Please Stop Saying “Kill Shelter”


Seen on my local Nextdoor page: “Is this your dog? If so, contact me ASAP. I do not want to take her to the kill shelter in town.”

Overheard in Petco: “Yes, we got her from a kill shelter in Stockton…”

Said directly to me in response to hearing that I am fostering a mama dog and her five puppies from my local shelter, “Thank you so much for saving their lives! That’s a kill shelter, isn’t it?”

Every time I see or hear this phrase, I want to SCREAM.

Dogs and cats who either lack a home, or are unsuited for or unsafe in any home, are put to death – humanely euthanized – in many shelters in this country. It’s society’s burden, with many factors responsible for the necessity to euthanize animals that no one wants and no one wants to pay for – but it’s not the fault of the shelters that bear the awful responsibility of that act.

Every shelter or rescue group that cares for and finds homes for animals plays a role in helping reduce the country’s overall euthanasia rate – but do not for a moment give praise – or financial contributions – only to the ones that are able to pick and choose how many and what animals they care for and thus do not have to euthanize animals themselves. Because it’s not like the shelters that must do it want to. Someone has to; that’s a sad, hard fact. The shelters and rescue groups that don’t euthanize are able to avoid this task because there are other ones that can’t avoid it.

Pat Miller wrote a great article for WDJ years ago, explaining the differences between the types of shelters. Briefly, to recap, some shelters limit the number and type of animals that they take in; others have contracts that require them to deal with as many animals (and some unadoptable animals) as wash up on their shores, via owner surrender (or animals supposedly “found” by members of the public), law-enforcement seizures, and animal control pickup of stray or dangerous animals. It should be obvious, but few people seem to be aware that a “limited admission” shelter that takes in only a small number of animals, and only when they want to, should not be singled out for praise (and charitable contributions) for not killing any of the few animals they take in, when the municipal shelter in the same community is contractually required to take in exponentially more animals daily – and often on a budget that would choke the limited-admission shelter to death.

For example: I just looked up the numbers for 2020, the last year for which comparable numbers were available for a limited admission shelter and the municipal shelter in the same city near me. The limited-admission shelter, built and run by a nonprofit, took in 184 dogs in 2020, and euthanized just two. Awesome. In the same year, the city shelter took in 606 dogs and euthanized just 38. Considering their budgets were likely comparable – the nonprofit, limited-admission shelter being popular in the community and garnering many donations on the strength of its “no-kill” status – I’d be more inclined to celebrate the municipal shelter for its ability to save as many dogs as they did!

I’m not suggesting we celebrate euthanasia. I am incredibly frustrated with the swelling numbers of animals being brought to shelters and desperately wish that there was more money available for all municipal shelters so more animals could be saved. But the responsibility for the deaths of unwanted animals belongs to all of society, and castigating the agencies that must carry out this horrible task is unfair. Especially when the same staff members who must bear the “kill shelter” label work so. damn. hard. to save lives, too.


  1. Thank you for writing this! I have volunteered at both a selective shelter and an open admission shelter. I can tell you that the people who are working at the open admission shelter are doing an amazing job with such limited resources They don’t deserve the criticism they often get.

  2. Living in Houston there are no “no-kill shelters”. The number of abandoned and dumped dogs and cats is overwhelming. Nobody (exaggerating here) gets theirs dogs spayed/neutered and even thiugh tying them up in the yard is now illegal there is no enforcement if these rules. It is a tragedy and i feel very sad for the animals and the humans who have to kill perfectly healthy beautiful dogs on a daily basis.
    It must be sooo depressing. I know it depresses me to read about it. It is for this reason we have 11 currently, puppies as tiny as 5 lbs dumped out here…”in the country”. I am getting to the point where i intensely dislike people.

  3. The no kill movement has become a numbers game. It is a feel-good strategy for the public offering career enhancement for those who successfully manipulate the numbers. I am not apposed to using the term “kill shelter” because that is what the majority are. The exceptions for “approved killing” are such as aggressive, which is scared. “Medical conditions” are often treatable conditions considered too time consuming or expensive. Shelters need to embrace truth before I stop calling them kill shelters.
    Truth would allow people to focus on enforcing current laws, strengthening penalties and holding people accountable for their actions. It does not help when people get a slap on the wrist for animal abuse and animal abandonment. It does not help when veterinarians encourage people to wait 2 years to spay/neuter but, causing unwanted litters. It doesn’t help when law enforcement doesn’t prosecute. Education helps. It needs to be in the schools, in the home, on the streets and in the veterinary and law enforcement communities.
    How about getting serious about the problem instead of worrying about what it is called?

