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Shelters vs Rescues: What is the Difference?

We just received a call on the Colorado Animal Welfare League number from a student doing research for a project in her Government class. She was asking to speak to one of our volunteers who was in charge of euthanizing the animals. At first I was a bit taken aback by the request. Why would anyone assume a rescue group would have anyone in charge of euthanization? After pondering it further, I came to the realization that this student either didn’t: a) read our website to see that we are a foster-based rescue group and don’t operate a shelter – thus no one would be in charge of euthanization; or b) maybe she just didn’t really understand the difference between a rescue group and a shelter.

Convinced that it had to be option b, it struck a chord that maybe many other people don’t really know the difference between shelters and rescue either and so I’m setting out to clarify this topic.


Shelters are typically buildings that contain multiple kennels or dog runs as well as catteries that can house many unhomed animals at a time. Some municipalities operate their own shelters but many shelters operate as 501c3 non-profit organizations and are subsidized by contracts with local municipalities. These contracts provide for incoming animals picked up by local municipal animal control officers to be housed and managed by the shelter. Shelters typically offer pet lost and found services, adoption services, low cost veterinary care services, and animal surrender intake services for the communities in which they are located.

Subsidized shelters and municipal shelters are able to support a payed staff for animal care, operations and management which they also supplement with volunteers. The subsidized shelters typically have huge marketing budgets and receive large donations from wealthy benefactors and large businesses due to their visibility within the community. Municipal shelters typically operate within a very limited budget.

Unless a shelter is specifically marketed as “no-kill”, many of these large shelters will euthanize animals that remain at their shelter too long or that are deemed as unadoptable by the staff.

Adoption fees at shelters are typically low as the shelter itself operates primarily from subsidized government contracts (or the local government itself in the case of municipal shelters) rather than the fees themselves. Adoptions done through shelters appear to the adoptive family as easier because the shelter staff is less concerned with placing the animal in the appropriate home based on the needs of the family and the personality of the animal.

Shelters will typically receive animals from animal control officers, seizures in animal welfare cases, and surrenders from local owners.

While filling a crucial need due to the perception that domesticated animals are somewhat disposable in our society, shelter life can have an adverse impact on the personality of a dog or cat. Many animals will forget any house training they have after spending weeks in a kennel in addition to losing basic social skills from lack of interaction with people.


Rescue groups were created by necessity with the intention of pulling animals targeted for euthanization from shelters in order to give them substantially more time to find a new home. Rescue groups typically operate as 501c3 non-profit organizations staffed primarily by volunteers.

Many rescue organizations operate by providing foster homes for the animals in their program until they can find the animal their new forever home. Foster care prior to rehoming a shelter dog is imperative to re-introduce the animals to living in a house, re-setting expectations for their behavior, and re-socializing them with people. Without this reintroduction to appropriate behavior, many animals that have been sheltered or have been living stray would be considered unacceptable by their new families and  be returned to the rescue.

Rescue adoption fees are typically higher than those found in shelter adoptions because rescues rely on adoption fees and donations to cover their expenses which may include: transportation, veterinary care, food, vaccinations, and spay/neuter. The adoption process varies per rescue, but many rescues will have extensive interviews with the prospective adopter and some may require home visits prior to adoption to ensure the animal is placed in an appropriate home and won’t be returned into the system.

Rescue groups will typically pull animals from local shelters or may assist other local and non-local rescue groups by taking their animals into the organization. Some rescue groups are breed-specific and will only accept pure-bred or mixed animals of a single breed, some will only accept puppies, some will only accept pure-bred animals and some will help any breeds. Many rescue organizations will not accept surrendered animals direct from owners as they feel it is the owner’s responsibility to rehome any animal they are essentially disposing into the system.

8 comments to Shelters vs Rescues: What is the Difference?

  • Jean Regenwether

    Although your article is appreciated, much of the information is incorrect or skewed.
    Commnet one, The subsidized shelters have huge marketing budgets and recieve large donations from wealthy benefactors and large businesses, Incorrect statement this may be for the huge shelters in large cities, but certainly not for small community humane societies. Our budget was always thread bear with no marketing fund and the two highest categories in our financilas were payroll and animal care (medications, surgeries, vaccinations etc). And that was with staff making bearly above minimum wage.
    Comment two: Shelter staff is less concerned with placing the animals in the appropriate home based on the needs of the family and personality of the animal. This comment is so far off base I am not sure where to begin. Our first priority is to place the animal the the best home possible for the animal and the family. A family that will make the fur baby a family member and keep the animal for the rest of its life. OPur adoption process included an interview, meet and greet with all family members, references and home check in neccessary.

