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Do No-Kill Shelters Really Benefit Animals?

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 (David Trawin/Flickr)

This post is part of KQED’s Do Now U project. Do Now U is a biweekly activity for students and the public to engage and respond to current issues using social media. Do Now U aims to build civic engagement and digital literacy for learners of all ages. This post was written by Sarah Downey, Hana Harrell, Megan Hoglund and Jelyn Javier, students at St. Mary’s College of California.

Featured Media Resource

No-Kill Shelters Save Millions Of Unwanted Pets — But Not All Of Them
Hear about the growing movement of no-kill shelters and what that actually means for stray and abandoned animals.

Do Now U

Do no-kill shelters really benefit animals? Are traditional or no-kill shelters best for humanely managing stray and abandoned animal populations? #DoNowUShelters

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Learn More About No-Kill and Traditional Shelters

Every year, about 6.5 million dogs and cats enter U.S. shelters. Of those 6.5 million, 1.5 million are euthanized. About 710,000 of the dogs and cats are brought in as strays and 47% of those are surrendered due to their behavioral problems. There are two major types of shelters: traditional and no-kill. Traditional shelters will euthanize animals depending on the circumstances and the no-kill shelters attempt to keep all animals alive. There has been a debate over the last couple of years as to which type of shelter is most beneficial to animals.


“No-kill” tends to have different meanings to different shelters. The no-kill movement was founded by the Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (SPCA). Some shelters save all animals while others euthanize up to 10 percent. Both are considered “no-kill” because the general consensus of no-kill shelters is that 90 percent of animals will be adopted. An advantage of these shelters is that they strive to keep animals alive and provide them a home. Those in favor of no-kill support these types of shelters because they do not euthanize old or unadopted animals. They also do not euthanize animals when the shelter is full. Euthanization is reserved for those that are deemed dangerous and/or terminally ill. The animals in no-kill shelters are often healthier and more energetic because they are usually young when they are dropped off,  giving more incentive for people to adopt. In 2015, the San Francisco SPCA had a live release rate of 93 percent, meaning that 93 percent of animals in their program were adopted, transferred to another no-kill shelter, or returned to their owners after being lost.

No-kill shelters have limited space, however, and have to turn away animals. No-kill shelters only accept animals on a conditional basis, based on the animal’s health or temperament, or the availability of space at the shelter. Animals that are turned away may not have a home to go to, which can lead to them being abandoned on the street. Of the animals that are accepted, many remain caged for long periods of time and sometimes are never adopted, resulting in the animals living the rest of their lives in a shelter. Another disadvantage is that many of the no-kill shelters typically do not provide the necessary services of spaying/neutering, shots and other medical procedures. In addition, the goal of adopting out 90 percent of animals may not be safe for new pet owners. Shelters may be pressured to let people adopt animals with serious health or temperament problems in order to achieve their goal.

Traditional shelters are alternatives to no-kill shelters. A traditional shelter is an agency that must accept any and all companion animals regardless of health and temperament, depending on space availability. Because of this, they often partner with foster programs and pet stores in an attempt to increase adoptions for their animals. Also, animals do not spend months and years in cages waiting to be adopted. If they are not adopted in a given amount of time, they are euthanized. Depending on the layout of the shelter, the longer an animal stays isolated in a cage the more it harms its mental health. A traditional shelter is considered humane because they euthanize animals that have been in their shelter for a long time and that are likely to be in poor mental states. Using data from a 1997 survey of traditional shelters by the National Council on Pet Population Study and Policy, American Humane estimated that 56 percent of dogs and 71 percent of cats were euthanized after entering shelters.

To decrease the mortality rate, some traditional shelters turn away animals brought in. As these animals are rejected from the shelters they are likely to reproduce, resulting in more homeless animals. In addition, accepting all animals leads to overcrowding and poor living conditions. The control of infectious diseases is another conflict in these shelters because new animals welcomed to the shelter may carry multiple forms of pathogens. The more crowded the shelters, the more vulnerable the rest of the animals are.

There is no definite solution for animal shelters, but many animal rescue groups have come up with different programs to help and protect these furry creatures. Oregon’s Lane County Animal Services (LCAS) is a program that helps animals find a home. Although they do not work directly with animal shelters, they have contract with the local humane society to place animals in available shelters. They also provide spaying and neutering services. Although these kinds of programs do not solve all the problems surrounding both no-kill and traditional shelters, they do help many animals that are put onto the streets.

What do you think? Which kind of shelter is the best for humanely managing the pet population? Or is there a better solution?

More Resources

Website: The Humane Society of the United States
Pets by the Numbers
View data on U.S. households with pets and where people acquire their pets.

Article: NPR
Could ‘No Kill’ For Shelter Cats And Dogs Be Policy By 2025?
Read commentary about no-kill shelters’ goals of saving 90 percent of animals, and if lessening the quantity of animals euthanized also means raising the quality of their lives.

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KQED Do Now U is a biweekly activity in collaboration with SENCER. SENCER is a community of transformation that consists of educators and administrators in the higher and informal education sectors. SENCER aims to create an intelligent, educated, and empowered citizenry through advancing knowledge in the STEM fields and beyond. SENCER courses show students the direct connections between subject content and the real world issues they care about, and invite students to use these connections to solve today’s most pressing problems.

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