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  • Writer's pictureKarley

What is the Difference Between a Rescue and a Shelter?

Updated: Sep 16, 2023

Rescues and shelters share the common goal of finding homeless, neglected animals a home. Animal advocacy, rehabilitation, and awareness can be tackled in many ways, and rescues and shelters do what they can to help dogs in need.

Some organizations have programs in addition to their basic functions and they are often used to support the entity as a whole. As an example, some rescues or shelters will have spay and neuter programs to promote the benefits of spaying or neutering a companion animal. This particular program is an additional service, but it supports the rescue or shelter as a whole by preventing unwanted pregnancy, irresponsible breeding, dog dumping, and overcrowding. Certain programs enhance a rescue or shelter and help people learn more about what a rescue our shelters’s end goal is. In the most basic sense, rescues and shelters share many similarities, but do differ on several accounts. For the sake of this piece, I am going to focus more on dog rescues and shelters.

Open-Admission and Limited-Admission Shelters

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.). However, some shelters have volunteer-run foster programs of their own.

Shelters will typically microchip, vaccinate, and spay and neuter the dogs in their care before adopting them out. Some will adopt a dog out before they are spayed or neutered, but will require a spay or neuter certification within a certain timeframe after their adoption.

Foster-based Rescues

Any dog rescue has the end goal of adopting a dog out and rehabilitating them from cruelty and abuse. Unlike shelters, rescues can be breed and animal specific. This can be for many reasons, but some may be due to their goal of educating about a certain breed, what breeds their foster group can take in, or where the rescue is located.

Foster-based rescues rely on volunteers to open up their home to a dog in need. What vetting a rescue does varies; however, it is important to do your research before pursuing the adoption of a dog. A responsible rescue makes sure a dog gets all of their basic vetting: this includes an exam, spay or neuter, microchip, and vaccines. Some rescues, like OC Pom Rescue, also do dentals and fundraise for mass removals, luxating patella surgeries, and more, as deemed necessary by a practicing veterinarian.

Foster-based rescues have a more intimate understanding of the dogs in their rescue, because they are in homes and are being closely cared for. Similarly to a limited-admission shelter, rescues tend to have limited capacity and can turn dogs away.

Many rescues do not have a physical location like a shelter does, and they are based out of foster homes that can be widespread or in a concentrated area. Many will have “service areas“ that they will adopt dogs out to. This really depends on the size of the rescue and where their volunteers are located.


Rescues are typically funded by donations and grants. Most rescues also require an adoption fee for each dog to help them break even on the cost of vetting each dog in their care. Fundraising for donations may come in the form of sponsoring a dog’s vetting, five dollar Fridays, or through giveaways. Many dog companies, like Max & Neo, support rescue groups by allocating a certain portion of their profits to partnered rescue groups. Vetting and supplies are usually from donations. Grants require that a nonprofit group meets certain criteria and fills out an extensive application to ensure that the rescue organization is legitimate and has dogs that are actually in need in their care. Typically, if you see a rescue or shelter has a program attached to it, that is grant funded. Many grants will ask about certain steps being taken to help animals, and this can be through spay and neuter or senior programs.

Some rescues or shelters will be funded by a foundation, where large benefactors will contribute to the function of the organization. This is commonly used in exchange of advertisement or softening the appearance of a well-known company or brand.

As far as shelters, majority of them require an adoption fee for each dog to help them break even on the cost of vetting each dog in their care. However, there will be days throughout the year to promote adoption in which they will waive the adoption fee. This is most commonly found near big holidays, like Christmas.


The role of a volunteer can vary in both a shelter and a rescue. Both are going to have volunteers who care for dogs specifically. A shelter may have caretakers in the facility feeding and cleaning the kennels, while a rescue has fosters caring for their specific foster dog. Both may have marketing teams to promote their organizations work, which would be the adoption of their dogs and a specific educational goal. Both have volunteers who work in the adoption process, whether that be going through applications or filling out paperwork. For shelters, some work to take the dogs out of a bad situation, such as in the case of a lost dog or hoarding case. There is a lot to accomplish, so there is always an abundance of work that someone could do to be involved in helping dogs out of abusive or neglectful situations.

Adoption process

Many rescues will have an application process and home check. Some do home checks in-person, while others do digital ones. Since the pandemic, many have opted to do virtual home checks. The main goal of this process is to get to know the applicant on a personal level in the same rite that we have gotten to know our dogs on a personal level. This is with the goal of matching both parties to an ideal, forever match. Some rescues will have a trial period, where the dog is not officially adopted, but is trying out their forever home. This trial period can vary from one day to a week, it really depends on the rescue.

Shelters will also have an application process. In some cases, the application is to put yourself into a pool of applicants that will be drawn from when the dog is available for adoption. This lottery system is random and is selected at a certain time and date that the dog is available. In some cases, the application is first come first serve and you get emailed an appointment time to meet and adopt a dog. Most shelters do not do a trial period, but you can return the dog at any time.


Both shelters and rescues ultimately want to help animals in need. They all want to advocate for animals and change the narrative. Animals are certainly looked at differently today than they were 10 years ago, and it is definitely because of the work that advocates perform to educate others. Our attention to social media and questioning norms has brought animal advocacy to the forefront. The fight for animal rights and educating about responsible animal ownership is no longer hidden in a concrete building or something that a crowd is shouting for in the streets, but it is written, recorded, and displayed for many to learn about and participate in. At a time of great activism, shelters and rescues have taken the opportunity to promote the welfare of animals and encourage people to take steps in the right direction for animals.


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