Animal sheltering in the United States: Yesterday, today, and tomorrow


Animal sheltering in the United States: Yesterday, today, and tomorrow

Dog pounds are a thing of the past. Today's animal shelters are community centers that provide numerous public services. But these services, such as behavior classes, often require veterinary input. Are you up to the challenge?
Oct 01, 2007

Homeless animals are no longer viewed as a public nuisance to be warehoused in substandard facilities and disposed of as quickly and quietly as possible. Just as there has been a shift in the role companion animals play in the lives of people, the way society views homeless animals and the care they should receive in shelters has also shifted. Increasingly, the trend across the United States is to design shelters as friendly and inviting community centers where the public can go to not only relinquish or adopt pets but also to receive counseling on responsible pet ownership and animal behavior problems and to receive services ranging from low-cost, elective spay or neuter surgeries to comprehensive veterinary care.

To effectively satisfy the rising demand for better preventive healthcare programs and veterinary services for shelter animals, veterinarians must understand the mission and goal of animal shelters and the resources available to them. Veterinarians also need to recognize that practicing veterinary medicine in a shelter can vary substantially from traditional small-animal private practice. Failure to appreciate these points can lead to frustration and resentment by both the shelter workers and veterinarians, which can lead to a breakdown of communication and may ultimately result in the shelter animals not receiving appropriate and humane care.

My goal with this article is to outline what practitioners need to know about animal shelters to reduce these misunderstandings and provide shelter animals with the best care possible.


Animal shelters evolved from pounds, which were used in colonial towns to round up and hold wandering livestock that could be redeemed from the poundmaster for a fee. Because an economic value was placed on these animals, they were often reclaimed. When the system began to be used to impound wandering dogs and cats, these animals were often killed because little monetary value was placed on them.1

The American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (ASPCA) was founded in 1866 as the first animal welfare organization in the United States. The organization's focus was on the mistreatment of horses, not dogs and cats. Several other humane organizations were founded soon after in major cities, but they were not, and still are not, affiliated with each other. The concept of animal control and shelters slowly took hold, and cities began issuing dog licenses as a source of funding for these programs. However, the shelter's primary role was not to provide humane care and treatment of the animals but to provide public safety and to protect private property rights. In 1874, the Women's Branch of the Pennsylvania SPCA in Philadelphia became the first organization to focus on the humane treatment of shelter animals.1

Until the late 1970s, the veterinary community had little input into the management policies of shelters. Instead of focusing on providing humane veterinary care and treatment to the animals, the energies of many shelters revolved around providing a humane death for the many animals that were not reclaimed or adopted. The euthanasia methods used included clubbing, drowning, electrocution, decompression chambers, and carbon monoxide poisoning, all of which have been considered either quick or humane at various points in time.1

In the late 1970s, enough concern about the quality of life offered to shelter animals was raised that veterinary input was sought to provide effective programs of preventive care and treatment. In 1989, Current Veterinary Therapy X published one of the first articles in a veterinary publication regarding the care of shelter animals.2


The ASPCA National Outreach department estimates that more than 5,000 animal shelters exist in the United States. However, no one knows for sure since there is no federal system to define or regulate shelters. Humane societies and SPCAs are not affiliated with the national ASPCA or the Humane Society of the United States (HSUS). Although some states regulate animal shelters, the guidelines for animal care may be rudimentary at best.