    And here is a thought, how many rescues end up having to euthanize animals because of temperament after not evaluating the dog and it has bitten someone two to three times, or attacked another animal. This is not reported many times but it does happen, Not all animals can be saved or adopted, that is just simply a fact today. Thousands of great family animals with great tempermenst are being euthanized because we are trying to save so many that cannot be turned into a safe family pet. When the “no kiil” facilities or rescues have no space and a waiting list, where and what does the general public expect open addmittance facilites to do. They try to choose sick and suffering or non adotable dogs to euthanize first, They run ads in the paper, they do what they can to get the dogs placed for a adoption with events and marketing. Many shelters work with rescue organization and have successful rescue programs. There is not a third alternative for the animals. Many many rescues that do not have foster homes board long term in kennels. No Kill shelters and rescues, for the lack of space stop accepting animals. Open addmittance facilites do not. Most are mandated by state law that they must take in the animal. So a small shelter takes in 7 animals per day, a large shelter 50-60 animals per day, ther is only so much space, so many animals being reclaimed and adopted or rescued.
    The animal rescue community is asking the public to give us the answer. You dont want animals euthanized, then neuter and spay your pet. Stop puppy mills and back yard breeding and stop giving up your animals like you are trading in your cell phone.

  • Marilyn Marks

    I totally agree, Jean, that the “no kill” idea is a farce in that someone has to euthanize the unwanted unlucky ones. I hate that responsible shelters and rescues, who put a lot of professional effort into temperament testing and matching get blamed as the bad guys while those just adopting out dogs and hoping for the best who keep adopting out the same dog over and over while people or animals get hurt and harts get broken. I wishe the question wasn’t shelter or rescue but responsible and professnal vs not (with standards).

  • Sandi Knott

    I am with Jean. The shelter I volunteer at has turned away adapters many times because they werent a good match! Now the other shelter in town does give away their dogs to just anyone. But it certainly does not hold true of all shelters.

  • Debbie Lawson

    Your article is missing the most important third difference: dog warden facilities. Those “subsidized” shelters are usually a humane society that is contracted to be the holding facility for strays. State laws vary on how long you must hold them before allowing adoption. For instance, in West Virginia it is 3 days, Ohio 5 days. With multiple animals brought in over several days, this crowds the facility quickly. Fosters are needed for the available dogs, since that is not allowed with ones on “stray” status. Every attempt is made to work with rescues and to find forever homes.

    However, at a dog warden facility, there is no obligation whatsoever to work with rescues or to adopt out. They just hold for the allotted time and euthanize. Those facilities, often on shoe-string budgets use the cheapest and fastest methods, such as gassing, inhumane yet still legal. Or gunshot.

    And while “no kill” facilities exist, the ones they refuse when full are being euthanized across town.

    Debbie Lawson
    Humane Society of Parkersburg, WV
    Humane Society of the Ohio Valley (Marietta, Ohio)

  • Debbie Lawson

    Correction: ohio is 3 day wait. WV is 5.

    Volunteers walk the dogs to help keep house training up, socialization and expected behaviors.

  • shelblock

    i agree with what you said. ‘huge marketing budget”…where is this? i work with (and foster) for breed-specific rescue, and you just can’t believe how people email & say ‘we need you to re-home our 10 yr old dog by next week.’ i mean, seriously? rescue makes you lose faith in people. they really are THAT AWFUL. we are working so hard signing petitions & protesting pet stores- trying to get stronger legislation to eradicate puppy mills & backyard/hobby breeders. everyone loves their dog & thinks they are worth breeding. try this: look up the rescue of the breed of dog you have & see how many deserving _______s already exist & are looking for homes because someone didn’t think they were worth keeping. it’s a truly sad statement on mankind what we do to these animals. they don’t have a choice.

  • May S.

    I work for a horse rescue. While I agree with some of what you said, some of the things may not be true for all rescues & shelters.

    Adoption fees at rescues are NOT necessarily higher. Take for example my local SPCA (“kill”) shelter: $125 for a cat. Cats at my local rescues: one asks $75, one $40, one gives free feral cats to good barn-type homes. Adoption fees vary quite a bit from one shelter/rescue/adoption program to another. Those seeking a pet should inquire about the fee AND inquire if that covers the pet getting all his shots, medical tests if needed, and other care. An inexpensive pet at one shelter may end up costing more if the new home has to pay for their own neutering, shots, FeLV/FIV testing, or deworming.

