Why shorter hold times save lives

Best Friends’ mission is very focused and simple. It involves ending the killing of pets in American shelters. We believe that every single community in the United States can be no-kill. We believe this because there are already more than 200 communities across the country saving 90 percent or more of the pets who enter the shelter system.

How these levels of lifesaving can be achieved isn’t rocket science: Reduce the number of pets entering the shelter through aggressive, targeted spay/neuter programs, and on the other side, increase the number of animals leaving the shelter through adoptions. It’s a noses-in, noses-out equation that drives everything we do. But, as they say, the devil is in the details and those details can often lead to division within the animal welfare community about how exactly we ensure that the noses-in, noses-out equation comes to fruition.

One thing we know that can hinder a shelter’s ability to save lives, paradoxically, is an increased mandatory hold time — the number of days that shelters are required to hold an impounded stray for owner redemption before being permitted to offer that dog or cat for adoption to the public, or transfer to a qualified rescue group. Hold times are common sense. They allow for lost pets to be reclaimed by their people and for the shelter to put forth a reasonable effort to ensure that wayward pets find their way home.

On first glance, a longer minimum hold time seems to make sense and serve the interests of lost pets and the pet-owning public. However, real-world analysis doesn’t support that conclusion.

Right now in the state of Wisconsin, a debate is raging over a bill that addresses hold times. Under current law in the Badger State, stray animals must be held for seven days. In practice, that actually becomes eight days because the law does not count the day the animal was brought to the shelter. Wisconsin has one of the longest stray hold times in the country and the numbers show that a longer hold time doesn’t actually prove to be a lifesaving measure.

For example, take the Milwaukee Area Domestic Animal Control Commission (MADACC), which is the primary shelter for the 19 municipalities of Milwaukee County. According to MADACC, 74 percent of dogs and 52 percent of cats reclaimed at MADACC in 2014 went home in the first two days of their stray hold. Only 114 of the 11,221 dogs and cats entering MADACC in 2014 (just one percent) were reclaimed on days five through seven.

You may look at those numbers and say that one percent is worth the wait. Those 114 animals deserve to go home just as any other, and the shelter should find a way to accommodate the longer hold time to ensure all lost pets make it home. The problem with that line of thinking is that longer hold times mean that the shelter population can easily balloon beyond the shelter’s capacity, which plays into the “euthanizing-for-space” rationale for shelter killing. Conversely, smaller shelter populations mean that animals needing more training or health care in order to be ready for prime time can be given the time they need, rather than being squeezed out by the extended stay of an easily placed pet.

Opponents will say that reducing hold times will simply give the shelter manager who’s not invested in no-kill the opportunity to kill more animals more quickly. Sadly, such individuals are already killing shelter pets for any excuse, and shelter crowding is at the top of their list of reasons.

As a point of comparison, let’s look at some very successful no-kill communities, recent save rates and their minimum stray hold times*:


  • Austin, Texas, 93 percent, three-day stray hold

  • Portland, Oregon, 93 percent, three-day stray hold

  • Hamilton County, Indiana, 90.3 percent, four-day stray hold

  • Kansas City, Missouri, 93 percent, five-day stray hold

  • Boulder, Colorado: 93 percent, five-day stray hold


A bill working its way through the Wisconsin state legislature right now would allow shelters to find homes for animals on the sixth day in the shelter — which cuts the stray hold to four days, plus the initial day of impoundment. This simply puts the state of Wisconsin near the national average for stray holds and will improve save rates across the state, essentially overnight. No large community with a stray hold as long as that in Wisconsin has ever reached a 90-percent save rate.

Without question, getting lost pets home is a priority for Best Friends and every other animal welfare organization. Microchipping and other strategies should be promoted to ensure that lost pets get home as soon as possible. Forcing pets to stagnate in shelters for unnecessary extra days that do nothing to increase return-to-owner rates is not a lifesaving strategy.