No-kill Calculator Programs

Use your data set results to decide which of the following categories can help you achieve your goal. Then create and implement a plan using the programs that are most relevant for your organization’s needs.

Reduce intake
    Managed intake programs
    Community cat programs
    Targeted spay/neuter programs
    Owner support for medical
    Owner support for non-medical
    Community wellness programs
Increase adoptions
    Open adoptions
    Foster program/nursery
    Behavioral and big dog programs
    Medical protocols and access
    Ordinance changes
Increase returns to owner
    RTO in the field
    RTO fees
    Lost and found
    Family support for medical and non-medical issues
Increase transfers to other agencies
Increase other live outcomes
Increase returns-to-field
    Community cat programs

Programs to reduce intake

The following programs are listed in order of greatest potential impact for most communities. If your government-contracted shelter does not have a managed intake program, we suggest you start there. Community cat programs are also critically important for lowering cat admissions and increasing live outcomes for cats. Scroll down for information on six programs that can significantly reduce the number of animals entering your shelter.

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Managed intake programs

“Virtual sheltering” approach

In the virtual sheltering model, community members bring in stray pets and admit them into the shelter’s database. Animal profiles are posted online, and shelter staff go through the normal process of finding placement. Pets are kept at the homes of the people who brought them in for some combination of the following:

  • Stray hold
  • Hold until permanent placement is found
  • Hold until an appointment can be scheduled to bring the pet into the shelter when there is space

Scheduled intake approach

Public intake hours are scheduled to coincide with the days when most pets typically leave the shelter, which maximizes space. Over-the-counter public intake is closed on days when field intake is typically high (such as July 5, New Year’s Day). If scheduled intake isn’t an option, urge people with pets to wait for another day to ensure the best possible outcome for their pet.

Field liaison services approach

  • Use return-to-owner in the field to prevent animals from coming to the shelter in the first place.
  • Provide needed resources and assistance to help people better contain their pets (such as fence repair or screen door repair).
  • Triage service calls as much as possible. Common questions to ask when prioritizing:
    • Is this a bite case?
    • Have humans been injured or are they at risk of serious injury?
    • Is the pet sick, injured or in immediate danger?
    • Is this a call to assist other law enforcement agencies?

Over-the-counter approach

  • Implement a scheduled intake process in which people with pets are provided support and resources to help them keep the pet or an alternative placement option when needed.
  • If scheduled surrender isn’t allowed to or cannot be made mandatory, encourage people to wait for an appointment to ensure the best possible outcome for their pet.
  • Require people to do the above items before considering surrender of an animal to the shelter, and then use an appointment process for accepting the pet.
  • Keep in mind that ordinance changes may be needed in some cases to sanction shelter-run return-to-field programs, TNR programs and managed intake, as well as to overturn any breed discriminatory legislation that might be contributing to intake numbers.
  • Getting basic information for dogs (behavior history, medical/vaccine history, breed, date of birth, etc.) prior to the intake appointment often leads to dogs going directly to viable rescue options.

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Community cat programs

See Increase return-to-field outcomes.

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Targeted spay/neuter programs

Providing affordable and accessible spay/neuter services for people with pets helps reduce the number of stray pets and surrendered pets entering the shelter, including the number of cats who might become community cats.

By targeting service delivery to areas of the community where you see the highest intake, providing free spay/neuter services (when possible) and prioritizing them for families that can’t afford unsubsidized fees, you can dramatically reduce the number of unwanted litters born each year. You’ll also help reduce the chance of an animal being surrendered “because she keeps getting pregnant.”

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Medical support

Providing access to basic medical support services also helps keep pets with their families. Such services would include:

  • Preventives for fleas, heartworms, skin conditions, intestinal parasites, etc.
  • Trauma support for pets hit by cars, attacked by other animals, injured by gunshot, etc.
  • Educational information about puppy and kitten wellness and spay/neuter, so that people whose pets do give birth can safely and successfully find new homes for the litters instead of bringing them to the shelter.

