Number of animals killed in shelters drops to record low; number of no-kill communities nearly doubles as the country gets closer to no-kill by 2025

By Julie Castle

For the first time on record, the total number of dogs and cats killed in America’s shelters for a given year has dropped below the one million mark — to about 800,000 for the 2017 calendar year, or nearly 2,200 dogs and cats killed every day.* Accordingly, the national save rate rose from 70 percent to 77 percent. This positive movement in lifesaving reflects both the hard work of shelters and humane organizations across the country as well as more complete reported data for some regions, which replaces the conservative estimates in previous reports with more accurate numbers. You can check out this latest data report  on our website. 

I want to give a special nod to the 2,500-plus Best Friends Network partners. These are organizations working in tandem with us on the shared goal of ending the practice of animals being killed in shelters in the United States. 

Obviously, 800,000 is still a disturbing number. But we are getting closer to reaching no-kill by 2025. In the context of the arc of animal welfare and the no-kill movement specifically, it is a major milestone. 

In 1984, when Best Friends was founded with a no-kill mission and, quite independently, Rich Avanzino, then head of the San Francisco SPCA, declared his intention to make the city by the bay the nation’s first no-kill community, an estimated 17 million shelter pets were being killed across the country each year. I say “estimated” because back then, there was little accurate reporting of such numbers and statistics were based on sampling data. Some municipalities during that era quantified the number of animals killed in shelters by the tonnage of carcasses shipped to rendering companies that recycled former pets as fertilizer and animal feed. 

Yes, it was that bad.

At the 2016 Best Friends National Conference, I had the privilege of planting Best Friends’ stake in the ground to lead the country to no-kill by 2025. It was a declaration that challenged all of us in the movement to do more, do it better and do it more quickly to end the travesty of animals being killed in shelters in this country once and for all. 

Believe it or not, the animal sheltering industry, which began in the late 1800s, never had data or an accurate measurement of just how many animals were entering and dying in America’s shelters. Furthermore, no one knew how many shelters existed in America. It has always been everyone’s best guess. How could we possibly end shelter killing if we had no idea how many animals we needed to save? Crazy, right? 

Well, that all changed two years ago when one of the first undertakings of Best Friends following the 2025 declaration was to get an accurate handle on the size of the problem and to eliminate the guesswork as much as possible. We needed to know not only how many animals were being killed, but where and what kind and species of animals, in order to effectively target the no-kill movement’s resources. 
In 2012, Best Friends led the charge and spearheaded a collaboration with other national animal organizations to launch Shelter Animals Count (SAC), a self-reporting database of shelter statistics to gather more accurate information than the previous sampling methodology was capable of generating. Voluntary data reporting in SAC has grown each year and while the progress is impressive compared to where we were seven years ago, we knew it would take longer than our accelerated timeline of 2025 demands. Eventually, SAC will be a “one-stop shop” for shelter data in the future, but for now there is a very large gap in our self-reported shelter data knowledge, and in 2017, that gap was even larger.
To close that information gap, Best Friends initiated a massive, brute-force data collection effort involving staff and hundreds of volunteers who contacted and researched literally every county in the United States to gather the missing information. In 2017 and 2018, that work was refined to include expanded public websites searches, government-provided data and Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) data acquisition. Some private organizations that handle significant numbers of dogs and cats do not make their data public and that data is not accessible through FOIA requests. In such cases where data is not available, we used the available accurate countywide data to develop a regional per-capita rate for shelter statistics, which we adjusted with a conservative equation to minimize the possibility of underestimating the number of dogs and cats killed in shelters on a national level. 

All of that is to say that the national data that we are reporting today is extensively researched and the most current and accurate information on national shelter performance available anywhere!

The other important and equally eye-popping headline from our data research report is the fact that the number of no-kill communities (those that have recorded a save rate of 90 percent or greater for at least the last 12 months) has jumped from 2,000 to nearly 4,000 in 2017! Chew on that for a minute. That’s huge! If you have been following the no-kill movement over the years, you will remember that, 10 years ago, you could count the number of no-kill communities on one hand and still have some fingers left over.

OK, so we are making tremendous progress, but beyond taking a moment to acknowledge work well done and the task that remains, what is the value of all this data?

So glad you asked!

Reporting on what has been accomplished is encouraging to be sure, but the real point of data collection is not to see where we have been, but to draw an increasingly detailed map of the work that needs to be done to achieve no-kill by 2025 at a community level.

This is incredibly valuable information and Best Friends is committed to not only deeper data dives but to sharing the product of our work with the public, including everyone working to make the United States a no-kill country.

With a better understanding of where the remaining trouble spots are and the profile of the animals being killed in a given community, whether it’s community cats, large-breed dogs or puppy mill cast-offs, we can better deploy our collective resources for the greatest lifesaving impact by targeting programs more precisely to known needs.

We have come a long way and, together, we will go even further in the coming year.

Together, we will Save Them All.

*The number of dogs and cats killed in our shelters annually, about 800,000, does not include the estimated 10 percent of animals who are euthanized based on presumed humane decisions related to irremediable suffering or genuinely dangerous aggression. For details on the assumed profile of this 10 percent and the likelihood of reducing that number in the future, please read the “What’s so special about a 90 percent save rate?” blog post.

Julie Castle


Best Friends Animal Society