Woman lying on the couch with a white and black dog who she's hugging

What no-kill really means

No-kill, as a philosophical principle, means saving every dog or cat in a shelter who can be saved. But it's helpful to have a way to clearly measure lifesaving progress as we move forward together, and that's where the 90% benchmark comes in.

A 90% save rate for animals entering a shelter is a meaningful and common-sense benchmark for measuring lifesaving progress. Typically, the number of pets who are suffering from irreparable medical or behavioral issues that compromise their quality of life and prevent them from being rehomed is not more than 10% of all dogs and cats entering shelters. Therefore, we designate shelters that meet the 90% save-rate benchmark as no-kill.

The ultimate goal, however, is to ensure that every shelter has the resources to save every dog and cat who can be saved, whether that percentage is 90% or something else. But first, we want to help every shelter in every community reach the 90% no-kill benchmark by 2025.

The work won't stop there, however. We'll need to continue to address the systemic issues that put pets at risk to ensure that every savable animal can be saved, and to alleviate suffering and preserve the human-animal bond.

When animal shelters, governments and community members value the philosophical principles of no-kill and work together to implement systems and programs to uphold those principles, it is possible to achieve a community sheltering system in which euthanasia is performed only as an act of mercy. Community-supported sheltering is the intersection among animal shelters, the community and government to support and leverage each other's resources to protect and serve the most vulnerable pets and their people in a community.

For far too long, the burden has been placed on shelters themselves to save the lives of the animals in their care. It is imperative that the community and local government provide their shelters with the support they need to succeed.

What it means to be a no-kill animal shelter

While the 90% benchmark offers a meaningful, consistent way to gauge progress, it is neither a floor nor a ceiling. For many shelters, a true no-kill save rate may be closer to 95% (or higher). For some shelters, particularly those offering care and services such as neonatal kitten programs or compassionate end-of-life services for residents with pets in under-resourced communities, the no-kill benchmark may be slightly below 90%.

The goal is for every shelter, no matter what type of shelter it is, to make a clear commitment to lifesaving and transparency while working to achieve and sustain no-kill in philosophy and practice, rather than simply working to obtain a no-kill designation.

What it means to be a no-kill community

When every brick-and-mortar shelter serving and/or located within a particular county has reached a save rate of 90% or higher, we designate that community as no-kill. The ultimate goal for the community, as with individual shelters, is to save every animal who can be saved via mutually supportive systems that help the most vulnerable pets and their families.

Two defining characteristics of a no-kill community are collaboration and collective responsibility. For any community to be no-kill, all stakeholders in that community must work together to achieve and sustain that common goal. This means cooperation among animal shelters, animal rescue groups, government agencies, community members and other stakeholders, all committed to progressive lifesaving.

Working toward safe, humane communities

Community safety and good quality of life for pets are guiding principles of the no-kill philosophy and are attainable when animal welfare professionals engage in best practices and protocols.

The no-kill philosophy acknowledges that euthanasia may sometimes be an appropriate choice in rare cases of irremediable canine aggression in which public safety cannot be reasonably assured and other interventions would compromise the animal's quality of life.

Effective strategies to achieve no-kill

The most effective path to no-kill includes a combination of (1) collaborative partnerships and coalitions among animal shelters, animal rescue groups and community members working toward a collective goal; (2) proven programs and best practices designed to save the most lives possible; and (3) data-driven decision-making for each individual community.

No-kill coalition-building: Creating a no-kill community or a no-kill state requires collaboration among organizations and individuals committed to achieving a common goal. Through the coalition model, communities can utilize resources more effectively; create unified public messaging; maintain consistent, transparent reporting; take collective ownership of lifesaving; and measure and sustain progress over time.

Best Friends' No-Kill Utah (NKUT) and No-Kill Los Angeles (NKLA) initiatives are examples of successful no-kill coalitions at the state and city levels. Effective coalitions also pursue opportunities for providing professional development and training to help shelter staff, animal control officers and animal welfare leaders gain the expertise they need to save more lives.

Lifesaving programs and best practices: While each shelter and community have unique lifesaving needs, there are a number of best practices and programs that are used in some form or another in any community working toward no-kill. These programs include:

  • Targeted spay/neuter services to reduce the number of dogs and cats entering shelters
  • Adoption and community foster programs to drastically minimize the amount of time animals spend in shelters
  • Community cat programs that use trap-neuter-return (TNR) and return-to-field (RTF) strategies to keep unowned, free-roaming cats (aka stray or feral cats) out of shelters
  • Various other programs, such as neonatal kitten nurseries and transport programs

Data-driven decision-making: Collecting accurate and current data on how many and what types of animals are entering and leaving shelters helps shelter leadership decide exactly which lifesaving programs are needed most in their community. For example, if a particular shelter is saving homeless dogs successfully but is struggling to reduce the number of free-roaming cats entering the shelter, staff may need to prioritize implementing a community cat program and training animal control officers to engage effectively with residents to address cat-related issues. A common first step for most shelters is to conduct a gap analysis to determine their lifesaving needs.

Why Best Friends uses the term "killed"

Best Friends distinguishes between the terms "killed" and "euthanized" because killing is something we want to prevent and euthanizing, when it is a true mercy, is something we support. It's important to distinguish between the two, so that collectively we can work to end preventable deaths.

However, Best Friends does not use the term "kill shelter" because that term is inflammatory and could erroneously suggest that shelters are to blame for killing pets when, in fact, the responsibility to save all the savable pets rests with all of us. Such labels can prevent people from supporting their local shelter, when support is often exactly what that shelter needs.

Some shelters have yet to embrace the no-kill philosophy simply because they've never known another way of doing things, while others are afraid to ask for help for fear of being criticized or attacked. Still others have been asked by their governments to bear a disproportionate portion of the burden to solve the problem without being given the resources necessary for success. That's why it is essential for communities to create collaborative and compassionate spaces committed to lifesaving, so that shelters feel supported and open to change.

Why no-kill can be controversial

No-kill has been a controversial and divisive issue for many years, largely because of the following:

  • A fundamental misunderstanding about what the term means
  • A general lack of transparency and comprehensive data with regard to animal shelters
  • The failure of communities to assume collective responsibility for lifesaving

That's why Best Friends engaged in years of national data collection and created the pet lifesaving dashboard. This platform provides a common-sense benchmark for no-kill and a transparent "apples to apples" view of animal data for all shelters, which members of the public can easily access. Through that common understanding and access to information, we are inspiring community members to stay informed and support their local shelters, with the goal of saving every pet who can be saved.

Helping animal shelters near you to achieve no-kill

You can locate and view the lifesaving status of any shelter in your state through the pet lifesaving dashboard. Each shelter's page gives you an overview of how many pets are entering and leaving that shelter, as well as information about that shelter's programs and the kind of support it needs.

Saving the lives of dogs and cats in animal shelters is the responsibility of each community. Animal shelters and the staff who work there can only create and sustain lifesaving programs if they have community support and participation. Working together thoughtfully, honestly and collaboratively is what makes true no-kill possible.

View the Pet Lifesaving Dashboard