Animal Shelters

Grade Level: 
6, 7, 8, 9, 10, 11, 12
Animal Welfare
Animal shelters care for animals needing protection, attempt to find homes for homeless animals, and reunite lost pets with their owners. Some shelters provide other services, such as animal health services, behavioral evaluations, training, and humane education.

Written by Cassandra Howard with some content from an earlier edition by 



Animal shelters care for animals needing protection, attempt to find homes for homeless animals, and reunite lost pets with their owners. When necessary, animal shelters give homeless or unadoptable animals a humane death. Today’s shelters range from single rooms with multiple cages to state-of-the-art facilities with amenities that may rival some hotels.  The “luxury” features, like ambient music and waterfalls, serve to reduce the animals’ stress and to make the shelter more inviting, which increases the chances that the animals at the shelter will find a new home.

Animal shelters can be structured in three ways. First, as municipal animal control agencies, run by city or county governments; second, as non-profit agencies overseen by a board of directors; or third, as private, non-profit agencies with a government contract to provide animal control services.

Municipal animal control agencies are typically open-access, which means they receive any animal that is brought to their door by the public or seized by animal control agents on patrol.  Municipal agencies, because of their open-access status, find it necessary to euthanize animals in their care to make room for incoming animals.  This is never done lightly or without regret by those working within these agencies—it is, however, the current state of animal control in the U.S. Every year, about 1.5 million cats and dogs are euthanized in shelters in the U.S. (APPA).  This number has shrunk dramatically over the past few decades due to the hard work the animal sheltering community has done to improve adoption procedures, to increase the number of animals that successfully find their way back to their families, and to get the “spay/neuter” message out to the public, thus decreasing the number of animals reaching shelters today. Municipal agencies are funded by the government, but most are underfunded for the job they are tasked to do and often partner with non-profit organizations to help close the gap between costs and funding.

Private, non-profit organizations rely on donations and grants to fund their programs. Many private agencies are limited-access, sometimes called “no-kill” facilities, because they do not euthanize animals to make room for more animals. At times, they find it necessary to turn animals that are brought to them away if they do not have available space. To solve this problem, municipal and private agencies set up foster-care networks to increase the number of animals they can serve at a given point in time.

Shelters, both municipal and private, may provide other services to the public if they have sufficient resources.  These services may include animal health services, such as exams and spay/neuter surgeries, behavioral evaluations and training, humane education, and others.

Any shelter can use the term “Humane Society” or “SPCA” in their name.  SPCA stands for Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals.  These are generic terms that do not imply the shelter is part of a larger organization or has special powers.  In fact, most humane societies and SPCA's are independent agencies. National organizations do not have any oversight or governing power over these independent agencies; however, national organizations offer suggested guidelines and recommendations for animal shelters, which are often followed (Fekety 1998).


Historic Roots

Shelters for companion animals (another name for pets), developed from impoundments that were common in colonial towns, and were used to contain wandering livestock and strays.  A poundmaster was in charge of gathering wandering animals and confining them in the impoundment.  If the owner wanted to reclaim their animal, they had to pay the poundmaster a redemption fee. Poundmasters did not earn a salary and, therefore, depended on redemption fees to live. If animals were left unclaimed, poundmasters slaughtered the livestock to sell the meat.  Unfortunately, since companion animals did not generate a profit, it was common for them to suffer a premature death. 

The American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty for Animals (ASPCA®) was founded by Henry Bergh in 1866. Early on, ASPCA focused on the mistreatment of horses that worked in the city transporting freight and people.  Soon after, similar organizations were created in Boston, Philadelphia, and San Francisco.  

Henry Bergh fought against the inhumane treatment of animals at the “pound” in New York City.  At one time, there was a cartoon which depicted him as the only mourner after a poundmaster drowned impounded dogs in a river.  However, he adamantly believed that the ASPCA should not take over the job of animal control for New York City.  He also believed that the city would never provide enough funding to do the job well.  In 1894, six years after the death of Henry Bergh, the ASPCA board of directors voted to take over the management of New York City’s animal shelters, and held this contract until 1995 (Zawistowski 2008). 

While humane organizations were forming all over the United States, the Women’s Branch of the Pennsylvania SPCA, later named the Women’s Humane Society, was the first facility to provide humane, quick and painless deaths to the animals in its care (Zawistowski & Morris 2004).

With time, the treatment of the animals at shelters improved and, following the model of the Women’s Humane Society, strays were no longer drowned.  The concept of dog licensing was first introduced in 1866 in Chicago, and the first license tags in 1877 in Dodge City, Kansas.  The fees collected from the licenses were used to provide salaries for workers at the animal shelter.  Since the workers were paid a salary and not dependent on redemption fees, like the poundmasters in colonial times, strays were no longer brought to the shelter by fraudulent means.  In addition, they included cats as part of their efforts, the first time that cats became more than an incidental part of the animal shelter (Zawistowski 2008).



Of the almost 89.7 million dogs and 94.2 million cats that share our homes in the United States (APPA), 23 percent and 31 percent, respectively, came from an animal shelter (ASPCA, n.d.). There are five thousand animal shelters in the United States, with an annual intake of approximately 6.5 million animals (ASPCA).  Of that number, about 3.2 million are adopted, about seven hundred thousand are returned to their owners and 1.5 million are euthanized (ASPCA).