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Non-medical support

Providing information and resources related to common behavioral and housing challenges can also help prevent problems that lead to healthy animals being surrendered. This might include information and direct support to help with any of the following:

  • House training and litter box issues
  • Basic training and behavior issues
  • Guidelines for proper introductions when adding new pets to the family
  • Education on the negative impact of declawing (which may contribute to behavioral issues) and alternative solutions for scratching issues
  • An introduction to basic feline and canine behavior to help build stronger bonds between pets and families
  • A food and supply pantry to help low-income families with pets
  • Maintaining a list of affordable pet-friendly rental housing (Landlord issues surrounding large breed dogs often lead to dogs going to the shelter. By keeping a list of viable housing options on hand, you may be able to help people find better housing, so they can keep their pets.)

If someone does need to rehome a pet, provide helpful alternatives to surrendering the pet to the shelter, such as:

  • Shelter-managed social media pages so people can post their pets as available without entering the shelter
  • Information on how to advertise pets to friends, family, coworkers and others to ensure a successful rehoming
  • Lists of local rescue groups that can offer support

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Community wellness programs

Taking resources directly to areas of the community most in need of support can also help reduce the number of sick or injured animals entering the shelter. Providing field-based pet wellness programs (and related service calls) in neighborhoods with higher numbers of sick and injured pets should not only provide a higher quality of life for pets in the community but should directly impact the number of animals entering the shelter with injuries and illnesses. These programs include:

  • Free vaccines to prevent common communicable diseases such as parvovirus and distemper
  • Free flea and tick treatment to prevent flea dermatitis and tick-borne illnesses such as Lyme disease, E. canis and anaplasmosis
  • Free internal parasite treatment to prevent common parasites such as roundworm, hookworm and heartworm

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Programs to increase adoptions

The following programs are listed in order of greatest potential impact for most communities. Open adoptions are listed first because removing burdensome adoption protocols and providing a more personalized, welcoming level of service to potential adopters will dramatically increase the number of pets walking out the door, especially when supplemented with the other programs listed below.

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Open adoptions

Prioritizing your adoption program helps you do far more than just increase adoptions. It also helps to:

  • Foster a positive relationship with the community
  • Reduce stress for animals (and staff) by reducing length of stay and increasing live outcomes
  • Free up space more quickly so that you’re able to help more animals
  • Diversify your funding portfolio by pursuing more effective revenue streams

Key components of a successful shelter include actively marketing your adoption program and removing barriers to adoption. They can include all or part of the following:

  • Low-cost and fee-waived adoptions
  • Simplified adoption applications to make the process less burdensome
  • Special adoption promotions for different types of animals (such as black cats or senior pets)
  • Expanding hours of operation to accommodate adopters’ varying work schedules
  • Strategic placement of adoptable pets in your shelter’s space (such as having staff or volunteers leash walk and socialize adoptable dogs near the entrance or lobby and moving social cats’ cages up front)
  • Offering foster-to-adopt options for pets still undergoing medical treatment so they can go home sooner
  • Offering “working cat” or “barn cat” programs to help find alternatives to traditional family homes and community cat colonies for less socialized cats

An increasing number of shelters and rescue groups are moving away from adoption fees as a primary revenue stream. By diversifying your fundraising to include grant programs, corporate and foundation sponsors, and other special fundraising campaigns, you can increase adoptions and revenue simultaneously.

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Foster programs and nurseries

Foster programs and nurseries are programs that operate outside of the primary shelter space and provide “flex capacity” so that the most vulnerable animals are not kept in the shelter.

By maintaining a separate or off-site nursery, immediate temporary care can be provided for newborn puppies and kittens (and nursing mothers when needed) without exposing them to the shelter environment.

By offering foster programs, you can reduce the number of animals in the shelter and increase successful outcomes for more animals in your case. The benefits of foster programs include:

  • Engagement with community members who love animals and are willing to open their homes temporarily to pets in need
  • Alternative housing arrangements for pets not showing well in a shelter environment, such as reactive or shy dogs (These pets can be marketed for adoption while in their foster homes.)
  • Safety and comfort for sick or injured pets in need of healing, animals in the shelter for an unusually long time and pets with contagious diseases
  • Prevention of the development of problematic “kennel behaviors”

Shelters can be very stressful places for pets, and that stress can weaken immune systems and increase vulnerability to illness. But providing a less stressful housing option can often speed recovery, minimize behavioral deterioration and increase chances of adoption.

