What Does 'No-Kill' Mean at Animal Shelters?

When an animal enters a no-kill shelter, does that mean it will stay until it finds a new home?. Monika Chodak/Shutterstock

In an ideal world, there would be no need for animal shelters. But stray and unwanted pets need a place to go and hopefully they wind up at "no-kill" facilities.

But what exactly does "no-kill" mean? The answer isn't necessarily as simple as it seems.

Most animal rights and rescue organizations define no-kill with caveats. It's saving healthy and treatable animals, with euthanasia reserved for only those animals who are severely unhealthy and who can't be rehabilitated.

This delves into a bit of a gray area as it's up to the shelter to define which animals are healthy and which can be rehabilitated. Organizations have limited budgets and have to decide what is worth spending on a single animal. So while one shelter may decide to treat heartworms and amputations, another could question the expenditure and instead use the funds to save several pets.

And for behavior, how much of a training investment should be put into an animal with fear or aggression issues? Maybe a dog is just lashing out because he's afraid in the scary shelter environment. But it's a call employees have to make.

Putting a number on 'no kill'

scared dog in shelter
Sometimes behavior issues might be because an animal is frightened. Pongsatorn Singnoy/Shutterstock

So "no kill" doesn't mean no animals are euthanized, but in most cases, the shelters try their best.

According to Best Friends Animal Society, "No-kill is defined as saving every dog and cat in a shelter who can be saved. It means healing the animals who can be healed, treating behaviors that can be treated, and prioritizing safety and a high quality of life for both pets and people in our communities."

The organization also points out the importance of having a benchmark, in order to give shelters goals and accountability. Generally, the no-kill threshold for a community is considered to be 90%, Best Friends says, which means nine out of 10 dogs leave the shelter alive.

But Best Friends says the figure comes with a caveat.

"While the 90% benchmark offers a meaningful, consistent way to gauge progress, it is neither a floor nor a ceiling. For many shelters, a true no-kill statistic may be closer to a 95% save rate or higher. For some shelters, particularly those offering unique care and services such as neonatal kitten programs or compassionate end-of-life services for residents with pets in under-resourced communities, the benchmark may be slightly below 90%."

Other facilities and organizations also cite the 90% figure.

Nathan Winograd, founder of the No Kill Advocacy Center, told The Washington Post that he developed the 90% target goal more than a decade ago, then it became popular in his book “Redemption: The Myth of Pet Overpopulation and the No Kill Revolution in America.”

“I wrote: ‘A shelter succeeds at saving all healthy and treatable dogs and cats, including feral cats, when it is saving roughly 90 to 95 percent of all impounded animals,’ ” Winograd told the Post. “I had not heard anyone speaking about target live release rates before that.”

A new goal

cat in cage at shelter
No-kill shelters typically will keep healthy animals with no behavior issues. Dwight Smith/Shutterstock

These days, however, the 90% goal seems a little low for many supporters of the no-kill movement, including Winograd.

"The goal of the No Kill movement is not to reduce killing to some consensus-based level such as 10 percent. It is to end killing for all animals who are not irremediably physically suffering, rigorously defined," according to a statement on the No Kill Advocacy Center website.

"Irremediable suffering" is defined as "an animal who has a poor or grave prognosis for being able to live without severe, unremitting physical pain even with prompt, necessary, and comprehensive veterinary care."

(At Best Friends, for example, treatable medical and behavioral issues include ringworm, heartworm, mange, aggression issues, resource guarding and amputation.)

The No Kill Advocacy Center says the target benchmark ideally should be higher.

"Today, there are cities and towns across America above 95 percent of the animals and, of those, there are communities with live release rates of 97, 98, even 99 percent, proving that 90 percent is too low."

Sometimes misleading information

In some cases, shelters and organizations with incredibly high no-kill numbers may not have reached those numbers with the best of intentions. No-kill shelters often have "managed admissions" — where owner-surrendered pets can only be turned in when there is room and some pets aren't accepted for health or behavior reasons. Because of those policies, owners often are referred down the road to a high-kill shelter, or pets are let loose to fend for themselves, according to the People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA).

The No Kill Advocacy Center tells about a Michigan shelter that has a live release rate of 98%, but has a policy that requires anyone turning in a feral cat to fill out a "euthanize card," even if the cat is healthy.

Paying off all around

An adoptable pup plays at Austin Animal Center.
An adoptable pup plays at Austin Animal Center. dixie wells [CC BY-ND 2.0]/Flickr

Many shelters and communities are honestly raising no-kill rates by treating medical conditions and working with behavior issues. In Austin, the country's largest no-kill community, that dedication is paying off in saved lives and financial success.

An October 2017 study by the University of Denver found that from 2010 to 2016, Austin's no-kill policy has had a $157 million impact on the community.

The study found, “The majority of the positive economic impacts result from increased employment within animal services as well as the increased use of pet care and pet retail services. An additional benefit appears to be the positive contribution of Austin’s progressive animal welfare policies to its brand equity. This impact is important as municipalities compete with each other to attract employee demographics that in turn draw new business and new economic growth to their area.”

According to Austin TV station KXAN, in 2016 the city’s no-kill rate was 94%. In 2018, it was 97%.

At the Austin Animal Center, the county's largest no-kill municipal shelter, in 2017 the save rate was 96.4%. Tawny Hammond, who is chief animal services officer for Austin, runs that shelter. She told the Washington Post she thinks her shelter can do better.

“We treat the pets as individuals,” Hammond said. “This is about looking at how we approach, as a society, homeless pets vs. owned pets and how decisions are made in animal shelters.”

A bigger push to go no-kill

A kitten hopes to find a new home at a Philadelphia adoption event.
A kitten hopes to find a new home at a Philadelphia adoption event. GraciousNeighbor [CC BY-ND 2.0]/Flickr

In January 2018, more than a dozen animal welfare organizations in Philadelphia formed a no-kill coalition, with the mission of "ultimately attaining 100% safe placement of healthy and treatable pets."

The city was already making impressive progress. In 2005, only 11% of cats and dogs entering the city's animal control shelter survived, compared with 82% in 2017.

Funded in part by a $178,000 grant from PetSmart, the coalition hopes to not only find homes for more animals that are brought to shelters, but also keep them from being surrendered in the first place. The group set up a help desk inside animal control to counsel people bringing in unwanted cats and dogs. They offer advice on behavior issues and access to low-cost veterinary care and pet food if those are the reasons an animal is being turned in to the shelter.

"If you're willing to keep your pet, we're here to work with you," say Samantha Holbrook, president of Citizens for a No-Kill Philadelphia, one of the groups that is part of the new coalition.

There are dozens of other counties and cities throughout the country that are working toward the same goal, hoping to empty the shelters with adoptions and fostering, not euthanasia. In January 2018, for example, the city of Los Angeles announced it reached its no-kill goal for dogs under the care of the Department of Animal Services.

In January 2020, California Gov. Gavin Newsom announced he wanted the entire state to be no-kill. Specifically, his 2020-2021 budget calls for a $50 million one-time general fund allocation to the UC Davis Koret Shelter Medicine Program to develop a grant program for animal shelters so that "no adoptable or treatable dog or cat should be euthanized,” reports The Sacramento Bee.

Judie Mancuso, president of Social Compassion in Legislation, an animal activist group, supports the legislation conditionally.

“If the money goes to spay and neuter, microchipping, then yes we’re on the right track. And then promoting adoptions,” she tells the Bee. “This is not rocket science. There’s only a few things that will alleviate this pet overpopulation. And that is controlling how many animals are born.”