What makes a "good shelter"?

Myths & Facts: Addressing Misconceptions Series Header


Myth: If an animal shelter is a “no kill” shelter, it’s a good one.

Fact:   A shelter’s designation as “no kill” doesn’t tell you enough.

Within the field of companion animal welfare, the proliferation of “kill language” as I’ll call it, has been divisive.  Defining organizations as “no kill” led to the unfortunate designation of other shelters as “kill shelters” or worse yet, “high kill” shelters.  Branding agencies in this negative way makes it even harder for them to attract volunteers, donors, and adopters – the very things they need most in order to reduce euthanasia at their facilities.

In recent years, the field of animal welfare has largely accepted that a “no kill shelter” is one that has a 90-percent-or-better “live release rate.”  This number is determined by dividing an agency’s total live outcomes (animals adopted, returned to owner, or transferred to another agency) by its total outcomes, including live releases, death, and humane euthanasia.  The calculation is applied to dog and cat populations only.

Under this definition the reasons for euthanizing animals are not considered.  It is assumed that if an agency attains a 90% live-release-rate they are only euthanizing animals due to medical necessity or behavior/temperament that makes the animal unsafe as a family pet.

Left: black and white kitten in a cage. Right: text box "The term "no kill" is not a measure of the quality of an animal shelter."

I believe that this metric is a poor indicator of an animal shelter’s worthiness and suggest that the savvy donor or adopter weigh the following factors a lot more heavily:

  • Are the animals at the shelter housed in suitable cages that are kept clean?
  • How healthy is the animal population overall?
  • How does the shelter smell?  Does it appear clean?
  • Do the dogs have an opportunity to get out of their kennels on a regular basis?
  • Does the staff seem knowledgeable about the animals in their care?
  • Are the animals vaccinated?
  • Are the animals treated for minor medical issues?
  • What’s the average length of stay for a healthy animal at the shelter?
  • Does the shelter seem over-crowded with animals?
  • Is the shelter staff forthcoming with information about the animals?

These questions will help you determine whether the shelter is providing animals with an acceptable level of care and whether the organization has a culture that promotes transparency with its adopters and supporters.

The bottom line:  There are a lot of reasons a “good shelter” might not achieve a 90% live-release-rate 100% of the time, but could still be providing quality care to homeless animals and excellent customer service to adopters and donors.

Reprinted from Champaign County Humane Society "Paw Prints" magazine, Volume 45, March 2024


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