In February, Jackie Keller Seidel, a volunteer at New Leash on Life Dog Rescue, was tagged in a Facebook post about a dog named Bo that needed a foster home. Bo was severely underweight, suffering from mange and in need of a loving home to prepare him for adoption.

Seidel volunteered to take the homeless pup. The only problem? She lives in Wisconsin and Bo was in Georgia.

Luckily, it was a problem with an easy solution. The woman who’d tagged Seidel in the post is a transport coordinator for Storyteller's Express, an organization that helps dogs find homes by providing rescue and transport assistance. Twelve different people volunteered to drive a leg of the 1,000-mile trip, and on Feb. 21, Bo arrived in Wisconsin.

“Social media was the catalyst that brought Bo to New Leash on Life,” Seidel said. “A dog in Georgia in need was seen by someone in Virginia, who knew someone in Wisconsin who may be able to help. And then the 12 volunteer drivers saw that Bo's life had worth and took time out of their lives to invest in it.”

dog before and after photosIf it weren't for Facebook, Bo might not be where he is today. (Photo: Jackie Keller Seidel)

Success stories like this are the reason why animal rescuers say their jobs would be much more difficult without social media. “[It] has undoubtedly worked miracles for animals in need,” said Heather Clarkson, the director of a South Carolina-based Australian shepherd rescue. “Many shelters have seen drastically reduced euthanasia rates and increased adoption and rescue rates because of the visibility their animals get now that they were never able to before.”

And social media is an easy way for smaller organizations and low-budget shelters to help the animals in their care. By creating a Facebook page or Twitter account, they get access to free platforms that enable them to share photos and news about their adoptable pets with countless people.

“Facebook has been the lifeline for our little rescue that started two years ago,” Seidel said. “In that time, we have saved hundreds and hundreds of dogs who would have otherwise faced certain death. I often wonder how many dogs needlessly died before rescues were able to network.”

However, despite all the good that social media has done for animals, Clarkson says there are numerous downsides to using sites like Facebook to help rescue efforts.

“What started as a brilliant method for sharing dogs in need and utilizing well-meaning volunteers has effectively become what many of us will consider the biggest thorn in our sides,” she wrote in a blog post. “Many rescuers have started avoiding social media altogether due to the pandemonium it creates.”

Dramatic rescues

When it comes to animal rescues on social media, we’ve likely all seen a certain type of post: the dramatic one written in all caps that features a photo of a sad-looking dog or cat slated to be euthanized in a matter of hours or days. “URGENT! WILL BE KILLED TOMORROW! SAVE HIM!” they often read. But while these posts may spur people to action, they can also have the opposite effect, overwhelming people, making them feel hopeless and ultimately inspiring them to click “unfollow.”

However, the risk of losing followers — and therefore lessening a shelter’s social reach — isn’t the only problem. These posts in particular can incite a panic that leads to shelters being inundated with calls and emails from people who are concerned about an animal’s fate even though they’re not necessarily able or willing to help.

“One out of 50 calls in a morning about a certain animal may actually be of substance with an offer for rescue or donation while the other 49 are just calling to check on the animal’s status or complain about the situation to the shelter. These facilities operate on limited budgets with limited staff. Every minute spent fielding those well-meaning calls is a minute not being spent caring for the animals,” Clarkson said.

And often the shelter that posted about an animal on “death row” isn’t the only one that fields these calls and social shares. Concerned citizens may turn to their local shelter seeking help for a dog or cat hundreds of miles away.

Sarah Barnett, who handles social media for the Washington, D.C.-based Lost Dog & Cat Rescue Foundation, told the Humane Society that she’s received alerts from Facebook users who want her to rescue animals that are scheduled to be euthanized in states as far away as Idaho. “We’re like ‘OK, but we’ve got 20 dogs just like that dog that are an hour away that are also going to be euthanized,’” she said.

puppy in shelterThe best way to help your local shelter is to adopt. (Photo: maakenzi/iStockphoto)

Sometimes it's best to say nothing at all

However, it’s not just these dramatic social posts that can cause headaches for shelter workers. Any post about an animal in need — even one about a healthy cat or dog safely biding its time in a no-kill shelter — can spark a barrage of comments that, at best, can be time-consuming to sort through and, at worst, mislead people who truly want to help the animal.

“The main downside [to social media] we see would be people commenting on a photo of a dog who needs a home with ‘I’ll take him’ or something similar and never follow through, so others assume the dog is safe or has found a home,” said Seidel.

While tagging friends who may be willing to foster or adopt is helpful to shelters, other types of Facebook comments can actually be detrimental to rescuers who are trying to save animals’ lives. In addition to monitoring for negative comments about breeds and adoption costs, shelter workers must also contend with ones that do nothing more than lengthen and muddle comment threads.

“Not only is it vexing for those of us on the ground to watch person after person comment uselessly on a post, but it can also be cumbersome and detrimental to our efforts to save animals,” Clarkson said.

According to her, there are two types of comments in particular that are guilty of this. The first is the all-too-common “Someone needs to save this dog,” which she says places responsibility on everyone but yourself. The second is one that’s typically followed by any number of excuses: “I wish I could help, but…”

“There is absolutely no point in posting, ‘I wish I could help, but I’m 1,000 miles away,’ or ‘I wish I could help, but I have five dogs already.’ If you can’t help, that’s fine, but stop cluttering threads with your sentiment,” she writes. “Similarly, stop finding dogs in shelters that are a five hour’s drive from you and posting, ‘I’ll take this baby, but I can’t drive.’ Unless that comment is followed by, ‘But I’ll pay to have the dog boarded and transported to me,’ you just need to stay out of it.”

orange kitten in shelterSharing photos of adoptable pets in your area helps local shelters increase their reach. (Photo: hayesphotography/iStockphoto)

How you can really help

The best ways to assist your local shelter are to adopt or foster a pet, make a donation or volunteer your time. However, when it comes to social media, there are several steps you can take to ensure you’re helping and not hindering.

Share. According to Petfinder, shares are the most important engagement factor for shelters to request from their audience because a pet’s chances of being adopted increase when more people are aware that it needs a home. However, Facebook’s algorithm can make it difficult for people to see updates even from pages they follow. “On average, a regular post will only reach 10 percent of the followers on the New Leash On Life Facebook page. In order for more people to see what we post without paying, we depend on our followers to share our posts,” Seidel said.

But share smartly. “Instead of sharing a shelter animal 2,000 miles away … go to the shelter page for your local community and share their album of adoptables,” Clarkson advises. “It’s not just the babies and the sick ones that need to be seen — if the shelter can’t adopt out the animals they’ve already committed to in their facility, they can’t help the new ones that come in. Most adopters aren’t going to drive five hours to adopt from an out-of-state shelter, so help your neighbors see what animals are right down the street that need just as much help.”

Also, be sure to share a shelter’s original thread that contains necessary information like the animal’s location and identification number, as well as contact information for the rescue.

And share the good stuff too. It’s understandable to want to alert your followers to the dire circumstances of a puppy that may soon be euthanized, but continually sharing only these posts may prompt people to hide your updates. So share the positive news as well, and help them see how your local shelter is finding forever homes for homeless pets — this just may inspire them to look for ways they can help too.

If you work with a shelter that uses Facebook, Twitter or other social media sites, check out the Humane Society's social media guidelines.