    • It’s clear you understand the semantics game and are frustrated by it, too. But as a 17-year-long volunteer at my local shelter, which has contracts to house all the unwanted/stray animals in my smallish town and for all the unincorporated areas in the county — the areas not served by other city shelters, I’m pretty serious about the problem. And when I hear that people I know gave money to the limited-admission shelter in a nearby town rather than the far needier, way-overcrowded shelter, SPECIFICALLY because the latter is a “kill shelter” and the limited-admission shelter is not, I think education on this specific term really IS needed. For many people, that’s all they know about the two shelters: This one is “no-kill” and that one is a “kill shelter.” Makes the decision about where to give donation dollars easy, right? ARGHHHH.

    • I understand your passion, Carolyn. But, wording can make a big difference. Also, when vets recommend waiting for physical maturation to do a spay/neuter surgery they are considering the overall health of the pet, not condoning more litters. It is pretty easy to keep an intact pet from procreating.

  4. A well-written, and needed article, THANK YOU, Nancy!

    For several years I traveled throughout the states, (mostly in rural areas of TX, NM, OK, AR, and my home state of CO) evaluating shelter dogs to use in Freedom Service Dogs of America’s training program. They no longer use rescue/shelter dogs and have incorporated a breeding program. Sadly, it was a change that needed to happen.

    Not once did I see people who did not care deeply for the animals they kept. What I saw were poor facilities that were horribly run down, overcrowded, underfunded, and understaffed. Staff and volunteers were overworked, and the staff was underpaid. These people worked tirelessly in sometimes deplorable conditions to do what they could to help the animals in their care. I could tell you some stories of what I witnessed firsthand.

    I saw the emotional and physical toll that these people were subject to. Too many times at the end of the day I would go back to my comfortable hotel room and cry my heart out because I had to leave so many sweet, friendly, GOOD dogs behind. Usually, this was due to a lack of confidence, socialization and enrichment. This is something that many pet homes would be able to help the dog with, It had this effect on me and I am pretty stoic. And, I was only there a few days at a time!

    Yes, sadly, many of these dogs end up on what is commonly called the “kill list”. I would NEVER call these shelters “Kill Shelters”. They work so hard to keep the dogs in their care off that list! They simply do not have the resources to care for the population! There is only so much food and everyday supplies that can be bought. Only, so much space is available. Only So much time and manpower are available to do the endless clean-up, repairs, vet care, etc, etc.

    For change to happen, much more funding and education is needed. Who is going to do more than complain and step up to help?

  5. Good timing, good reminder. I am currently updating my will with funds to go to our local “no kill” shelter. I will also, now, look for another deserving shelter that is not so lucky with funding. Thank you.

    • Before you do that, why don’t you do some deeper digging into the shelter’s policies and operations?

      I have my local humane society in my trust and will and they are named as guardians of my dogs should I predecease them. They are truly a no-kill shelter. They will treat animals to the full extent possible and only humanely euthanize if there is no hope and the animal is suffering. Same with behavior issues. They have trainers on staff and will work with the animals for as long as it takes unless there is no hope of them being safely placed. If space is needed, they have lists of foster volunteers that will take animals into the homes until they are placed. They do all animals, not just dogs and cats. Horses, rodents, birds, farm animals. They also have a branch that handles wildlife and releases after recovery or live a life in captivity as animal ambassadors if they cannot be released due to medical issues or physical.

  6. One of my dogs was rescued from a “shelter” in TX. Volunteers got her out of there and on the way to AZ, and I am grateful every day. I saw photos of her in the “shelter.” I put it in quotes because it seems completely misplaced to call it that, given that the policy of that “shelter” is to put dogs down after they’ve been there for 3 days, no matter temperament or health of the dog, and an owner-surrender (she was dumped there by her previous owner) often doesn’t make it that long. There is zero outreach to the community to promote adoptions of the animals. You don’t like the term “kill shelter”? What else would you call it? It’s almost a certainty any animal that crosses the threshold will be killed.

  7. I am more judgmental on this issue than most people. I believe it is society’s responsibility to take care of these dogs and cats. We caused the problem and should deal with it responsibly. That means paying for these animals to be taken care of. It would mean euthanizing animals only for extreme measures illegal. It would also be to enforce laws requiring animals to be fixed and the disallowing of a lot of people to have animals who are unfit to keep them. There should also be rules on breeding dogs. If we have an overpopulation problem, then why are we breeding so many more? This industry needs to be more closely regulated and “responsible” breeders need to actually start being responsible and stop breeding so many of them. They need to show they actually care about animals and less about the dollars they make off of them.