Ties to the Philanthropic Sector

Animal shelters, whether municipal agencies with non-profit partnerships or private, non-profit organizations, rely on donations from the public to accomplish their important work.  Shelters, at a minimum, provide a place for lost or abandoned animals. Many provide humane law enforcement services, behavioral evaluations, remediation and enrichment services, health and spay/neuter services, humane education, and much more.  


Key Related Ideas

  • Euthanasia Methods.  The early efforts of animal shelters focused on the humane treatment of animals and on finding humane methods of killing those animals that were not placed in homes.   Early methods of euthanasia included clubbing and drowning.  Gas chambers were also employed as a death by asphyxiation. In addition, electricity was used as a mode of euthanasia.  Eventually, death by a lethal injection of sodium pentobarbital became the widely accepted practice of euthanasia.  Though lethal injection has become the most common method of euthanasia, there is still controversy.  The American Veterinary Medical Association (AVMA) believes there should always be proper training between shelter staff and veterinarians on the administration of lethal injection.  Though lethal injection is commonly used, some communities still permit the use of carbon monoxide derived from engine exhaust, gunshots, and other less humane methods (Zawistowski & Morris 2004).
  • Pet overpopulation.  The number of animals held in a shelter did not become an issue until the last third of the twentieth century (Zawistowski & Morris 2004).  Today, estimates place the number of pet dogs at about 89.7 million and the number of pet cats around 94.2 million (APPA).  Unfortunately, many pets leave their homes every year. They are taken to animal shelters, placed in another home, or set free as strays. Presently, there are no national reporting agencies for animal shelters, though projections estimate 6.5 million dogs and cats enter shelters annually and the number euthanized is estimated at 1.5 million (ASPCA).


Important People Related to the Topic

  • Caroline Earle White lived in an era when it was unusual for women to be in the forefront, White played a prominent role in the formation of the Women’s Branch of the Pennsylvania SPCA in 1869.  In 1874, in response to the horrific treatment of dogs and cats at the Philadelphia pound, the society built and dedicated the City Refuge for Lost and Suffering Animals.  It was the first facility to provide humane treatment of animals through medical treatment, adoption into new homes, and humane euthanasia methods (Zawistowski and Morris 2004).  
  • Phyllis Wright, of the Humane Society of the United States, played an important leadership role in the humane treatment of animals.  She fought for better legislation to promote laws to protect animals, education on the responsible and proper care of animals, and sterilization to reduce the number of unwanted animals (Zawistowski and Morris 2004).
  • Matthew Bershadker is the current president and CEO of the American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (ASPCA). Bershadker has held this position since 2013 and first joined ASPCA in 2001 (ASPCA).
  • Ellen DeGeneres, the host of The Ellen DeGeneres Show, was named PETA’s woman of the year in 2009. She is widely known as an animal welfare advocate and often raises awareness for animal welfare on her talk show (PETA).


Related Nonprofit Organizations

  • The American Humane Association (AHA), founded in 1877, brings together leaders in the animal community to share ideas and information and support joint action on a range of issues important in animal welfare (Zawistowski 2008).  AHA offers an array of training courses in animal rescue, certification in euthanasia, humane education, and various other topics.  AHA also oversees the treatment of animals that appear in films and televisions (
  • The Humane Society of the United States (HSUS) is the sponsor of the largest animal conference, Animal Care Expo, which brings together animal shelter professionals, veterinarians, behaviorists, fundraising experts, and others in animal welfare.  HSUS provides consultation and evaluation services for animal shelters.  HSUS also provides other resources such as Animal Sheltering, a monthly publication for animal shelters, and Pets for Life, a program which offers behavioral tips and problem-solving skills to keep pets with families (
  • The National Animal Care & Control Association (NACA) was formed to support the movement toward more professional animal control management (Zawistowski 2008).  The association sponsors the NACA Training Academy, an annual conference, and NACA News, a bi-monthly newsletter.  The academy formalizes the required skills for animal control officers (
  • The American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (ASPCA) did not renew their animal control contract with New York City in 1995.  Instead, they created a national shelter outreach department, called ASPCApro, to provide training and assistance for animal shelters around the country (Zawistowski 2008) (
  • The Society of Animal Welfare Administrators (SAWA) was formed in 1970, as a way to share information and ideas among the executives who run animal shelters (Zawistowski & Morris 2004. (


Reflection Question - How would you reduce the number of dogs and cats at your local animal shelter?


Bibliography and Internet Sources

  • American Pet Products Association. 2017-2018 APPA National Pet Owners Survey.
  • The American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals. Pet Statistics.
  • The American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals. ASPCA Board of Directors Names Matthew Bershadker President and CEO
  • Fekety, S. 1998 "Shelters." Encyclopedia of Animal Rights and Animal Welfare, M Bekoff and C Meaney Eds. p315-317.
  • People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals. PETA Names Man and Woman of the Year.
  • Zawistowski, Stephen. Companion Animals in Society. New York: Thomson Delmar Learning, 2008. 
  • Zawistowski, Stephen and Morris, Julie. “The Evolving Animal Shelter.” Shelter Medicine Book for Veterinarians and Staff edited by Lila Miller, D.V.M., and Zawistowski, Ph.D., C.A.A.B. 3-9. Boston: 2004.


This paper was developed by students taking a Philanthropic Studies course taught at the Lilly Family School of Philanthropy at Indiana University in 2017. It is offered by Learning To Give and the Center on Philanthropy at Indiana University.