Creating and developing a team of foster-ready homes is an easy way to minimize risks and increase adoptions.

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Behavioral and big dog programs

Implementing programs and promotions focused on larger dogs can also help increase adoptions for that population. Play groups, sleepovers, special outings, reduced-fee adoptions and breed label removal are all key pieces of successful big dog programs.

Play groups offer a variety of benefits for both the dogs and the shelter, including:

  • A more accurate assessment of social skills
  • Increased freedom and exercise, as well as reduced stress for the dogs
  • More effective use of resources and time by grouping dogs together for out-of-kennel time
  • Calmer, quieter in-kennel behaviors that increase the likelihood of adoption

Best practices should be followed for implementing play groups. These include following a vaccination-on-intake protocol, appropriately matching playmates (e.g. intact dogs should not be paired with dogs of the opposite sex), and maintaining the right physical environment such as safe, secure play yards. More information and best practices for play groups can be found here.

Other programs that support larger dogs and increase adoptions include:

  • Outings and sleepovers that provide dogs with out-of-shelter time like “Dog for a day” or dog jogging groups
  • Removing breed labels from kennels and online profiles to encourage adopters to focus on individual animals and avoid assumptions (Evidence also shows that staff-assigned breed labels are often inaccurate.)
  • Foster home and post-adoption training support via classes or in-home consults from staff with expertise in behavioral training

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Medical protocols and access

When a nursery is not an option for a shelter, having access to overnight medical care for newborn puppies and kittens (waiting for fosters or transfers) can be lifesaving. For example, newborn pets coming in at the end of the day with no immediate chance of being transferred or sent to foster care are sent to an emergency clinic where overnight bottle-feeding is available. Then they are brought back to the shelter the next morning (along with any pets arriving at the emergency clinic overnight via ACOs) and go straight into foster or transfer placement.

Having predetermined protocols in place helps ensure that dogs and cats are given the best possible chance at survival. It also limits possible risk to the rest of the shelter population. Protocols should be in place for the following:

  • Routine admissions procedures such as vaccine-on-arrival
  • Newborn puppies and kittens
  • Sick pets to be treated from the moment they enter the shelter up to the point when they leave

Even the best medical care practices fail if proper cleaning and care protocols aren’t in place. In addition to the foster and transfer options listed above, having space, medical supplies and trained staff to treat common illness and injury is essential.

Developing relationships with emergency clinics ensures that animals admitted overnight receive immediate treatment when there’s no medical staff at the shelter. And having protocols in place for staff to triage and respond to emergencies at the time of admission creates a better chance for animals to survive, as well as a culture focused on lifesaving. 

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Ordinance changes

In addition to the above programs, it may in some cases be necessary to pursue city ordinance changes to overturn breed discriminatory legislation (BDL) that prohibits or restricts live outcomes for dogs based on appearance.

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Increase returns to owner

RTO in the field

Keeping an animal out of the shelter and at home should be a priority. Empower animal control officers to return pets directly to their homes and to waive fines if warranted. Field officers should be trained in best practices, including neighborhood canvassing and in-the-field microchip scanning.

RTO fees

Implement an affordable reclaim fee structure (consider no-fee as an option) and a user-friendly reclaim process. Waiving RTO fees can more quickly move pets out of the shelter and can be more affordable than longer boarding or other options. Offering reclaim fee alternatives such as allowing a person to “pay down” the reclaim fee by volunteering time at the shelter is another option that can also help create a stronger sense of responsibility and community engagement.


Microchipping pets enables faster identification of pets and quicker reunions with families. To increase the number of microchipped pets in your community, offer free or low-cost microchip clinics in areas with the highest number of stray and lost animals. Some communities are now using microchips instead of pet licensing.

