Animal sheltering in the United States: Yesterday, today, and tomorrow - Veterinary Medicine
Medicine Center
DVM Veterinary Medicine Featuring Information from:


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?


Number of animals

Many estimates have been made regarding the U.S. dog and cat population,3 but it is not clear how many animals enter shelters or are euthanized annually. The National Council for Pet Population Study and Policy, a coalition of several animal welfare, veterinary, and animal advocacy groups, was formed in 1993 to gather and analyze data on pet relinquishment. Its studies may be found on the Web site, including commentary on the difficulties encountered in gathering accurate data from shelters. However, it is commonly thought that the number one cause of death of dogs and cats in the United States is euthanasia in an animal shelter.

Types of shelters

There are several models for animal sheltering and rescue organizations. Some communities have numerous organizations while others have none. For example, the Mayor's Alliance for NYC's Animals, which was formed in 2002 to end the euthanasia of adoptable animals in New York City by 2008, has over 40 member organizations involved with animal rescue.

Shelters may be housed in private homes, in dilapidated shacks, or in large, ultra-modern, multimillion- dollar facilities. Some shelters are fully staffed by paid employees, while others are run by dedicated volunteers. In addition, the veterinary services may be performed by a full-time employed veterinary staff or by consultations with local practitioners when problems arise.

Shelters are categorized as municipal or private shelters, rescue groups, or sanctuaries. There may be some overlap of functions, but there are also fundamental differences.

Municipal shelters. Shelters that are under municipal control provide animal control services funded mostly by local taxes, dog license fees, and other specialized programs. Some municipal shelters are divisions of the city's health, police, or sanitation departments, while others may be private agencies that accept the contract for animal control (e.g. ASPCA in New York City and the San Francisco SPCA before they relinquished the contracts back to the cities). In some cases, municipal shelters may raise private funds to provide additional services.

For the most part, municipal shelters are open admission, meaning they must admit every animal relinquished to them regardless of the number of animals already in the facility or an animal's state of health or adoptability. Some animals may be held for a long time because they are involved in court cases, while others may be held for just a few days. Municipal shelters often must hold stray animals for a mandated period, ranging from two to seven days, so their owners may have time to reclaim them. The resultant overcrowding is a major contributing factor to the high occurrence of disease seen in some shelters. Euthanasia is often necessary as a means of population and disease control, regardless of an animal's adoptability.

The public services provided by municipal shelters may include lost and found, adoptions, disaster relief, and nuisance, stray-animal, and rabies control. Increasingly, optional services are being offered to reduce the number of animals relinquished to shelters. These include low-cost veterinary care, such as neutering services; behavior counseling; training classes; and foster care. Many shelters offer humane education and summer camp programs that promote humane and responsible animal care by young people.

Private shelters. Private shelters are often 501(c)(3) not-for-profit corporations that raise funds from the public to provide services. Because they often do not have the contract for animal control, private shelters may be limited- admission or no-kill, meaning that they do not use euthanasia as a primary means of population or disease control. Private shelters can simply close their doors to alleviate overcrowding or control disease spread. Private shelters that do not have animal control functions tend to focus on adoption and neutering services as well as humane education, animal behavior programs, and community projects.

Rescue groups and sanctuaries. Rescue groups and sanctuaries round out the array of animal sheltering organizations frequently encountered. Rescue groups often focus on a specific breed or species and have programs that work with larger established shelters to find homes for animals that fall within their guidelines. Sanctuaries provide homes for animals that generally cannot be rehomed, and they often house those animals for life.


Animal sheltering has undergone enormous changes over the last 25 years, including an emphasis on reducing the number of healthy animals that are euthanized and making appropriate owner-pet matches.


Click here