Lessons from Delaware’s journey to become the first no-kill state for dogs and cats

By Julie Castle

Last month, Best Friends shared the most recent lifesaving updates for dogs and cats from our 2019 national shelter data set. While we normally look for big changes in the data that signal progress, there was one thing that we’re happy to report remained the same. Delaware has sustained its no-kill status for the second year in a row!

Delaware officially became the first and only no-kill state for dogs and cats in 2018. Although it’s a tiny state geographically, with human and animal population sizes that aren’t really comparable to heavily populated states like Texas and California, Delaware and its journey to no-kill have big takeaways for other states working toward the same goal.

Delaware is a microcosm of what is to come nationwide. The state faced the same challenges as many other states, such as breed-discriminatory legislation and outdated animal ordinances that made saving large-breed dogs and community cats an uphill battle. For years, Best Friends’ legislative team collaborated with the Delaware Office of Animal Welfare to put more effective laws in place that would save these animals.

Today, no dog in Delaware can be declared potentially dangerous based solely on breed and no municipality can enact breed-discriminatory ordinances or regulations. Delaware also protects community cat caregivers and supports progressive cat programs that use trap-neuter-return methods and keep cats safe and healthy in the communities they call home.

One key factor in how quickly individual communities and states achieve no-kill is how swiftly they’re able to shift gears and implement new programs and practices proven to save more lives. When Brandywine Valley SPCA (BVSPCA) took over all animal control duties statewide in 2016, the organization wasted no time establishing a nationally recognized program to support community cats and a behavior program for dogs needing a little extra help. BVSPCA also began offering low-cost veterinary clinics so that families didn’t have to give up their pets simply because they couldn’t afford their medical care.

But the groundwork for getting to no-kill started more than a decade ago. In 2009, the Delaware SPCA opened the Jane R. Haggard Spay/Neuter Clinic — the first of its kind in Delaware — to provide high-quality, affordable spay/neuter services to the public and local animal rescue groups. Around the same time, Faithful Friends Animal Society helped pass Delaware’s Animal Shelter Standards Law, which ensures that shelters are providing needed veterinary support to the animals in their care and making their lifesaving data publicly available on their websites.

Other organizations that play strong roles in the collaborative work to save the lives of every pet in the state include Senior Dog Haven & Hospice, Inc., which specializes in helping older dogs for whom the shelter is a particularly difficult environment, and Forgotten Cats and Just Us Cats, two organizations that work closely with BVSPCA to save and support cats. Delaware Humane Association (DHA) offers a variety of community services for people with pets in Delaware and surrounding states.

Now that Delaware has achieved no-kill status, shelters like BVSPCA and DHA are doing what I consider to be the most powerful thing any individual or organization can do to help the entire nation get to no-kill by 2025: They’re lending a helping hand to their neighbors.

No-kill nationwide means helping every shelter in every community achieve no-kill for dogs and cats. For those that are already no-kill, the next step is reaching out to shelters around them that need help getting there. BVSPCA does just that by regularly welcoming animals at risk of being killed in shelters in other states (e.g., Texas, Florida and Louisiana) and finding homes for them. Last month, Best Friends collaborated with BVSPCA and Wings of Rescue to fly dozens of adoptable dogs from overcrowded shelters in Louisiana to Delaware, where they can find new homes more easily.

The BVSPCA not only gives a second chance to thousands of animals at risk in Southern shelters each year, the organization mentors and supports those shelters to help improve lifesaving in their communities. For example, the BVSPCA helped shelters across Houston adopt out 1,450 animals in two days in their first mega adoption event. The BVSPCA has also sent supplies, staff and other resources to partner shelters.

Creating the kind of big change needed to achieve no-kill statewide doesn’t happen overnight, and the path forward is often unique to each individual state. But we know that working together to do it is essential. The journey to no-kill for each shelter, community and state doesn’t stop with achieving no-kill on your own. It continues as you work to find better ways to sustain and grow your lifesaving progress while helping others to get there as well.

Julie Castle


Best Friends Animal Society