Skye Blake, here, checking in with the feline scoop on cat rescue groups and animal shelters.
Before you adopt, volunteer or give money, know who you’re dealing with and avoid frauds or hoarders…
- What’s an Animal Shelter?
- Public Municipal Shelters
- Private Animal Shelters
- What’s a Rescue Group?
- What is Fostering?
- Laws Regulating Shelters & Rescue Groups
- Identifying Good Quality Shelters & Rescue Groups
- Rescue or Hoarding?
- Locating Shelters & Rescue Groups in Your Area
- Resources for Shelters & Rescue Organizations
- Animal Advocacy Resources
- Considering Adoption?
- Who Is Skye Blake?
- List of Sources
What’s an Animal Shelter?
An animal shelter is a place with buildings that temporarily houses and cares for animals.
There are two basic types of shelters, public (municipal) and private.
Public Municipal Shelters
(a.k.a. “the Pound”, “Animal Control”)
Government entities like counties, parishes, townships, or cities own or support public shelters.
Animal control officers often work out of these shelters.
Taxpayers in the city or area in which the shelter is located pay the costs for public shelters.
They usually don’t have enough money to do more than basic care.
The law requires these shelters to take every animal surrendered to them by the public, whether pet or stray, or impounded by police or animal control officer.
Adoption programs are unable to keep up with the number of animals coming in, so those in charge must make difficult decisions about euthanizing animals to have space available for the next animals they must take.
This is why they’re often called “kill” shelters. Find out more at “Kill vs No-Kill Shelters – Which is Better?“
If you want to evaluate a shelter, here’s a handy checklist…
History of “The Pound”
Originally shelters (“pounds”) were set up to protect the public from sick and dangerous animals running around loose, not rescue animals or find homes for them.
Packs of feral dogs were a problem in cities and rabies was (and still is) a very real danger to both animals and people.
There’s a very interesting history of animal shelters at “Original Purpose of Animal “Control” Shelters, that you might not know”.
Private Animal Shelters
Private shelters are incorporated 501(c)(3) humane societies or other non-profit organizations dedicated to the rescue, care, and adoption of animals (including us fabulous felines).
In the United States, the 501(c)(3) designation gives a non-profit organization federal tax-exempt status.
Other countries have their own tax laws regarding non-profit organizations.
If needed, check the laws in your country, province, state, and local area.
Private shelters function only by private donations or grants, not government money, and are not attached to any government agencies.
Like public shelters, they have a physical location with buildings to house the animals where the public can visit.
They keep the animals in cages and kennels, sometimes having a cat room for the cats to get out during the day.
Some shelters, both public and private, are now more frequently using foster care and coordinating with local rescue groups.
Private shelters have the freedom to pick and choose which animals they take in.
They have the option to turn others away if no room is available.
This enables them to claim being “no-kill”… more on this topic at “Kill vs No-Kill Shelters – Which is Better?“
Private shelters are staffed by either all volunteers or a mix of employees and volunteers.
They sometimes work with public shelters to help alleviate overcrowding, reducing the need to euthanize healthy animals that could easily find homes.
If you wish to evaluate a private shelter, here’s our handy checklist…
Historical Development of Private Shelters
As people’s attitudes changed toward animals in the mid-1800’s, the Association of the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (ASPCA®) was formed to get laws passed, first to protect horses and other farm animals from cruel treatment, then dogs and cats.
Other groups began forming in different states for the same purpose, beginning with farm animals and eventually working to help and protect pets.
These groups also built shelters to house and care for animals with the goal of finding them permanent homes.
What’s a Rescue Group?
A rescue group is simply an organization that rescues, helps, and finds homes for abandoned, unwanted animals.
It can be made up of a small group of people or grow to become a large organization.
Modern rescue groups have developed over time as people have become more interested in caring for stray, abandoned, and sick animals, especially pets, with the goal of finding them permanent homes.
Anyone can rescue an animal in need, care for it and find it a good home, but a true rescue group is an incorporated tax-exempt (501c3) non-profit organization dedicated to the rescue, rehabilitation and care of animals.
