How Pet Shelters and Rescues Work

Animal shelters as we know them today evolved from animal pounds which were used in colonial times to house unclaimed, loose livestock. There wasn’t very much control over the treatment of the animals in these facilities (mostly horses) until 1866 when the American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (ASPCA) was founded by Henry Bergh. The stated mission of the ASPCA is “to provide effective means for the prevention of cruelty to animals throughout the United States.”

Over the years, as cities grew, homeless and loose dogs and cats became more of a problem. Communities started issuing dog licenses to cover the costs of animal sheltering and in 1874, the Women's Branch of the Pennsylvania SPCA in Philadelphia became the first organization to focus on the humane treatment of shelter animals.

While the ASPCA focuses on cruelty intervention, they also operate a large shelter facility in New York and coordinate advertisements and adoption with local shelters across the country. Today there are animal shelters in thousands of communities with over 5,000 in existence in the United States. The main goal of these shelters was to get stray dogs/cats off the street and house them safely until they could be adopted.

Animal shelters are funded and run by local governments, or from private donations and run independently. The most well-known animal shelter in the United States, Best Friends Animal Sanctuary based in Utah, is a 20,000+ acre facility that houses @1,600 animals including dogs, cats, horses, rabbits, pigs, birds and exotics.


In San Francisco, in 1989, under the leadership of Richard Avanzino the no-kill shelter movement began. This set off a wave of like-minded animal lovers across the country and many shelters have adopted that policy. But many shelters are not “no-kill” and due to overcrowding, some animals that are not adopted may be euthanized.

Adopting a pet from a shelter is straightforward. You can visit the facility, view and meet all the pets they have available and select the right one for your family. There is typically a small fee to help them cover costs, but you can usually take your new pet home the same day.

Animal rescues work differently. These private individuals or groups are usually funded through private donations and adoption fees. They do not have a physical location to house the pets but rely on a network of foster homes where the animals live and are evaluated before they are adopted.

Some rescues may focus on a particular breed or size of pet and are known to roam the local animal shelters for dogs/cats of their breed, remove them from the shelter and prepare them for adoption through their rescue. Most rescues will also take turn-ins, or pets surrendered by their owners who can no longer care for them.


Some rescues are also known for their dramatic rescues of homeless pets or pets housed in large breeding operations (puppy mills).

Rescues will pay for some initial medical evaluation and treatment if needed and will evaluate the overall temperament of the dog to help ensure they are matched to the right family. When they feel the pet is ready for a forever family, they advertise the animal through their websites and social media. Adopters can respond to these ads and begin the adoption process.

In order to limit adoptees being returned, rescues try hard to match the right family with the right pet. Their adoption process may include a home visit and evaluation as well as a lengthy interview and screening process before adopters are approved for adoption.

Since rescues run from private funding, their adoption fees tend to be higher than shelter fees. Which is why donations are critical in order for the rescue to continue to operate. (Donations are also encouraged at shelters as well, however the shelter does not require the donation to continue operations).

Whether you choose to adopt from a shelter or a rescue, the most important task is to find the right pet for you and your family. Stay tuned for our next post in our series on adoptions where we will discuss some critical criteria for you to consider when adopting a pet.


Animal sheltering in the United States: Yesterday, today, and tomorrow
Animal Rescue and Animal Shelter: What is the Difference?

Personalize your pet’s daily meals.

Feed the right amount each day with the SmartFeeder and SmartDelivery.