  8. I’ve volunteered at an LA City Shelter for over 10 years, and I only wish the employees cared as much as those who work at the shelter you work with. While we have a few who do work hard and show empathy, the majority are there for the paycheck. They truly don’t care if the animals get adopted or rescued, and in some cases, actively thwart adoptions and rescues through their apathy, rudeness, ignorance, and laziness. To make matters worse, they are protected by their union and can’t get fired. They know it, so there is zero accountability. So, until that changes – and LA Animal Services does more to stop backyard breeding instead of selling breeding licenses like they’re going out of style.. and stops bad adoptions … I will sadly regard my shelter as a kill shelter. Because too many animals have been killed at our city shelters due to a very broken system.

  9. I’ve worked at local non-profit shelters for going on 20 years. Our current “no-kill” shelter shares a property with local animal control that isn’t able to make the no-kill claim but works very, very, very diligently to make things work for the dogs they take in nonetheless. Calling them and other AC shelters like them a kill shelter is pejorative, disrespectful, and judgmental nonsense.

    Any of us who have been in the trenches and understand the lingo know that there are great non-profits AND animal control facilities, and we also know of horrendous rescues that use the no-kill label as some kind of credential while the animals in their “care” suffer profoundly. There are also municipal shelters that are run by people that I think are genuine sadists.

    Then there are those (and I won’t mention names since I’ve been sued for defamation already) that in my opinion use “no-kill” as a marketing and fundraising ploy while placing the genuine care of animals as a secondary concern.

    Sadly we can’t save them all and this article does well in drawing the hard line between real-world animal rescue and glitter and unicorns PR.

    Thanks for the article.

  10. I really liked your comments on Kill and No Kill shelters. I am sorry to say I do not donate to shelters that claim to be No Kill since they are limited admission or selective admission turning away animals that need shelter. What happens to the animals that are turned away especially in rural areas that don’t have options of a realist, caring organization that takes all animals no matter the outcome. I respect the open admission shelters for being compassionate enough to take them all knowing that they will probably have the etanize some due to health, behavior, or lack of room. That is what I can real compassion and real responsibility. Thank the open admission shelters and their kind employees for caring so much to take them all.

  11. I mostly agree with what you said, but that isn’t always the whole picture. It is probably the rule, but there are exceptions. I did Doberman rescue in the Atlanta area for several years. I started with one woman who was rescuing under an all-breed license and quickly learned that the other Doberman rescue in town (now defunct) only took healthy dogs 3 years and under. (The rule, I guess) So we took the rejects and many of them required costly medical care in addition to the typical exam, shots and spay/neuter. So I lived on about half my salary and spent the other half caring for our dogs that were usually older, and/or had health issues. Occasionally I’d wind up with an oddball–like the time we got a call from a shelter about 90 minutes away about a woman who became homeless and her two Dobes wound up in the shelter. I agreed to take them and a volunteer drove to pick them up (we eventually grew and became a licensed rescue and it is still in operation). At any rate, when the volunteer arrived and told them she was there for the two Dobes, the shelter worker asked her, “Aren’t you going to take the Border Collie too?” “Border Collie? I’ll check.”

    She called and asked me if she was supposed to pull the Border Collie too. It turned out the homeless woman had 3 dogs. I said, “Why not, the more the merrier, bring him back with you.” We had him for quite a while because people contacting Doberman rescue are looking for Dobermans, not Border Collies, and it was a hoot to watch him trying to herd the Dobes in the backyard, but eventually with the help of a Border Collie rescue, we were able to place him. Then there was a Yellow Lab, that my trainer wound up adopting, and the call from a shelter that had removed 3 senior dogs due to neglect–they lived in the crawl space under the house and the owners tossed out slop for them like they were pigs. The shelter wanted to place all three dogs together because they seemed bonded and needed to be further evaluated. They approached small breed rescues first but none would take the Dobe, so they called me and I took all three: a Dobe, a Pomeranian, and a Poodle. The Dobe was heartworm positive so we started treatment and after separating the dogs for a time to see how they would do, listed the two little ones on Petfinder and they were quickly adopted to great homes. I wound up keeping the Doberman. She was a delightful older gal and I named her Queen Elizabeth because something about her reminded me of the British monarch.

