What It Means to Be a No-Kill Animal Shelter


What It Means to Be a No-Kill Animal Shelter

Considering adopting a dog? You’ve probably come across the term ‘no kill animal shelter.’ But what does that mean? No kill shelters make every effort to save all healthy, adoptable pets, but there’s more to know about these rescue operations.
By Sierra Burgos August 24, 2020 Advertisement Pin FB More Tweet Email Send Text Message Print happy mixed breed dog
happy mixed breed dog Credit: Adri / Getty

At a no kill animal shelter, there is a concerted effort to save any and all animals who can be saved. Veterinarians and support staff focus on healing the animals who can be healed, and only making an end-of-life decision as an act of mercy. In a no-kill environment, every animal is seen as an individual with a life worth saving.

The most common measurement for a no-kill organization is having a save rate of at least 90, with less than 10 percent of the animals needing to be euthanized. By this philosophy, every animal that is healthy or treatable is saved, however animals suffering from an irreparable injury, sickness, or behavioral condition that compromises their quality of life could be deemed unadoptable.

Types of Shelters

Public Shelters

A public shelter is required by law to take in all surrendered animals. They are government regulated, with the goal of keeping animals off the streets. Their save rate can often be lower because they cannot turn away animals. Because of this, they may also be overpopulated.

Private Shelters

A private shelter can be choosy about which animals they take in, as they are privately funded. They may have a great no-kill record, but that may be because they can refer unwanted animals to a public shelter.


A rescue organization pulls from shelters and places animals into foster programs. They’re typically funded by donations and run by volunteers. They collaborate with public and private shelters to help animals in need of new homes.

The ‘No-Kill’ Controversy

All shelters, pounds, and rescues have their own philosophy when it comes to euthanization, as do animal welfare experts. Some believe the percentage should be 95 percent saved, some think it is situational. While not everyone can agree, the ultimate goal of the no-kill movement is to have every organization make a transparent commitment to a life-saving practice.

Transparency hasn’t always been at the forefront of self-proclaimed ‘no-kill’ communities. Private institutions might boast a no-kill status, but they’re very strategic about how they maintain that status. If they reduce the number of dogs and cats they take in, they also reduce their number of euthanizations. Further, the animals they turn away often end up in public shelters that must euthanize to accommodate all the overflow.

Herein lies the problem with identifying an organization as a “no-kill shelter”: The term implies there’s such a thing as “high-kill” shelters, and suggests these organizations are responsible for killing animals and must be berated. Labels like these prevent at-risk shelters from getting the support they need from adopters, volunteers, and donors. 

“We don’t even use that language,” Amy Nichols, Vice President of Companion Animals with the Humane Society, says. “We don’t classify [shelters] at all, we talk about quality of life and quality of care. For those in animal welfare, the language is shifting away from that. It’s more ‘life-saving’ as opposed to kill or no-kill.”

What Is a No-Kill Community?

A no-kill community is a city or town that works together to achieve a 90 percent save rate in all of their shelters and rescues, making every effort to save animals who can be saved. This requires the cooperation of all shelters, rescues, government, and the members of the community.

In a no-kill community, everyone takes responsibility for the livelihood of the animals, not just the shelters. This includes giving support to every shelter, regardless of their euthanization policies, in order to improve the situation for all animals in the community. 

Explaining the Save Rate

Why is an acceptable save rate 90 percent, rather than 100 percent? While it would be wonderful if a no-kill shelter could save every animal, experts recognize euthanasia can sometimes be the humane option for a struggling animal. If an animal has an untreatable illness or injury, a veterinarian may find the most compassionate avenue is a peaceful passing. Unfortunately, there are also times when an animal has serious behavioral issues that cannot be reversed.

These end-of-life decisions are not to be made lightly. Animal welfare professionals have their own best practices for deciding on the best course of action for an animal. This is why a no-kill shelter or community will embrace a save rate of 90 percent.

How You Can Help

Do Your Research

Find out where your community stands on these issues: How many shelters are in your area? Research their policies and see if they are in support of the no-kill philosophy. You can take a closer look at your state’s data using Best Friends’ Community Dashboard, which works with shelters to track save rates across the U.S.

Support Local Programs

A quick Google search will connect you with advocacy groups near you that support adoption, spay/neutering, and no-kill philosophies. You can also give your support to nearby shelters that need volunteers, donations, and positive interactions (whether they euthanize or not).

Spread the Word

When most people think about no-kill shelters, they have an idea there are two types of organizations: the ones that euthanize, and the ones that avoid it entirely. This common misconception prevents open-door shelters, which naturally have a lower save rate, from getting the support they need. Treat every shelter as a life-saving organization, and it will positively impact all the animals in your community.

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