What’s so special about a 90 percent save rate?

By Francis Battista

If you follow this blog or read articles about no-kill communities in Best Friends magazine or elsewhere, you’re familiar with the convention that states that when a community is saving at least 90 percent of all the animals entering its shelters with no subjective qualification of the total number of animals with regard to age, health, behavior, breed or socialization, then that community should be considered no-kill.

We are frequently asked why we (and the no-kill movement in general) regard a 90 percent shelter save rate as meriting this lofty designation. It’s a reasonable question given the seeming arbitrariness of 90 percent, and what about the other 10 percent?

OK, let’s dig in for some no-kill wonkery!

When the no-kill movement began in the early 1980s, the long-standing model of pet population control was to kill unclaimed homeless pets. A stray dog or cat was (and still is) considered lost property and minimum holding periods were established in shelters, not as a humane consideration for the life of the impounded animal, but rather as the time designated by law for owners to claim their lost property before the animal was considered to be abandoned and ownership was transferred to the impounding agency.

Animals who were surrendered to the pound or “shelter” by their owners became the immediate property of that agency and were not entitled to a mandatory holding period and could legally be killed immediately.

Adoption to the public of animals determined to have been abandoned, either by expiration of their legal holding period or by outright owner surrender, was generally a passive activity dependent on the determination of the public to brave the trip to an out-of-the-way location and a depressing shelter environment in order to save a life. Little to nothing was expected to be done by the sheltering agency to actively promote adoptions or to expend resources on health care.

Municipal animal control agencies and supposedly humane private organizations that contracted with local jurisdictions for animal control services were essentially in the business of controlling stray and unwanted pet populations by the method of killing them. It’s a practice that goes back in one form or another to the mid-1800s. Save rates were not even monitored and an animal’s trip to a pound or shelter was usually a one-way ticket.

The defining moral ethic of the emerging no-kill movement that disturbed and disrupted traditional animal control and sheltering was that the lives of these animals have intrinsic value quite apart from their legal value as property. And it was the moral responsibility of the impounding agency to do everything in its power to ensure that:

  1. Pets remain in their homes in the first place.
  2. Lost pets are returned to their families.
  3. Animals deemed abandoned by law or intentionally signed over by their owners should be promoted proactively for rehoming to the public.
  4. Community pet populations should be managed proactively through the widespread availability of affordable and accessible spay/neuter services.
  5. Community cats should be left in their niche homes, and trap-neuter-return (TNR) in all its forms should be the default management model.

The no-kill philosophy was and is a repudiation of the catch-and-kill model of pet population management that was considered to be best practice by both municipal and supposedly humane organizations for more than 100 years.

It was and is the case, of course, that some animals entering the animal control system were genuinely suffering from either an irremediable disease or a traumatic injury with no prognosis for recovery. There was no argument that in such extreme cases, the most humane course of action was to end the suffering of these animals through humane euthanasia. It was also the case that some dogs were too genuinely dangerously aggressive and beyond rehabilitative training to be rehomed safely with the public. In such cases, with the only alternative being permanent incarceration, then, likewise, euthanasia was regarded as being necessary and humane.

Allowing the fact that sheltering agencies are always likely to take in a certain number of irremediably suffering or dangerously aggressive animals, what metric would reflect the diligent application of no-kill policies and programs to eliminate killing as an outcome and allow only the legitimate application of humane euthanasia?

The determination that a community-wide 90 percent save rate was a reasonable indicator of the diligent and successful application of the above-described no-kill policies was not the result of a papal edict or a grand pooh-bah declaration. It was the result of observations of shelter populations and an understanding that, as a rule, the number of legitimate cases of humane euthanasia should not have to exceed 10 percent of all the animals entering a shelter system of whatever age (from neonatal kittens to geriatric, arthritic dogs) and of whatever breed or disposition.

The 90 percent no-kill benchmark is a threshold, not an end goal. We should always strive to save more lives. As no-kill policies are applied and fewer animals are entering shelters and more are leaving alive with greater public engagement, it is not unreasonable for a shelter, with the help of supporting community organizations and the general public, to reduce that 10 percent through volunteer hospice care, special surgeries and other efforts that are usually beyond the resources of municipal agencies.

Bottom line: A community does not reach a 90 percent save rate casually or by accident. Any shelter or group of shelters that reaches this benchmark deserves to be acknowledged for their commitment to no-kill.

Best Friends planted a stake in the ground to lead the country to no-kill by 2025, and when the national save rate crosses that 90 percent threshold, the killing of homeless pets as a model for managing pet populations will truly have been relegated to the dustbin of history, where it belongs.

Together, we will Save Them All.

Julie Castle


Best Friends Animal Society