply by coming to them as opposed to expecting them to come to us.

The ASPCA and HRC have worked together on several projects. Please give one example and describe how you used the results.

HRC has helped us to build a better ASPCA $100K Challenge. 2010 was our first year for the challenge. While we measured a lot during the challenge (from blog posts to lives saved and lots in between) it was vital to building the 2011 challenge that we measure the experiences from the shelters’ perspective. HRC built, conducted, and analyzed a post Challenge survey that helped us learn what went right in Challenge 2010, and what we could modify for 2011.

The "ID Me" project that we worked on together seems to be progressing. What do the results tell us so far?

With the first phase of the ID ME project, we learned that while the majority of dog and cat guardians thought ID tagging was very or extremely important, only 1/3 of them actually had personalized ID tags on their pets. This disconnect between belief and behavior is certainly not unusual in the human animal - think about recycling and changing the battery in your smoke alarm – we know both of these are important, but unless they are easy, many people do not do them.

In the next phase of the project, we placed ID tags (and collars if needed) directly on the pets and then followed up with them at about 8 weeks after the tag was placed on the pet. We found that the majority of pet parents kept the tags on – and a few had even lost their pet and recovered them because of the tag! That work was published in 2 manuscripts (Animal Welfare in press, Preventative Veterinary Medicine 2011).

We are currently conducting 2 interventions – one is to tag 15% of owned dogs in two communities, and the other, thanks to a generous grant from PetSmart Charities, to tag 27,000 cats coming to spay/neuter clinics around the country.

In a nutshell, what is "naked" data and why is it so important for shelters, rescues, and others?

Naked data is our term for transparent and objective data categories that we collect from shelters and spay/neuter clinics around the country. There is a habit among some in our field to use their own subjective data definitions, which makes it impossible to benchmark and compare organizations nationally. Since the ASPCA works with organizations across the country to identify risk based on data, it was vital to us to have data definitions that could be easily used and understood by organizations from Spokane to Tampa and everywhere in-between.

The ASPCA is pioneering the use of Geographic Information Systems to help animals. Why is GIS so powerful?

We have been so excited about the power of GIS. Dogs and cats enter shelters from clustered areas – they do not come in at the same rate from all parts of a community. Yet, we tend to spread our resources to all parts of a community in an equal way. Our work so far with GIS has been focused on mapping where dogs and cats are coming into shelters from, and where spay/neuter services are being used, to better focus those services toward the areas where the intake is highest.

What we are finding is that sometimes the areas that have higher intake are sometimes areas that may already have access to spay/neuter services, but that the population responsible for the intake may not be taking advantage of the services. This upcoming year we will be expanding this work, thanks to a grant from PetSmart Charities, to include mapping a variety of risk factors – from identifying areas of the community where adoptions are low, where the at risk breed and animal types are coming from, and more. Stay tuned!

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