No-Kill Animal Shelters

No-kill animal shelters are playing a leading role in ending animal homelessness in the U.S. This article describes the problem of pet homelessness and the progress that’s been made, through the no-kill movement, to end the killing of pets in our nation’s shelters.

Animal homelessness

It’s not easy to think about the number of pets killed every year in our country’s animal shelters. It’s even harder to hear that many of these dogs and cats die not because they are sick or beyond rehabilitation or have behavior issues, but simply because shelters don’t have the resources to accommodate them.

But it’s important to talk about this tough subject. Talking spreads awareness and awareness can facilitate change. And change is what Best Friends had in mind when we broke ground on our no-kill animal sanctuary in 1984. At that time, an estimated 17 million dogs and cats were killed in America’s shelters every year simply because they didn’t have homes. We wanted to stop this heart-wrenching practice and put an end to animal homelessness.

Sheltering ‘unwanted’ pets

There are several types of shelters and organizations that house and care for owner-surrendered, abandoned and stray cats and dogs. While they may have slightly different purposes and different funding sources, most share the same mission of helping homeless pets. These pets aren’t necessarily unwanted; they have lost their homes for any number of reasons, and need a place to go. Here are a few details:

  • Private shelters: These types of shelters take in animals from the public and try to rehome them.
  • Private shelters with animal control contracts: In addition to finding homes for animals, private shelters with animal control contracts work with their local government to enforce laws related to animal care in their community.
  • Municipal animal control facilities (aka “animal pound” or “the pound”): This type of facility, funded by local government, is generally required to take in every animal who comes to them, and they are in charge of enforcing local animal laws (e.g., leash laws).   
  • Rescue organizations: These organizations typically get their animals by pulling them from private shelters and/or municipal animal control facilities; some also accept animals from the public. They generally do not have a brick-and-mortar location, but rely instead on foster homes and/or boarding facilities to provide housing and care for animals until they are adopted.

Animal shelter policies and practices

Just as there are different ways of sheltering homeless pets, there are different policies and practices concerning how to manage the animal populations within these facilities.

No-kill pet shelters and organizations only euthanize animals who are irremediably suffering and cannot be rehabilitated. They do not kill pets as a means of population control. The benchmark to achieving no-kill is when a community saves at least 90 percent of the homeless animals it takes in. In a no-kill community, shelters strive to not only find permanent homes for all the dogs and cats they take in, they also implement a variety of programs to reduce the number of pets coming in and to increase the number of pets leaving the shelter alive.

Shelters that have an open-admission policy accept all animals, even if they do not have room for them. Traditionally, open-admission shelters have managed the animal population in their facilities by killing animals if they run out of space. These days, some of these shelters manage their animal population through progressive programs (e.g., high-volume adoption, fostering) instead of killing.

The difference between shelter euthanasia and killing

It is impossible to discuss no-kill shelters without establishing how Best Friends defines the words “euthanasia” and “killing.” We firmly believe these two words have distinctly different meanings.

Best Friends defines euthanasia purely as an act of mercy. (Other groups sometimes use the term “mercy killing.”) We believe pet euthanasia should be reserved for situations when an animal is irremediably suffering and a veterinarian has determined the animal has no chance of recovering an acceptable quality of life, or the animal’s behavior doesn’t allow him/her to be a candidate for rehabilitation. 

Conversely, if a healthy or otherwise treatable animal has his or her life ended simply to make space for other animals, or for some other reason (e.g., old age, special needs), we consider that animal to have been killed. 

Every day nearly 5,500 cats and dogs are killed in America’s shelters even though they could have made beloved family pets. That number doesn’t include approximately 2,000 who are euthanized each day for incurable illness or insurmountable behavior problems. Best Friends is working to lower that nearly 5,500 statistic.

