Types of Animal Shelters and Humane Societies

Family at an animal shelter

According to the ASPCA, shelters take in more than seven million homeless animals every year, and less than half of them find permanent, loving homes. Adopting an animal in need is a life-changing experience, but there are a many types of shelters. Understanding your options will make bringing your new fluffy or feathered friend home much easier.

Municipal Shelters

The word "pound," for many people, conjures up images of evil men with large nets patrolling the streets for dogs to lock up in a barren cell. In reality, though, most municipal shelters - those run by the local government - employ compassionate professionals who often work long hours to help control the animal overpopulation problem by taking scared, sick, or lost animals off the streets.

Taxpayer-Funded Shelters

Municipal shelters, such as Chicago Animal Care and Control and the Manhattan Animal Care Center, are part of a city or county's animal control division and are the first stop for stray or abandoned animals found within the entity's jurisdiction. These shelters are funded through the budgets of their localities with taxpayer dollars.

High Volume

In many areas where the stray population is rampant and available homes are few and far between, these facilities may be forced to euthanize many animals. Adopting an animal from a municipal shelter, therefore, can certainly be life-saving for that animal. For example, in 2017, the Denver Animal Shelter had 33 percent more animals needing to be adopted than there were at the same time the previous year. They were asking potential adopters to "name their price."

Adoption Considerations

Generally, municipal shelters have a mandatory hold period for found animals to give guardians time to claim the animal before it is put up for adoption. When adopting from a municipal shelter, expect to pay a small adoption fee which helps the shelter recoup the costs of sheltering, food, and any necessary medical attention.

If not spayed or neutered during their time at the shelter, adopted animals will usually be required to be sterilized within a certain time period after adoption to prevent unwanted litters.

Animals entering municipal shelters are assessed for both temperament and health before adoption; however, kennel cough, a common but usually mild and treatable condition, is common in dogs from municipal shelters. New guardians should be prepared to visit their vet and give their new companion lots of love over the first few weeks post-adoption to help him or her blossom into a healthy pet.

Finding a Municipal Shelter

The easiest way to locate your city or county's municipal shelter is to search for your local animal control division through your local government's website. If the shelter location and hours aren't listed on the website, a quick phone call to animal control should help. Some smaller jurisdictions do not have animal control divisions. In those cases, the local sheriff's office should be able to provide information on where stray animals are sheltered.

Private Shelters

Private shelters are another type of facility taking in unwanted animals and seeking out homes for them.

Municipal Partnership

Some privately run shelters contract with a locality's animal control division to provide official sheltering services for stray animals in place of a municipal shelter. One example is Friends of the Alameda Animal Shelter, which, since 2012, has contracted with the city of Alameda, California, as the city's primary shelter.

Independent Shelters

Most private shelters operate as additional, independent sheltering facilities, receiving animals from guardians who can no longer care for them or even from other shelters with insufficient room. Boards that oversee private shelters can enact bylaws determining policies, such as which animals to take in and adopt out, how long to keep animals, and what requirements must be met to adopt an animal.

Dependent on Fundraising

These shelters are funded in a variety of ways. Most are non-profit entities that rely on donations through individual memberships, fundraising dinners, merchandise sales, donation drives, and more. They may also receive grants from other organizations, such as the American Humane Association's Second Chance Fund, which covers medical costs for abused or neglected animals.

Varied Services

Some private shelters use such funding to offer a variety of other services to their communities in addition to sheltering. The Heartland Humane Society in Western Oregon, for instance, visits local schools to teach students about responsible animal guardianship, runs a pet food bank for low-income families, and provides behavior counseling.

In many cases, private shelters also have more resources than municipal shelters to ensure that animals with ailments are vetted. Some run spay-and-neuter clinics and will perform such surgeries, as well as give vaccinations, to animals within their shelters. While these services may reduce initial veterinary costs for your new friend, be prepared for a higher adoption fee to help the shelter offset its expenses.

Finding a Private Shelter

Private facilities can operate under a variety of names, and an online search for local shelters may turn up a lengthy list. To help narrow it down, try asking a trusted veterinarian for recommendations. Websites like Petfinder, the Shelter Pet Project, and Petango allow users to search locally for animals from reputable shelters, including both municipal and private facilities. You can even enter the type of animal and breed you're seeking and find the nearest shelters with matches. If you're unsure of whether a shelter is municipal or privately-run, you can check its website, which will usually explain how it is run, or make a phone call to the facility.

SPCAs and Humane Societies

Independent Local Shelters

Is there a local Society for Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (SPCA) or humane society in your neighborhood? In the United States, these terms are used in naming sheltering facilities around the country, but such shelters are not affiliated with each other, nor are they subsidiaries of a larger parent organization. The names do not indicate any special classification of shelter, and their funding, policies, and programs will all vary, just like all the other shelters around the country.

