What is an Animal Shelter?

Animal Shelter, Animal Rescue, what’s the difference?

Although both provide shelter for dogs and cats, the two are significantly different. I posted a description of animal rescues and the common services they provide in a recent post entitled, "What is an Animal Rescue," so we’ll focus on animal shelters now to provide a little clairvoyance. 

Most of us remember the days that your local animal sheltering facility was called the “dog pound”. Growing up, I knew that stray animals ended up at the pound. I remember hearing things like “If you don’t take care of your dog, he’ll end up in the pound!” The words were seldom used in cheery context.

The term “dog pound” actually originated from the Old English word “pund,” which meant enclosure. It was used to reference the place where cattle were kept. By the 1400s, the term we know today, “pound”, referred to “an enclosure maintained by authority to hold stray or trespassing cattle” until claimed by their owners. Since stray cattle roaming the roads are rarely a problem these days, the pound has become a place for unclaimed dogs and cats.

Over the years, “pound” has become an obsolete term. It has been replaced with “Animal Shelter,” or sometimes referred to as the local animal control. Let’s take a look at a few of the features animal shelters have in common.

First and foremost, an animal shelter provides shelter. It is a facility that houses homeless, lost, or abandoned animals—mainly cats and dogs.

Most animal shelters are run and funded by local government.

There is no government-run organization that regulates practices and procedures of shelters on a national level. Therefore, each state has different methods of governance.

Shelters have an open-admission policy, and will accept all dogs and cats surrendered to their facility.

Animal shelters usually offer other services such as rabies vaccinations and licensures, euthanasia services, ownership transfers, and microchipping.

How Shelters Operate

When an animal first arrives at a shelter, they are usually placed in quarantine. This ensures that if they are ill, they will not infect any healthy animals in the adoption area. Animals are placed on hold for a specified time period unique to each shelter until an owner claims them as their lost pet. Once this time period has passed, if unclaimed, they are available for adoption. The animals are then assessed for any infectious or other illnesses. If they are very ill, the facility may make the decision to humanely euthanize the animal. Many shelters work closely with rescue groups, humane societies and animal organizations to try and save as many pets as possible.

Unfortunately since the government funds shelters and space is very limited, many healthy animals may be humanely euthanized if their owners do not claim them or they are not rescued by an organization. Some non-government funded animal shelters may be listed as “no-kill” but essentially this means they will not euthanize an animal due to space; they will only euthanize an animal that is severely ill or due to age.

Since animal shelters have an open-admission policy, no animal that is dropped off will be turned away. With the rise in unemployment and home foreclosures, many pet owners have had to relinquish their pets. In fact, these financial hardships have displaced thousands of additional pets since 2007. Many people will leave their pets at a local shelter, or try to find a family member to care for them, but many are even left in abandoned homes. By the time they are discovered it is often too late. Unfortunately, many other people will take advantage of the open-admission policy and drop off their pet because they do not want to treat an illness their pet has contracted, or just because they no longer want to care for a pet at all.

Animals that are confiscated by the local animal care and control services also end up at the shelter. This may include animal abuse/neglect cases, dog-fighting victims, or wandering/stray nuisance animals. This ultimately contributes to the 6-8 million cats and dogs entering shelters annually, as reported by the Humane Society of the United States. The Humane Society also estimates that only 30% of dogs and 2-5% of cats are actually reclaimed by owners each year.

Since animal shelters are typically run by the local government, they impose guidelines for pet owners and enforce responsible pet ownership through laws pertaining to vaccinations, licensures, dog bites/aggression, animal cruelty, and in some cases breed bans. Failure to abide by these laws may result in the confiscation of a pet. In the end, the confiscated pet will most likely end up in the shelter with the hope that a more responsible pet owner adopts them.

Animal shelters have changed over the years. There are improvements happening across the US in animal shelter and animal service practices on a statewide level. Due to the support of rescues and pet owners, many states have changed several practices, including their methods of euthanasia. Shelters are responding to the public and trying even harder to reduce the numbers of euthanized pets and implement more humane, safe procedures. They are eagerly trying to increase community awareness and involvement of responsible pet ownership by offering additional, reduced-cost services to pet owners. Many are even closely involved with social media outlets to network adoptions through rescue groups, volunteers and supporters.

It’s a new day, and although animal shelters are a necessary part of society, they are a far cry from the dog pounds we once knew.