• Karley & Emily

What is the Difference Between a Kill Shelter Versus a No Kill Shelter?

There are two types of shelters: open-admission shelters and limited-admission shelters. They are also commonly referred to as kill shelters and no-kill shelters. Open-admission shelters are facilities that are not able to turn away an animal that is being surrendered. Limited-admission shelters are able to turn away a surrendered animal for various reasons. Both types of shelters can be found all throughout the nation and deal with animal abandonment and confiscation the best way that they can. Shelters are typically funded by the government or through donations, and they are staffed by volunteers and paid workers. These shelters are usually your county shelters. Some shelters are even nonprofits, like The Humane Society, where they are fully funded by donations. Most shelters work with rescue groups to control overcrowding and take on medical cases (too young of puppies, patella surgeries, etc.).

I have had many people ask me what the difference between the types of shelters are and how my work in rescue may combat the high euthanasia rates at shelters. These are great questions and I want to share what I have found through my experience working closely with shelter staff and dogs that come from shelters and confiscation cases. The kill versus no-kill shelter controversy I believe has been undermined by the labeling of “kill” and “no-kill”, because obviously a place that is killing animals is never going to be okay; however, this labeling draws away from what is actually going on at these shelters and the problems that each type are afflicted with. With that being said, let’s get into discussing the differences between the two.


Open-Admission Shelters

Open-admission shelters are negatively perceived because they have been mislabeled as “kill” shelters. These shelters are unable to turn the public away, so they must accept all dogs no matter their health condition, age, pedigree or level of aggression. If you can believe it, most of the open-admission shelters have night kennels where people can turn their dogs in during off hours. Open-admission shelters are often plagued with an overwhelming amount of dogs and other animals that they admit. Shelters are not just getting old dogs or ones with medical issues, but there are animals of all age levels and cuteness factors. I cannot tell you how many times I have gotten a foster that is two years old and labeled “aggressive” at a shelter, just to have them lick me to death on the way home. The dogs are just scared, and yet, they are being given up by their previous owner.


Open-admission shelters directly witness the issues of over population and will often advocate for programs that strive to solve the issues, such as low cost spay and neuter, microchipping, and training programs. Their goal is to end animal homelessness by advocating for animal welfare programs and educating against puppy mills and unreputable sources of breeding, such as backyard breeding. Overpopulation can be emotionally taxing for both the shelter staff and dogs. The amount of animals in the shelter vastly outnumber the workers, which creates an environment where the animals are not getting at all close to the amount of attention that they need. This environment leads to anxiety, resource guarding, and depression.


There is also a common misconception that all shelter dogs are sad and terrified in open-admission shelters. No matter where a dog ends up, they are being given up by their previous owner or they are being removed from an awful situation. The terror that they are experiencing is not only from being in a kennel with unfamiliar people and animals, but from not understanding why they are being given up. It is very common for dogs to learn inappropriate behaviors like resource guarding or aggression and experience anxiety or depression.


Many dogs that come into shelters are experiencing a variety of emotions because of past traumas. Dogs that are confiscated from animal cruelty cases, hoarders, or mass breeding puppy mills are safer in an open admission shelter than the original homes. Dogs that have extensive medical needs or behavior issues will be transferred to another shelter or rescue group that has the appropriate resources to handle the dog. If not, euthansia is the last option.


For dogs that come into shelters, they are commonly compared to the Asilomar Accords, which categorizes animals that come into shelters:

Healthy: adoptable dogs with no behavioral issues

Treatable and Rehabilitable: Almost Adoptable dogs that have minor medical or behavioral issues such as kennel cough

Treatable and Manageable: Dogs with manageable issues that will not go away, such as a dog with three legs

Unhealthy and Untreatable: Highly unadoptable dogs with extreme behavior issues, extensive injuries, or diseases such as parvo

These categories separate which dogs are showcased for adoption and which ones are considered for a shelter transfer or euthensia. The problem with overcrowding is that the shelters are forced to rely on this system that does not acknowledge the sentience of these animals, but instead judges their ability to be adopted.

What “kill” shelters most need is volunteer help, which means working to advocate for animal welfare programs, educating others, or in the shelter handling dogs. These shelters will benefit the most from people who make it a priority to be responsible dog owners and not give up their dog under any circumstances.


Limited-Admission Shelters

Limited-admission shelters, also known as “no-kill” shelters, can be breed-specific and hold the right to turn away dogs due to poor temperament, overpopulation, inability to be adopted, or health condition. If the shelter does not employ veterinarians or trainers that can handle the more difficult intakes, they may turn the dog away. Limited-admission shelters are less likely to run into issues with overpopulation because they are able to limit the amount of dogs in their care.


Limited-admission shelters often match the skill sets of the staff to their new intakes. The limited capacity of dogs in their care gives the opportunity for the dogs to get more attention than they would at an open-admission shelter. Though, dogs can still learn inappropriate behaviors, like resource guarding or aggression and experience anxiety or depression. Their right to choose may lead to higher adoption rates; however, it is important to recognize the intake process and how that affects adoption and euthanasia rates.


The dogs that are turned away from limited-admission shelters have few options left, which are dumping at an open-admission shelter, abandoning them on the streets, or taking them to be euthanized at a veterinary clinic. The limited capacity at “no kill” shelters does have somewhat of a hand in the overpopulation rates at open-admission shelters, which leads to an overwhelming number of dogs deemed as “unadoptable” in open-admission shelters.


Limited-admission shelters are funded by tax dollars or are considered non-profit organizations in which they are donation and grant funded. Non-profit organizations are often volunteer-run and do not have the manpower that would be able to provide the care that a large influx of animals would require from a shelter. This is important to understand when an organization turns a dog away from their care; they simply do not have the skills or room to take the financial and physical responsibility of caring for a dog that has been neglected and abandoned.

Limited-admission shelters are at the whim of individuals that dump their dogs or put their animals in situations that pose major safety risks, just like open-admission shelters. What they most need from people is monetary and physical donations and for people to make it a priority to be responsible dog owners and not give up their dog under any circumstances.


Euthanasia Rates

Both types of shelters have high euthanasia rates. Unfortunately, there is no way of getting around that because of the high rate of admission to the shelters. Kill shelters tend to have higher euthanasia rates because no-kill shelters can turn away dogs, and those dogs end up at kill shelters. Overpopulation at shelters is a MAJOR factor in the euthanasia rates and blaming shelters is not addressing the actual problem. The actual problem has to do with the high cases of animal neglect, abandonment, and abuse. People fuel the problem and the marketing strategies of the puppy mill industry (yes, buying your dog from a store is part of the puppy mill industry) fuel the dog homelessness crisis felt all across the world.


The best way to tackle the high euthanasia rates and dog-dumping cases is by being a responsible dog owner and educating others. It is so easy to hop on Google and do your research about breeds, monthly costs, common medical issues, etc. Animal homelessness and cruelty is a global issue, but it can be alleviated by drawing our attention to our local communities. It is easy to point fingers at foreign meat markets or recall Dodo videos that tell of a couple bringing home a dog from across country borderlines, but the reality is that animal cruelty is an issue felt within our own communities. We can all make a HUGE difference by volunteering and donating to our local shelters, and through being responsible dog owners.


Adopt, Don't Shop!!


DM @ocpomrescue for any questions regarding shelters, nonprofit organizations, or rescues!


Photo Creds: The Humane Society, @emilylist, @karleyy19

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