The Importance of No-Kill Animal Shelters

A family meeting kittens in a no-kill shelter

There are close to 4,000 animal shelters in the United States, and 56% are designated as no-kill shelters with a save rate of 90% or higher. Learn what it means when a shelter is identified as no kill, why the no-kill movement is important for pets, why animals are relinquished to these facilities, and how to search for adoptable pets at no-kill animal shelters.

What is a No-Kill Shelter?

What does “no-kill shelter” mean? Generally, a no-kill shelter is a facility where 90% or more of the animals taken in are treated, rehabilitated, saved, and adopted out to loving homes. Often, they are limited-admission facilities, taking pets that can be treated and rehomed.

The concept of no-kill shelters can be traced back to San Francisco in the 1980s. The community and shelters came together to respond to the overwhelming number of healthy animals that were being euthanized across the country.

As communities became committed to save and find homes for treatable and healthy pets, the no-kill shelter concept gained traction across the country. The percentage of U.S. shelters known to be no-kill has more than doubled from 24% in 2016 to 57% in 2022. Today, roughly 43% of counties in the U.S. are no-kill counties.

Relinquishment of Pets

Many of the animals found at no-kill and other shelters are owner-surrendered or relinquished. When a pet is surrendered, it’s often a tragedy for the family and pet. As sad as it is, shelters would much rather accept a relinquished pet, and try to find the pet find a new home, than have the owners abandon the pet.

The reasons why families surrender their pets are varied. Some of the more heartbreaking reasons why pets are relinquished include:  

  • The death of the pet owner with no family members willing or able to take the pet 
  • Elderly owners moving into a nursing facility or hospice care 
  • Families moving to an apartment or other location that won’t accept pets 
  • Owners becoming homeless themselves 
  • Financial hardship

In other cases, the pet may not fit with the family dynamic, it is too aggressive and needs behavioral training, it requires medical care, or someone in the family develops an allergy to the pet.

Owner surrenders are rising in the post-COVID era, as many people adopted or bought pets to keep them company during lockdowns. Once these people returned to work, they no longer had the time or capacity to take care of their pets. Across the country, lockdown pets have been surrendered, generating a spike in surrender rates.

Most no-kill shelters will accept owner-surrendered pets, depending on need and capacity. If you find yourself in a situation that requires surrender, check with shelters and rescues in your area about their acceptance policies. Many may offer help to keep the animal homed, such as low-cost spaying and neutering, tips for common behavioral issues, and suggestions for finding pet-friendly apartments and communities. 

The Difference Between Shelters and Rescues

In addition to no-kill shelters, there are other types of rescues and shelters, including public and private open-door or last-resort shelters and city- or county-run animal control facilities, which may also accept relinquished pets. You can also try pet rescue groups and animal sanctuaries.

Rescue groups are mostly volunteer organizations, often run out of private homes. They save healthy and treatable pets, provide foster care to rehabilitate the pet and then offer the pet for adoption.

Rescues usually focus on one species, with cat rescues saving cats and kittens from semi-feral colonies, unscrupulous breeders, or hoarding situations. Dog rescues save puppies and dogs from hoarding, puppy mills, and open shelter environments.

Some rescues specialize in certain breeds and will work with last-resort shelters to save, rehabilitate, and adopt cats and dogs of that specific breed.

How to Tell if a Shelter is No Kill

Some shelters and rescues may use the no-kill designation without truly living up to the mission. If you’re considering donating to, volunteering at, or surrendering a pet to a no-kill shelter, you’ll want to make sure the group embraces the no-kill philosophy.

How can you tell if a shelter is no-kill? There are a few things that you can look for: 

  • Does the organization publish their save statistics? Transparency is key to the no-kill philosophy. 
  • Does the organization use its resources responsibly? Check if the organization has been rated by a charity watchdog. 
  • Does the organization allow volunteers in every part of the operation? It should be a red flag if certain areas or roles are “off-limits” to volunteers.

While the 90% save rate is the current accepted rate for no-kill shelters, most shelters that convert from an open-door shelter to a no-kill one will not achieve that status overnight.

While we strive for every shelter, even those that are last-resort shelters, to have a 90% or higher save rate, it’s important to remember that the goal is saving and placing as many healthy pets as possible, and that we can do more as a community when shelters and rescues work together. 

How to Find a Dog or Cat at a No-Kill Shelter

If you’d like to adopt a pet from a no-kill shelter, check what is available in your area on Petfinder. You’ll be able to browse from our network of more than 14,500 shelters and rescues. You can refine your search by breed, color, age, size, gender, location, and other criteria to find a perfect pet.

By adopting a pet from a no-kill shelter or rescue, you give 2 animals a chance at a better life. You give your pet a loving forever home, and you save the life of another pet that takes the place of your pet at the shelter. 

Learn more about animal shelters and rescues with Petfinder.