Learn more about all the ways that Best Friends works toward no-kill

Achieving no-kill: a multi-faceted approach

To reduce the number of homeless dogs and cats who end up in shelters, no-kill organizations, including Best Friends, implement a variety of methods, such as high-volume adoption programs and promotions, targeted spay/neuter programs, foster programs, kitten nurseries, collaboration with other rescue organizations and an effective community cat strategy. In fact, Best Friends pioneered a number of these methods. Some details about a few of them:

  • High-volume adoption programs and promotions: During Best Friends Super Adoptions, we invite dozens of shelters and rescue groups from the community to participate in mega-adoption events, in order to find homes for as many pets as possible. These weekends are a great way for lots of prospective adopters to meet hundreds of adoptable animals at once. Throughout the year, Best Friends also collaborates with its partners on numerous national low-cost and fee-waived adoption promotions.
  • Spay/neuter programs: Spaying or neutering not only helps reduce the number of homeless pets by preventing unwanted litters, it also reduces medical and behavioral problems in dogs and cats, helping them to lead longer, happier and healthier lives. Best Friends operates spay/neuter clinics in L.A. and Utah that offer discounted fees and also runs a national marketing campaign, called Fix at Four, that encourages people to sterilize their pets at four months of age.
    Learn more about Fix at Four
  • Foster programs: Foster programs around the country are saving lives. When people provide a temporary home for a dog or cat prior to adoption, they not only help that animal, they free up shelter space so another pet can take his or her place. Also, some animals don’t do well in a shelter environment and some need a little extra care. Living in a foster home can help set up a dog or cat for future success in a forever home.

Opposition to no-kill

Not everyone agrees that no-kill is the answer, with some citing instances in which shelters have tried and failed to become no-kill. Another argument is that some shelters achieve no-kill status by only accepting what they consider adoptable animals. This definition of “adoptable” may exclude seniors, pets with treatable illnesses or animals with special needs. These naysayers say that this practice passes on to other shelters the challenge of caring for those “unadoptable” animals.

At Best Friends, we don’t believe that no-kill is based on what an individual shelter may or may not do. Rather, no-kill is achieved when an entire community, including all shelters, is saving at least 90 percent of pets in shelters. While there may be differences of opinion about the best way to end animal homelessness, Best Friends believes the ultimate goal for every animal lover, rescuer, advocate and shelter employee should be to see a day when no healthy or treatable animal is killed for lack of a home.

Best Friends’ no-kill initiatives

We’ve launched these initiatives dedicated to making the city of Los Angeles and the entire state of Utah no-kill:

  • No-Kill Los Angeles (NKLA): The NKLA Coalition, led by Best Friends, comprises more than 100 Los Angeles animal organizations working to transform the nation’s second largest and most diverse city into a no-kill community. Since NKLA’s launch in 2012, the number of pets being killed in L.A. city shelters has decreased by two-thirds. The goal is to make Los Angeles a no-kill city by 2017.
  • No-Kill Utah (NKUT): In Utah, Best Friends has created a statewide coalition of animal rescue and shelter partners with the goal of taking the entire state to no-kill by 2019. As of mid-2016, the NKUT Coalition has helped nearly 30 Utah communities achieve a save rate of 90 percent or better, and the state has reached an overall save rate of 84.4 percent.

Keeping at-risk animals safer

Some types of pets (e.g., feral cats and pit-bull-terrier-like dogs) are dying in higher numbers in shelters than others, so Best Friends has created several national initiatives to help reduce the number of these animals entering and losing their lives in shelters.

While some community cats (also referred to as stray or feral cats) are friendly toward people, many are not and this puts them at great risk of being killed in shelters. To save these cats, our community cat initiatives promote the implementation of trap-neuter-return (TNR) programs. TNR involves trapping, sterilizing, vaccinating and returning community cats to the locations where they were originally found. This strategy not only reduces the population over time by preventing breeding, it also helps keep the cats safe and healthy. Best Friends and other organizations have had success in implementing TNR programs around the country.  

Pit bull terriers are also at great risk of being killed in shelters. Because these dogs have become so popular, some people are overbreeding them. Others neglect to have their dogs spayed or neutered, resulting in unwanted litters. These two factors have led to an influx of pit-bull-terrier-like dogs in shelters. Another thing that puts pit bulls at risk is misguided laws in some communities that discriminate against certain breeds — often targeting pit bull terriers.

Best Friends believes that all dogs are individuals and should be treated as such. We fight breed discrimination across the country and aim to change the negative image of pit bull terriers. We work hard to get these misjudged dogs adopted into loving homes from our sanctuary and adoption centers. And through our pit bull terrier initiatives, we work with legislators and advocates to change laws that discriminate against dogs based on breed.  

