A setback in lifesaving and what it means

Three puppies on a Kuranda-type bed
By Julie Castle

In 2016, I announced that Best Friends was going to take the country to no-kill by 2025. We didn’t fully know how we were going to do it, just that we had to. And while we knew that we’d face hurdles along the way, we didn’t have a crystal ball to tell us what they would be. Now, it’s 2022, we’re just a few years away from our goal year, and the pandemic has been the biggest hurdle so far.

One key component of reaching our goal is our nationwide data collection process, which involves outreach to every shelter in America. It’s the most comprehensive, accurate dataset about dogs and cats in U.S. shelters. Today, we released the collected data from 2021, and I’ll be straightforward with you: For the first time in five years, shelter systems had a setback in lifesaving. Last year, the number of dogs and cats killed in shelters was about 355,000, an increase from the 2020 number of 347,000.

Why did this happen? Largely, it’s due to increased intake and staffing shortages. There was a historic 20% decrease in pets entering shelters in 2020, because COVID-19 caused shelter closures across the country. But as shelters re-opened in 2021, more pets came through the doors, resulting in an 8.1% increase in intake. And though there was a rise in adoptions, it just couldn’t keep pace with that steep rise in intake.

Here's the thing, though. The number of no-kill shelters and communities is at an all-time high, with more states on the verge of achieving no-kill. More than half of all shelters are now no-kill, compared to only 22.5% in 2017. New Hampshire and Delaware remain no-kill, and in 2021, Rhode Island, North Dakota and Vermont were only 18, 41 and 89 animals shy (respectively) of achieving no-kill status. Plus, the number of dogs and cats killed didn’t increase at the same rate that intake did, proving that innovations in shelters are working and continuing to save more lives.

I know I’m being a total data nerd and throwing a lot of numbers at you, but it’s because these numbers tell us where and how to focus as we approach 2025. It allows us to scale up targeted efforts that are proving to be lifesaving, including our shelter collaborative program, shelter embed projects, initiatives focused on saving cats and big dogs, advocacy work and the growing network of Best Friends partners.

I’m also invested in this data because it’s not just about numbers. It’s about lives. It’s about dogs and cats who entered shelters but did not make it out, because they didn’t have safe places to call home. And I know we can change this for them — because we already are. Together, we have reduced the number of dogs and cats killed in U.S. shelters from about two million in 2015 to 355,000 in 2021. Together, we have increased the national save rate from 64% in 2015 to 83% in 2021.

Keep showing up. We have made incredible progress, and there is even more to come. Together, we will Save Them All.

Julie Castle


Best Friends Animal Society