    The source of the animals at rescues may be the exact same places as the big public shelter. While a Rescue generally doesn’t have legal authority to come onto peoples’ properties for a cruelty seizure, they definitely handle voluntary owner surrenders. It is NOT true rescues don’t take in owner surrenders. We (the rescues) are the safety net for the community when owners call shelters and are told the shelter is full, the pet will just be put down, and/or the shelter can’t be reached. In the past two weeks I’ve worked on rehoming horses from two owners who both fell onto major financial distress. One is going into foreclosure and her local SPCA doesn’t even take horses. Her choice is to leave them behind for the bank to deal with or try to find the money to have them killed. Each call is handled on a case-by-case basis. Sometimes the owner ends up keeping the pet if we can nudge them towards the training, medical, or financial resources they need. Some owners simply just need help in properly finding a new home for their pet. There are people out there seeking free pets from Craigslist or the local paper: they’re caught using the free cats for a target shoot. In my area free dogs are used for bait for fighting dogs. Free horses are sold to slaughter brokers to be butchered. It’s not always easy to safely rehome a pet, especially if the family is in crisis.

    Rescues do take in cruelty cases. Some Animal Control / public shelter officers will call in the rescue to pick up some of the animals. Rescues will also sometimes also help catching strays, when an area’s animal control officer didn’t have the time to stay & do it. Rescues do take in pets from kill shelters. I’m involved with a horse rescue, and we take in horses from “kill” pens (about to be slaughtered for meat).

    Some Rescues, such as mine, are run on a foster-home based situation. Some have leased buildings or farms to work out of. It isn’t always clear where the line is between the no kill “shelter” and the larger-budget “rescue” with its own facility.

    One thing I do notice is that some rescues may follow up with the pet once he’s adopted. A better one, in my opinion, is a rescue that always finds the space to take back a pet they placed. Even the best home can suffer a death in the family or a foreclosure, and if a rescue doesn’t take it back, he may end up at the public ‘kill’ shelter. Any reputable rescue should require an adoption contract. The rescue may remain involved for the life of the pet and be there as a resource & a safety net. The shelters tend not to do that so much, and while some do have adoption contract, I have not found one yet that follows up on animals that leave.

    Not all “rescues” are run by volunteers. I know of a few who have nicely paid employees and a half million dollar or more budget. Some have a patron or two who take good care of them. Some have just been doing it for so long, they build up assets & have a whole staff of paid employees. Not to say one is better than the other; there are pros and cons to a 100% volunteer run organization.

    As a side note: shelters & rescues should be able to tell you when asked what their kill rates are. A no-kill shelter may euthanize seriously ill or otherwise suffering animals, so a few euthanasia would be understandable. I would be alarmed at any shelter or rescue that is finding excuses to put down 50% the number of the animals it took in each month. Unfortunately there are one or two bad apples that brag they’re no-kill to qualify for grants, but they make up some excuses for putting down a really high % of animals. If they can’t or won’t tell you the ratio of euthanized animals and new intakes, it’s a red flag.

    At least these are my experiences with shelters & rescues in my region.

  • Shelby

    I enjoyed this article. As a person who volunteers with a fost home based rescue in Canada, I find your information to be accurate, in general.

    Jean, sounds like you work with a good shelter. When you take exception to the comment about the adoption process, I can say that her comments are, In general, accurate. I know that there have been many adopt-a-thons, where large shelters are excited about adopting out 100+ animals. Home checks aren’t done, nor are any other suitability checks. They might aska a couple of questions, but there is no follow up.because the volumes are simply too large.

    We have a “no kill” shelter in our area, connected to a large international group. They kill, in fact they just killed 50 cats because they were over-crowded, having taken in 140! They didn’t attempt to work with other shelters or secures in our province.

    Our small, foster home based rescue sent 20 cats to other reputable rescues that same week and they all now have great homes based on the application, interview and home visit process. We, and other rescues, could have helped them avoid that choice, as we help the municipal shelters in our area.

    Having moved from the states many years ago, I know the shelter and rescue systems that Beth describes are quite similar in both countries. In fact, her article is so accurate, that I will be referring volunteers to read it.

    There will be exceptions, there always are. However, this article does a solid job of describing the differences for the general public who are often confused by the differences.

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