All About Animal Shelters

By: Stephanie Watson  | 
A brown and white dog sits inside behind a chain link fence while looking sadly at the camera.
Approximately 5,000 animal shelters operate in the United States. David P Baileys / Shutterstock

­A pair of mournful eyes peeks out fro­m between metal bars. Whiskers twitch in anticipation, ears cock, and a little head tilts as a child and his parents walk by. Will this family be the one?

This scenario plays out millions of times each year aroun­d the country. Animals that are either lost or no longer wanted by their owners often end up at animal shelters, where staff members house and care for them — but often only temporarily. Sadly, shelters are the last stop for more than half of the animals that end up there. Only about half of the animals that enter a shelter will ever return to their original owner or find a new home. The rest are sometimes euthanized.


In this article, we’ll take a look at how animal shelters work, see how these shelters care for the animals while they are there, and learn how shelters and animal rescue organizations are helping lost pets find loving homes.

Animal Shelter Basics

Approximately 5,000 animal shelters operate in the United States. They are nonprofit agencies. Local governments' animal contro­l services run some of them, and others act as completely independent entities. There isn't a national agency that oversees animal shelters; however, the Humane Society of the United States (HSUS), the American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals and other nonprofit organizations that focus on animal welfare provide the funding and guidelines to help animal shelters operate effectively.

What's in a Name?

In the past, "dog catchers" rounded up "strays" and took them to the "dog pound." Today, the language used to describe the process is far gentler: "Animal control officers" find "homeless" animals and take them to "shelters," where staff care for them until someone "adopts" them. These new expressions reflect society's changing attitudes toward animal welfare.


­Many animal shelters will take just about every type of domesticated animal, including birds, rabbits and even horses, but by far the main residents are cats and dogs. Between 6 and 8 million dogs and cats are taken to shelters each year, according to the Humane Society. Owners who can longer keep the animals drop them off at shelters. Animal control officers find others roaming the streets and bring them in.

In an ideal situation, an animal will only stay in a shelter until its owner returns or someone adopts it. Sadly, shelters don't have enough room to indefinitely house all of the animals they receive. Those that are too sick or old or don't find homes can end up euthanized. While the number of euthanizations has decreased in recent years, nearly 1 million dogs and cats are euthanized yearly, according to the ASPCA.

How long an animal can remain in a shelter depends only local laws and the individual shelter's rules. Although the Humane Society recommends that shelters hold strays for at least five days, the actual number of days can vary based on the space in the shelter, as well as the health and adoptability of the animals.


Types of Animal Shelters

Most shelters will take every stray that arrives, but they are forced to euthanize some animals when they become too full. A smaller number of shelters only accept limited numbers of animals but promise to care for them until they are adopted. These are called “no-kill” shelters. Despite the name, though, these shelters will euthanize animals that are too old or ill to care for anymore.

Dog Rescuers and Swanky Shelters

The term “animal shelter” typically brings to mind long rows of metal-barred cages, the pungent smell of urine and cacophonous barking. But some lucky pets can end up at shelters so luxurious that it would make most humans jealous. They might have cushy sofas, plush posts and skylights.


­Not all homeless cats and dogs end up in shelter­s. Some go to animal rescue groups. Many of these groups specialize in a specific breed. The animals often come from questionable breeding centers that get shut down, as well as from kennels, veterinarian offices or local animal shelters. Unlike shelters, animal rescue organizations don’t necessarily have facilities in which to house the animals. Often, volunteers care for the animals in their own homes (fostering) until they are ready for adoption.

There are also animal sanctuaries, which serve as refuges for homeless animals. These are usually large areas of land that house and care for dogs and cats, as well as for goats, cows, donkeys, pigs and other larger farm animals. Some animal sanctuaries even keep wild animals, such as lions and tigers. In many cases, animals will stay at a sanctuary for the rest of their lives without ever being adopted.

The people who work at animal shelters must do the same things most pet owners do to care for their pets. They feed the animalsfood, make sure they have enough water, clean their cages, walk them, pet them and care for sick animals that need special medical attention.