Microchipping also increases an animal control officer’s ability to reunite a lost pet with a family and avoid the shelter altogether. Officers should be equipped with microchip scanners in the field.

Pets should be scanned by multiple people at different times during a shelter stay to ensure a microchip isn’t missed due to human error, faulty scanner, etc. For example, have staff scan on intake, during vaccinations, during stray hold and at disposition.

Lost and found

Increase the visibility of lost and found pets in your community by:

  • Creating a public lost-and-found page
  • Using volunteers and animal control officers to post flyers of stray dogs in the neighborhoods where they were found.
  • Improve your website’s lost-and-found page by using clear, high quality photos
  • Increase access to all areas of your shelter for families looking for lost pets
  • Link to other lost-and-found databases when possible so that families don’t have to search for a lost pet in multiple places

Family support for medical and non-medical issues

If medical issues prevent a family from reclaiming a pet, provide basic services such as spay/neuter or preventives against diseases like heartworm, skin conditions and intestinal parasites. Also provide trauma support for pets hit by cars, attacked by other dogs, wounded by gunshots, etc.

If solvable nonmedical issues prevent a family from reclaiming a pet, provide them with the following resources:

  • Support for basic training issues
  • A list of affordable pet-friendly rental housing — the lack of which often sends dogs to shelters (By keeping a list of viable housing options on hand, you may be able to help people find better housing, so they can keep their pets.)
  • A food and supply pantry to help low-income families

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Increase transfers to other agencies

Transfer programs engage community rescue groups and shelters to become strategic partners in lifesaving for all types of pets. For instance, you can provide great solutions for animals in your care by removing them from the shelter and placing them in a private group’s foster program or nursery program. Laws often allow this (even while a dog is on stray hold) if such care is in the animal’s best interest.

Transfer programs also create immediate live outcomes for dogs and cats not used to living in a shelter setting. They also free up resources and space for other pets already at the shelter. Ideally, a surrender-transfer program will be in place so that upon admission pets can be transferred directly into the care of private organizations, circumventing entry into the shelter.

Some of the many ways to incentivize transfers between agencies:

  • Pay stipends for receiving shelters and rescue groups. (This can be a flat amount per animal depending on type, or on a contract for pulling a certain number and type of animal.)
  • Reduce or eliminate pull fees for transfers.
  • Arrange productive trades (such as trading one difficult dog for five cats).
  • Establish a clear protocol to alert rescue groups through social media, email, etc. about animals most in need of being pulled.
  • Partner with one or more agencies for large-scale transports out of state

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Increase other live outcomes

Alternatives to traditional placements that can help you find positive outcomes for pets in your care:

  • “Working cat” and “barn cat” programs that increase placement options for under-socialized cats not eligible for the community cat program or cats not likely to succeed in traditional family homes
  • Hospice programs for terminally ill or geriatric pets
  • Alternative placements for dogs such as police work, service dog programs, rescue and recovery programs, etc. 

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Increase return-to-field outcomes

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Community cat programs

A well-designed community cat program consists of three components: 1) organization-run, return-to-field placement, 2) community education on the “in-community” management approach and 3) targeted trap-neuter-return (TNR) of additional cats living in the same location where the first cat brought to the shelter was trapped. 

These programs reduce cat admissions (or increase positive outcomes, depending on how data is reported). They also ultimately create more space by freeing up valuable shelter resources and increasing adoptions for cats already in the shelter.

Additional benefits:

  • Reduction in problematic behaviors (spraying, fighting, high concentrations of kittens and/or cats in one area) and the reporting of them
  • Support that inspires community cat caregivers to become part of a broader community solution
  • Effective response options for public complaints through the introduction of humane deterrents and solutions that help reduce the number of free-roaming cats
  • A reduction in kitten admissions through targeted TNR, which further increases positive outcomes by preventing such a vulnerable population from entering the shelter
  • Education for community members on when and when not to bring in kittens based on a proper evaluation of their health and safety
  • Reduction in the spread of diseases from community cats to cats living in homes

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