Find out more about Best Friends’ initiatives

Promoting adoption

One of the keys to achieving no-kill is promoting pet adoption, which Best Friends does in numerous ways, including running Best Friends Animal Sanctuary, the largest no-kill sanctuary for companion animals in the country; supporting our partners’ adoption efforts with national adoption promotions; and putting on super adoption events. We also operate four pet adoption centers via our regional programs:

  • Best Friends–Los Angeles: We have two adoption centers in L.A. The Best Friends Pet Adoption and Spay/Neuter Center features around 300 adoptable dogs and cats on any given day, all from L.A. city shelters. The NKLA Pet Adoption Center houses more than 100 adoptable dogs, cats, puppies and kittens from both Best Friends and our partners in the NKLA Coalition.
  • Best Friends–Utah: Located in Salt Lake City, the boutique-style Best Friends Pet Adoption Center offers adoptable dogs, cats, puppies and kittens from NKUT Coalition partner organizations.
  • Best Friends–New York: The New York City adoption center opened in 2017 and features adoptable dogs, cats, puppies and kittens from New York shelters and rescue groups. It also serves as a place where animal lovers from around the country can learn more about the no-kill movement.
  • Best Friends–Atlanta: Best Friends Animal Society has joined APRA (Atlanta Pet Rescue and Adoption). The center is a lifesaving hub for animals as well as place from which we can build a coalition to assist the metro-Atlanta area become no-kill. 

Working together to save more lives

Because Best Friends believes in a collaborative approach, we created and lead the No More Homeless Pets Network, which is made up of hundreds and hundreds of animal rescue organizations, spay/neuter groups and animal shelters around the country. These like-minded organizations work to reduce the number of homeless pets and create no-kill communities.

To help them with their efforts, Best Friends provides funding, marketing assistance and other forms of support. Network partners can participate in national adoption promotions, raise money for their organizations via our annual Strut Your Mutt walk and festival, and get discounts on registration fees for the Best Friends National Conference.

Currently, we have Network partners in all 50 states, each of whom is bringing us closer to a day when there are No More Homeless Pets.

Find out more about the No More Homeless Pets Network

Leading the way to no-kill

Surprisingly, the concept of no-kill was a revolutionary idea in the early 1980s. Before that, it was common practice to kill animals when shelters ran out of room. People didn’t relate to homeless animals as sentient beings.

When we founded Best Friends Animal Sanctuary in 1984, our mission was to facilitate social change. We wanted to end the killing of dogs and cats in shelters, and bring about a time when there are No More Homeless Pets.

It may have started as a radical notion, but we soon found that we were not alone in believing that a nation of no-kill communities was possible. When we launched Best Friends magazine in 1992, it quickly became the largest general-interest animal publication in the U.S. and the voice of the no-kill movement.

While we were building our no-kill sanctuary, Rich Avanzino, who was then president of the San Francisco SPCA, began a campaign to make San Francisco a no-kill city. He accomplished that goal in 1994 and is widely regarded as the father of the no-kill movement.

Other notable milestones in the early days of the no-kill movement: New Hampshire launched the first statewide spay/neuter campaign in 1994; the first no-kill conference was held in Phoenix, Arizona, in 1995; and in 1999, Dave Duffield and his wife, Cheryl, established Maddie’s Fund, dedicating $300 million to promoting no-kill communities.

In 2000, Best Friends launched a program called No More Homeless Pets in Utah, with generous financial support provided by Maddie's Fund. The statewide program, now called No-Kill Utah (NKUT), is on track to make the entire state of Utah no-kill by 2019. And in 2012, we started No-Kill Los Angeles (NKLA), a Best Friends initiative to achieve no-kill in America’s second-largest city by 2017.

Where we are today

More than 30 years after the start of the no-kill movement, the number of dogs and cats being killed in shelters has been reduced from an estimated 17 million to approximately 2 million annually. And no-kill communities have been established in cities and towns around the country. In fact, more than 200 communities in the U.S. have achieved a 90 percent save rate and hundreds more are working tirelessly to get there.

Achieving no-kill nationwide is an ambitious goal — one that cannot be accomplished without the help and compassion of people willing to speak up, work together, and go the extra mile for homeless dogs and cats. We have seen incredible change over the last 30 years, but there is still more work to be done. We are confident that we can get there. We are confident that, working together, we can Save Them All.

Get involved: Volunteer with Best Friends or at a shelter near you

No-kill animal shelters: Working together to Save Them All