Rescue groups often coordinate with public shelters and take animals in that would otherwise be euthanized.
They’re free to limit, specialize, and choose the animals they help, just like private shelters.
Rescue groups aren’t attached to government agencies and don’t receive taxpayer money.
They are dependent on private donations or grants for funding.
These groups don’t always have separate buildings to use as shelters, but instead will use a network of foster (temporary) homes.
Some use a combination of a central location (often the home of the rescue’s founder) and foster homes.
Rescues can house the animals in various ways, using cages, special cat rooms, dog runs, or any creative combinations they deem necessary.
Many rescues specialize in all cats or all dogs, while others work only with specific breeds, such as Sphynx, Ragdoll, Siamese, or Devon Rex cats.
Others specialize in all kittens, seniors, disabled, or any medically needy animal.
Rehoming feral cats to farms as barn cats is yet another interesting type of rescue.
There are also now rescues (and rehabilitation centers) for rabbits, horses, farm animals, wild animals, and exotic pets.
If you have concerns and want to evaluate a rescue group, here’s a handy checklist…
Feral Cat/TNR Groups
Some groups deal with feral cat colonies, educating people and providing shelter, food, and trap-neuter-return (“TNR”) medical services.
These groups actually “rescue” people and neighborhoods overwhelmed with cat colonies and their associated problems.
They trap the cats, get them vaccinated and spayed or neutered, then return them to their home territories.
They educate people on proper outdoor sheltering and feeding for these cats.
They don’t, however, take them into shelters or foster homes.
The idea is to cut down the overpopulation of feral cats and allow them to live out their lives outside, since they’re not considered adoptable.
Feral or Stray?
“Feral” refers to an animal who descends from domesticated ancestors but was born and lives in the wild with no human contact.
Some people confuse “feral” with “stray” when it comes to cats, but there’s an important distinction.
A “stray” cat may be living outside in the wild but has had interaction with people at some point in its life.
Strays are typically cats who lived indoors or were socialized as kittens and then dumped outside or left behind when no longer wanted.
If a stray has kittens in the wild, those kittens can become feral if they have no socialization with people.
The way to tell the difference is that a stray will be able to overcome its initial fear and mistrust of people once it feels safe.
Some strays will actually approach people and be immediately friendly.
A feral cat will not… it will always be afraid and want to be as far away from people as possible, although some ferals can develop a little trust of people over time.
Some rescue groups are technically sanctuaries where rescued animals are brought to live out their lives.
The main difference between a rescue group and sanctuary is adoption.
Sanctuaries don’t have adoptions but sometimes have sponsorships, where people can donate to the care of a specific animal.
Sanctuaries are set up at private homes, on ranches or in other large areas of land where the animals can roam freely.
They’re dependent on private donations or grants.
There are sanctuaries for large game animals as well as rescued horses, farm animals, dogs and cats.
If you want to evaluate a sanctuary, use our handy checklist, but ignore the section about adoption since that doesn’t apply to sanctuaries.
What is Fostering?
Fostering is when rescued animals are temporarily cared for in a home environment instead of a shelter.
A person or family commits to caring for an animal while it waits for placement in a permanent (forever) home.
This is done by groups who don’t have shelter facilities and by shelters when an animal can’t handle the noise or other aspects of a shelter environment.
Foster care is a way of helping animals become comfortable in a home setting with the goal of finding a permanent home.
This is especially worthwhile for animals with special medical or behavioral needs, such as unsocialized dogs, young kittens or injured animals needing rehabilitation.
If you’re interested in fostering, evaluate the shelter or group you’d like to work with and discuss fostering requirements.
The responsibilities of both you and the rescue should be made clear from the beginning.
A written contract is the best way to avoid misunderstandings, especially regarding who pays for food, medical expenses, etc.
Use our handy checklist…
What’s a “Foster Fail”?
A “foster fail” is actually a success! It’s when somebody fosters an animal and decides to adopt it themselves.
