What Is an Animal Shelter? Let’s Break It Down

Dogs, cats, rabbits, and other domesticated animals rely on the care of devoted human guardians to keep them safe, happy, and healthy. Some of these animals are lucky enough to be adopted into responsible, permanent homes. Sadly, there are far more animals in need of a caring family than there are people willing or able to provide them with a lifetime of love and support. Every year in the U.S., more than 6 million lost, abandoned, abused, or unwanted dogs and cats enter animal shelters.

What Is an Animal Shelter?

An animal shelter is a staffed facility where homeless animals—and animals seized by authorities in cruelty cases—find safety and comfort, are cared for, and are made available for adoption. Temporarily housing animals in shelters keeps them from being loose on the streets, where they struggle to find clean food and water, can be hit by cars, can be attacked by other animals or cruel humans, or face other potential dangers.

animal shelters provide refuge for homeless or abused cats and dogs

Animal shelters vary greatly—by size, purpose, capacity, and their treatment of the animals in their charge. They may be operated by the government, a local humane society, private individuals, or a combination of these. Some are funded by donations alone, while others receive tax money.

Dogs, cats, and all animals are individuals, not property, which is why they should never be bought from pet stores, websites, or breeders. At reputable animal shelters, animals are spayed or neutered before they’re adopted so as not to add to the animal overpopulation crisis.

reputable animal shelters spay and neuter animals before adopting them out

What Do Animal Shelters Do? 

At professionally run facilities, frightened animals are reassured, sick and injured animals receive treatment or a peaceful end to their suffering, and the animals’ living quarters are kept clean and dry.

Reputable animal shelters typically have many of the following:

  • A compassionate trained staff (plus volunteers) to care for animals
  • A sick ward and isolation area for animals who may be ill
  • A pre-adoption home check and follow-up program
  • A humane method of euthanasia, usually an intravenous injection of sodium pentobarbital, administered by well-trained, gentle staff members
  • A policy against giving or selling animals to laboratories or to be used as guard dogs
  • Cruelty investigators
  • A veterinarian on call 24 hours a day
  • Indoor/outdoor dog runs
  • A large, sunny cat room with raised perches for sitting and individual cages for cats who must be confined
  • A quiet room for adopters to meet and get to know animals
  • An active public education program to teach children and adults to care for animals properly
  • A spay/neuter program that ensures all animals are sterilized at the time of adoption or that guarantees all adopted animals will be sterilized later
  • A policy of holding lost and stray animals for a minimum of five days, including at least one Saturday

Are There Different Types of Animal Shelters?

Not all animal shelters are the same. Fortunate homeless and unwanted animals end up in a traditional, high-intake open-admission animal shelter staffed by professional, caring people.

Many less fortunate animals end up in pitiful kennels that are nothing more than severely crowded shacks without walls or other protection from the elements, where animals are often left to die from exposure, disease, or fights with other animals.

Some shelters promote dangerous “no-kill” policies, which, ironically, don’t prevent animals from dying. They simply leave animals to die elsewhere—and often miserably. Facilities that adhere to these policies try not to involve themselves in euthanasia by turning away animals in need, shipping animals out of state to unknown and often untraceable destinations, or warehousing animals in cages indefinitely. “No-kill” shelters often prioritize the appearance of their “save rates” above the needs of animals in their charge.

Do Animal Shelters Kill Animals?

No shelter that truly cares for animals should ever turn its back on an animal in need, even when that means taking in animals who are diseased, badly injured, aggressive, elderly, or dying. These animals have little to no chance of being adopted or helped by anyone else, but a responsible animal shelter should at least provide them with a painless release.

To be able to offer refuge to every animal in need, open-admission shelters must euthanize unadopted and unadoptable animals. The alternative—turning them away—is cruel and leaves the animals in grave danger.

‘No-Kill’ vs. Socially Conscious Animal Shelters

“No-kill” shelters have the luxury of euthanizing fewer animals because they turn away needy ones they deem unadoptable. Because they’re almost constantly “full,” nearly all “no-kill” organizations keep waiting lists, which compromise animals’ safety by leaving them in situations in which they’re clearly unwanted. Where do these unwanted animals go? The lucky ones will be taken to clean, socially conscious facilities that have responsible policies about euthanasia and adoption.