It’s also mandatory in many shelters to spay or neuter (surgically sterilize by removing the reproductive organs) all pets they accept. Shelters do this to prevent more unwanted animals from being born and ending up in shelters.

A single shelter can house hundreds of animals, and there usually isn’t a lot of money available for hired help. For that reason, volunteers are essential parts of shelter operations. Though they don’t get a paycheck, the tail wags and purrs they get in return are ample rewards for most volunteers.


Adopting a Shelter Pet

Keeping Your Pet Out of a Shelter

Many families give up a pet because they are moving, having a new babyor dealing with an animal with a behavioral problem. But others lose their animals by accident — because they didn’t take the proper safeguards to keep them at home.

Here are a few tips to avoid losing your pet to a shelter:


  • Make sure your pet always wears a collar with a clear identification tag that includes your name, address, phone number and your pet’s name. This is even important for indoor pets because it is possible for them to slip out through an open door or window.
  • Keep your pet’s license current. It can help a shelter contact you, should your pet run away.
  • Consider having your cat or dog microchipped. This tiny, implantable chip contains a unique identification number that can help animal welfare officials contact you if they locate your pet.

Millions of people avoid a mall or chain pet store and adopt a pet from their local animal shelter. It ranges from about $40 to $100 to adopt a pet from a shelter (this covers the shelter’s costs of spaying or neutering the animal, as well as vaccinations, medications and food). Considering that buying a dog through a breeder can run into the hundreds — or even thousands — of dollars; animal shelters are much more economical. And though you may think that you’ll only find “pound puppies” (in other words, mutts) at a shelter, that’s not always the case. About a quarter of the animals in shelters are purebreds for which the original owners probably paid top dollar at expensive breeders. Another misconception is that animal shelters only house older animals. In reality, most have large numbers of kittens and puppies.

Despite the many animals waiting for homes, shelter employees are all too aware that many people adopt pets without thinking the dec­ision through, just to end up bringing the animals back a few weeks later. So shelters try to learn all they can about potential adoptive families and match pets with the most compatible, responsible and caring owners possible. For that reason, you shouldn’t expect to walk into a shelter and walk out the same day with a pet.

Adopting a pet is a bit like signing up for a dating agency, except that your potential “significant other” is a member of a different species. Before you can pick out your new pet, you’ll have to fill out an often extensive application, which includes basic information like where you live and your age, as well as your pet ownership history (including veterinary records) and a personality profile. Once you’ve chosen a pet, you’ll have to go home for a designated waiting period (usually 24 hours) to talk it over with your family and make sure that you’ve made the right decision. Then you still can’t leave the shelter until you sign a contract promising to take good care of your pet and to return the animal to the shelter if you can no longer care for it.

Shelters also reduce mismatches by making every effort to give each pet they accept a full “background check.” In cases where the owner dropped off the pet, the shelter will ask whether the animal had any nasty habits, like chewing on the furniture, biting people or urinating on the floors. Shelter employees will also do a health screen, checking for heartworm and other diseases. Some will even have an animal behavior specialist give the animals a thorough psychological evaluation.

Once you’ve found the right dog or cat, some shelters offer post-adoption services, such as “pet parenting” and dog training classes, to help you bond with your new pet.


Lots More Information

Related HowStuffWorks Articles
More Great Links

  • In Defense of Animals. “Unwanted Animals.”
  • Human Society of the United States. “Common Questions about Animal Shelters and Animal Control.”
  • Nash, Holly, DVM, MS. “Adopting from an Animal Shelter.”
  • Hewitt, Bill. “Should Strays be Killed?” People, November 6, 2006, pg. 99-100.
  • Hubbard, Kim and Gabrielle Saveri. “Sheltered Lives.” People Weekly, June 29, 1998, pgs. 61-62.
  • Siebert, Charles. “New Tricks.” The New York Times Magazine, April 8, 2007, pgs. 46-51.
  • American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals. "Pet Statistics."\r\n/