This happens frequently… fostering can be a way for people to try caring for an animal before making the full commitment.
Laws Regulating Shelters & Rescue Groups
In the U.S., some states and local jurisdictions have specific laws and requirements for shelters, whether public or private.
But there are many places where little or no regulation or oversight is in place.
Those jurisdictions that do, vary widely in their minimum standard requirements for animal care, adoption, and other shelter functions.
The ASPCA® recommends all state and local jurisdictions in the U.S. should require uniform minimum standards.
They also recommend that these legal standards address basic care issues to keep the shelter experience from making adoption more difficult.
For further details about legal recommendations of the ASPCA®, go to “Position Statement on Responsibilities of Animal Shelters“.
Rescue groups are under general animal welfare and anti-cruelty laws but not yet included in laws specifically related to animal shelters.
Check your state and local government websites for laws and regulations applicable to your local shelters.
Here are a couple sites about the “Animal Welfare Act” and related laws…
“Animal Welfare Act Quick Reference Guides“
“Laws Regulating Rescue and Foster Care Programs for Companion Animals“
Identifying Good Quality Shelters & Rescue Groups
Let’s face it… anybody can throw a picture of a sick cat on social media, add a sad story, and voila… money starts pouring in!
It’s a situation that’s ripe for fraud because most animal lovers want to help and don’t think about checking who’s getting their money.
This makes it important to know how to evaluate and identify good shelters and groups.
Check Online & In Person
Even though sites like Petfinder may check the shelters that use their services, there’s no substitute for your own investigation.
A group that was fine a few years ago can easily go downhill in a matter of weeks or months.
The best way is to do a little easy research and then go to the shelter.
Even if it’s a distance away, an on-site inspection is very important.
The ideal shelter or rescue operates as a business with proper financial records and people who deal with the public in a professional, courteous way.
If you can’t go in person, a virtual tour can at least let you see the facilities and conditions.
When you’re at the shelter you can smell as well as see the conditions, listen to workers and volunteers, and talk to people in person.
If it’s a rescue group that only uses foster care and doesn’t have a central facility, you can still ask questions and do some research.
If possible, talk to someone who’s volunteered with the organization or has experience adopting an animal from them.
Check their reputation with other animal shelters, veterinarians, animal control officers, dog walkers, pet sitters, groomers, etc.
Use our handy checklist as a guide to gather the info you need.
Get a Friend to Help You
If you find it hard to be objective, get a friend or relative to help you.
That way you can get answers before becoming too personally involved, whether for adopting an animal, volunteering or donating money.
Rescue or Hoarding?
Sometimes animal rescue groups or shelters are a way of hoarding animals. This is a serious problem that often ends up in the hands of law enforcement.
Find out the difference between legitimate rescues and hoarders at “Animal Hoarding or Rescue?“
Locating Shelters & Rescue Groups in Your Area
People are always looking for shelters and rescue groups near where they live.
There are so many, it’s difficult to keep up with them all.
Here are some lists you can search to find a specific group or pull up groups around your area.
Remember just because it’s on a list doesn’t mean it’s good.
“13 Most Inspiring Animal Welfare Organizations” – this page lists 13 organizations that the reviewer particularly likes. Each works with different types of animals, not just cats.
“Animal Shelter and Rescue Program“, Mass.gov – this has a list of shelters and groups approved by the State of Massachusetts to operate within the state. Some are located in neighboring states.
“Animal Shelters & Rescues Work Together” – Helpful info about locating, assessing and dealing with shelters and rescues
“Cat Rescue Groups | Life Saving Organizations and Resources” – a list of cat rescue organizations starts about halfway down this page. There are also links to breed-specific groups.
“NYC Pet Adoption Guide: Animal Shelters For Dogs And Cats” – This page is for shelters in the New York City area only; some have multiple locations.
“Search for Animal Shelters & Rescue Groups” – This is Petfinder’s extensive list of almost 14,000 shelters and rescues throughout North America.
Resources for Shelters & Rescue Organizations
The following resources are helpful for those wanting to start and run a rescue or an already existing organization searching for ways to improve.