Many animals turned away from “no-kill” facilities are dumped on the road, in the woods, or in the yard of a local animal hoarder. Some don’t even make it out of the animal shelter’s parking lot.

Animals who are accepted into “no-kill” shelters may be warehoused in cages for months, years, or even the rest of their lives, becoming more withdrawn, depressed, or aggressive every day—further reducing their chances of adoption.

Socially conscious animal shelters accept every dog, cat, bird, rabbit, hamster, rat, and any other animal who comes through their doors. They don’t pick and choose, accepting only the young, healthy, behaviorally sound animals who might be quickly adopted, as “no-kill” shelters often do. They pledge to help every animal in need, even when the best that they can offer is a painless release.

What Is the Difference Between an Animal Shelter and a ‘Rescue?’

Many sham operations use the word rescue to fool compassionate people into believing that they’re helping animals escape from cruel conditions. In reality, many self-professed rescue outfits are the site of horrific cruelty to animals.

Through online fundraisers, some “rescue” groups collect tens of thousands of dollars to attend breeder auctions under the guise of saving dogs from puppy mills. These groups can then sell dogs for exorbitant fees to buyers who want a specific breed. But breeders admit that they’re selling the dogs they no longer intend to use—and that since “rescuers” will pay practically any price they name, they use the funds to continue breeding dogs to sell. Such “puppy mill rescue” scams were previously exposed by The Washington Post.

How Many Animals Are Euthanized in Shelters Each Year?

Roughly half of the 6 to 8 million animals who enter shelters each year—many of them healthy, young, and adoptable—must be euthanized because of simple math: There are too many animals and not enough worthy adoptive homes. No one wants to see animals euthanized—least of all, the shelter workers who have to take action to address society’s irresponsibility—but denying that an overpopulation crisis exists or blaming those who have devoted their lives to ending it is misguided and solves nothing. Warehousing companion animals in barren cages for long periods leaves animals to endure a far worse fate.

Why Are There So Many Unwanted Cats and Dogs?

There are three main reasons. Many owners fail to spay or neuter their dogs and cats, who then reproduce, potentially creating enormous numbers of kittens and puppies. People still buy animals from breeders or pet stores (thereby supporting the puppy mills that supply them) instead of adopting homeless animals from shelters. And people acquire companion animals without considering the lifetime commitment that caring for them requires. Eventually, owners turn their backs on their loyal companions when they become “inconvenient” or “too much work.”

Info graphic reading "1 Unspayed Female Cat and Her Offspring Can Lead To 370,000 Kittens in 7 Years"

Why Are Animal Shelters Important?

They provide animals with food, water, and medical care; protection from the elements; relief from suffering; and a caring human presence. Many times, these animals would have nowhere else to turn.

Socially conscious animal shelters provide a humane alternative to supporting the cruel pet trade with your money. Always adopt—don’t shop!

Important Things to Consider Before Adopting a ‘Pet’

Adopting an animal companion means making a long-term commitment to care for and spend time with the animal for his or her entire life. Before adopting, consider the time and money involved in proper animal care. Will someone have the time and patience to exercise and train the animal? Is someone prepared to pay for food, accessories (such as toys, grooming supplies, leashes and harnesses, and bedding), inoculations, and veterinary care, including spaying or neutering, flea treatment, deworming, and emergency care? Can someone provide for the animal in case of your absence?

If a family decides to adopt an animal, every family member should go to the local shelter together to choose the animal, after the obligations and long-term commitments involved have been carefully considered. It’s also necessary to be aware of local, state, and federal regulations that govern animal “ownership.” Most communities require annual licensing for dogs and cats, and many require that animals be on the custodian’s property at all times and that they be spayed or neutered.

Adorable rescue dog Rufus playing with yellow ball

What You Can Do   

Finding a home for one dog or cat is a wonderful thing, but sterilizing one dog or cat will potentially spare hundreds (if not thousands) of animals suffering and death by preventing generations of puppies and kittens from being born. Getting spay/neuter laws passed saves even more lives.

Stopping the problem at its source is where our time, energy, and funds are needed most. That’s how we can drastically reduce—and hopefully end—the homeless-animal crisis and the need for euthanasia because of overpopulation.

Please support socially conscious open-admission shelters and help end the need to euthanize animals for lack of good homes by having your animals spayed or neutered and by urging everyone you know to do the same.
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