    When I was doing rescue, most shelters wanted to get the dogs out either to adopters or rescue and we frequently got calls from shelters all over the metro area. But some shelters are horrible. There was one in North Georgia that had planned to euthanize ALL the animals there so that they could have a long Thanksgiving weekend. A North GA rescue caught wind of their plan and put a plea out to rescues all over the region to please take one or more animals. We agreed to take the Doberman and several other dogs and cats had rescues willing to take them but no one who could pick them up before Thanksgiving due to their work and the short notice. So I filled my van with animals that had somewhere to go but no way to get there and other rescuers with work flexibility did the same. I was elated when I got a call late in the afternoon that the last load of animals had departed and the shelter was now empty. I know this is the exception but there are some bad shelters out there that do deserve the label “kill shelter.” I guess my point is we shouldn’t stereotype because there are all kinds of shelters, some that work very hard to place the animals and others that are just there for the paycheck. Same with rescues–most only euthanize if a dog demonstrates human aggression, but some are very picky as to the animals they accept and others will accept any of whatever breed or perhaps size they work with regardless of age or health.

  12. As a long time breeder of purpose bred dogs and a person who rescues my breed I get bothered by the term backyard breeder. I am I supposed to do it on my kitchen table?
    I health test all my dogs and submit DNA for all the genetic diseases that my breed has markers for.
    I am bothered by rescues and shelters that put intact animals back on the streets. I grew up in a time where all our dogs were intact and litters did happen to those who let their dogs roam. I do not see that in my town of 50,000.
    I would love to be a P. I. that could track down the source and situation of litters dumped at shelters in greater numbers that I can remember.

  13. Point very well made, and taken. Shelters over run by dogs being returned (think COVID), lost or worse, abandoned. It’s all so very sad and heartbreaking. I’d like to add that pet parents perhaps need to reframe their verbiage when making the difficult decision to let go. “I laid my companion to rest” instead of the proverbial “I put him/her down”. The latter is highly insensitive, aggressive and distasteful. We as a society need to think and do better.

  14. While technically no shelters in California are kill shelters, the reality is that they do not have unlimited space and sometimes if they have to find room more unadoptable dogs have to provide that space.

    Freyja Grey was from such a shelter. I just happened to looking at that shelter website because a blog I visit asked who celebrated and knew their dog’s birthday. Diana pawPrints, her Mom and siblings were rescued from that shelter. I spotted Freyja on the top of the page with two other dogs. All three were “red carded”. You can guess what that meant. Diana and I drove up the following day (3 hours up) and came back with Freyja. She is a sweet and affectionate girl. But also 55% husky for those that can guess why she was returned to the shelter twice, once within 24 hours. Destructive behavior. This was in June 2021 when we were locking down for Covid. My guess was she was left alone while her people were at work and when they came home and surveyed how their brand new dog has spent her time that was it. I suspect they knew little about dogs. You don’t adopt a dog that has spent time in a shelter and figure things will be perfect one they are home. There is an adjustment period.

    Well, I’m retired, I have a fenced yard with double gates at both ends and I don’t leave the house for more than a few hours a week. I’ve also owned dogs for 30 years. So Freyja got very, very lucky. Yes, there were some adjustments. (I lost a few pieces of clothing and she tipped a few trash cans) but for the most part she has been a joy. She is an anxiety pooper so when at my parent’s house I do have to check an area of the living room if there has been some change or upset in the house. Other than a few quirks she has adjusted beautifully. My parent’s dog Dolly is her BFF and she has even learned to enjoy the dog park. June 29 will be her 2 year Adoptiversary.

    So while the shelters in California may be no kill shelters, that doesn’t mean dogs aren’t euthanized for one reason or another. Illness or behavior issues that cannot be corrected and are a danger to people or other animals is one thing but euthanizing dogs simply because the space is needed is just inexcusable. If not for a late night blog post and lucky, Freyja may have had to make way for another dog. She has no idea how lucky she is. Or maybe she does.

  15. I live in NY. I’ve had 2 GSD’s from a friend’s litter (unregistered) and one I rescued from the side of the road where she was dumped. My current guy came up from Louisiana on a transport and was adopted from our well known Humane Society in Monroe County, Lollipop Farm. He’s a black mouth cur and is perfect! No issues to resolve!
    I have a best friend who is heavily involved with Schipperke rescue and worked as a humane society officer in the Florida Keys. One of the things I vividly remember her telling me is that some of the no kill shelters kept dogs and cats in cages for years rather than euthanizing. There is no quality of life in that situation but the public thinks that this is better than euthanizing. I would beg to disagree…