National Organizations

There are also two national advocacy organizations with names quite similar to these local shelters: the American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (ASPCA) and the Humane Society of the United States (HSUS). Both promote the welfare of animals around the country, from improving conditions for animals on farms to fighting puppy mills and cockfighting rings.

While the HSUS does not have an animal shelter, it offers operational support to shelters around the country. The ASPCA does operate a shelter in New York City, but it is not connected with other SPCAs around the country. Both the HSUS and the ASPCA are also directly involved in animal rescue missions. For example, in 2009, the ASPCA was part of the largest federal raid on dogfighting in the country.

No-Kill Versus Open-Admission Shelters

Most shelters operate under one of two major philosophies for combatting the homeless animal problem.

Open Admission

Some are considered "open-admission," which means they will never turn away an animal in need due to lack of space. These facilities, such as the Humane Society of South Missouri, often take in ill, aggressive, or otherwise unadoptable animals who may end up requiring euthanasia. They also may be forced to euthanize animals when incoming rates are high and resources are strained. Open-admission facilities, according to HSSM, follow the principle that, because they don't have the resources to save and adopt out every single animal, a painless death is preferable over an animal languishing on the streets. However, many run aggressive spay-and-neuter and adoption campaigns to keep their euthanasia numbers as low as possible.


Other facilities are considered "no-kill," meaning they will not euthanize animals considered healthy and adoptable. Animals are assessed for health and temperament before being put up for adoption. While many people are comforted by the "no-kill" policy, it, too, is not without its drawbacks. No-kill shelters often must turn away animals brought to their doors due to limited room or when they do not believe an animal is a candidate for adoption. According to veterinarian Michael W. Fox in an article for the Huffington Post, some no-kill shelters have become overcrowded, with sick animals going untreated.

Most municipal shelters, which take in all homeless animals, along with many private shelters, maintain an open-admission status. In recent years, however, some municipalities have joined the other camp of private shelters that hail themselves as no-kill. An example is the shelter for the small city of Rockwall, Texas, which has reported a save rate of over 95 percent of incoming animals for the last several years. For many larger localities with an abundance of unwanted animals, such a feat has not yet been possible. In Norfolk, Virginia, for example, there is both an open-admission municipal shelter and a no-kill SPCA. As the proponents of each philosophy continue to debate the best approach for the city, according to an article in the Virginian-Pilot, they both also work toward the goal of ending the city's stray and feral problem.

Rescue Organizations

Non-profit rescue organizations are another avenue for adoption beyond the sheltering world. Rescue groups often pull adoptable animals out of shelters and place them in temporary foster homes with volunteers until adoption. You may see independent rescue organizations with pop-up booths outside pet stores on the weekends, displaying adorable fostered pooches up for grabs. Like private shelters, rescue groups are often non-profits, operating solely from the support of donors and volunteers.

Special Focus

Some rescue organizations are breed-specific, doing their part to cut down on homeless dachshunds or Australian shepherds, for example. Many of these are perfectly healthy animals have been given away by families who were unprepared to provide for them and are now biding their time with foster families. There are even rescue groups for exotic pets, like Project Perry, which runs a sanctuary for abandoned parrots and other birds, and Pig Harmony, which re-homes potbellied pigs in Southern California. When seeking out an exotic animal companion, be sure to check local ordinances to ensure that your new scaly or feathered friend is allowed in your home.

Rescue Adoptions

Most rescues require that dogs and cats are fixed and vaccinated before being adopted. Usually, they will conduct a home visit to ensure that living quarters are adequate for an animal. When choosing a rescue, it is a good idea to ask questions about where the animals are fostered and to inspect the animals' health and temperament.

Finding a Rescue

For those seeking a particular breed of dog, the American Kennel Club (AKC) has a list of dog rescue groups by state on its website. Adopt a Pet offers an extensive list of rescue organizations, and RescueMe.org is another helpful website that shares adoptable animals by species and breed from both rescue groups and shelters.

Potential Problem

Some rescue organizations, overwhelmed by a mission of saving every animal, have developed hoarding situations in which animals are stockpiled and neglected. According to NBC News, one-fourth of the hoarding cases each year occur at shelters or rescues.

Bringing Home a Rescue Pet

When looking for a new family companion, choosing the right shelter or rescue organization is important. Whether you pick a municipal shelter, rescue organization, or another option, touring the facility and inspecting the condition of adoptable animals, as well as talking to your veterinarian and reading online reviews, will help ensure that you're adopting from a reputable source with healthy, friendly animals.

Of course, before you take that final step toward adoption, spend some time with your pet of choice to get to know him, and ask plenty of questions about his temperament and health history. This will help cut down on surprises once you get home and pave the way for a happy life together with your new family member.

Types of Animal Shelters and Humane Societies