“Animal Shelter and Rescue Program“, Mass.gov – an example of a state government program for shelters and rescue groups
“ASPCA Grants” – Info about various grants awarded by ASPCA to shelters and rescues
“Behavioral Assessment in Animal Shelters” – an article by Sheila Segurson D’Arpino, DVM, DACVB
“Facility Design, Shelter Animal Housing and Shelter Population Management” – University of Wisconsin-Madison Shelter Medicine Program
“Rescue Bank” – “Rescue Bank grants donated pet food and supplies to smaller, less-visible non-profits that have limited access to resources.”
“Rescue Best Practice Guide” – guide from the HSUS for shelters about Organizational Standards, Animal Care Standards, Operational Standards, and Community Building
“Shelter/Rescue Transport Programs” – Animal Shelter, Inc. of Sterling, Massachusetts
“Shelter Resources“, Cornell University College of Veterinary Medicine
“Shelters and Rescues FAQ” – The Humane Society of the United States has resources and connections to various organizations and helpful information
“Starting A Pet-Adoption Organization” – Petfinder has articles and guides for starting a shelter or rescue
Animal Advocacy Resources
If you’re interested in the legislative side of animal control, rescue and care, take a look at this…
“Understanding Your Local Government & Animal Control Information for Cats” (alleycat.org)
If you’re thinking about adopting a cat or two, there are some things you should consider before you decide.
Take a look at “How to Adopt a Cat” to get you started.
Who Is Skye Blake?
Skye Blake, Cat Info Detective, is a curious cat researcher (not a veterinarian) who sniffs out expert, reliable sources about cats, studies their information, then passes it on to you!
Sometimes there’s not enough evidence for easy answers, so Skye gives you all sides, explains the situation as thoroughly and clearly as possible, and links you to experts on each page.
All sources are given at the bottom of each page so you can do more snooping.
Discover more about rescue and shelters at these related pages…
Sources used on this website are either primary or secondary.
Primary sources are always preferable and have the most reliable information because they’re original and directly referenced.
Scientific abstracts and data are good examples of primary sources.
Secondary sources are weaker because they usually consist of opinions or articles that give no sources of their own.
So, sometimes they refer to primary sources.
When I use secondary sources, most are those with some authority, such as veterinarian or cat behaviorist books and articles.
List of Sources
“13 Most Inspiring Animal Welfare Organizations“, Dog Product Picker, December 13, 2021
“30 Great Animal Organizations Worthy of Your Donations 2020” – Best Choice Reviews
“501c3Lookup.org – U.S. IRS 501(c)(3) Non-profit List“
“Adopting a Pet From a Rescue (And Why the Rules Sometimes Seem Wacky)” – Petful
“Animal Shelters & Rescues for Pet Adoption“, Petfinder
“Animal Shelters & Rescues Work Together“, Best Friends Animal Society
“Animal Shelter and Rescue Program“, Mass.gov
“Animal Welfare Act Quick Reference Guides“, Animal Welfare Information Center, NAL, USDA
“ASPCA Grants“, ASPCA
“Behavioral Assessment in Animal Shelters” by Sheila Segurson D’Arpino, DVM, DACVB (maddiesfund.org), 2007
“Cat Rescue Groups | Life Saving Organizations and Resources” (cat-lovers-only.com)
“Charity Navigator – Advanced Search“
“Choosing a Reputable Rescue Group” – RedRover
“Facility Design, Shelter Animal Housing and Shelter Population Management“, Library – University of Wisconsin-Madison Shelter Medicine Program (uwsheltermedicine.com)
“Game Changer Celebrates Facility’s 50,000th Spay-Neuter“, Analysis by Dr. Karen Shaw Becker, Mercola, January 21, 2021
“Game Changer Wants to End Pet Homelessness and Suffering (mercola.com)“, Analysis by Dr. Karen Shaw Becker, February 25, 2021
“How to Start a Rescue or Other Animal Nonprofit” (bestfriends.org)
“The Importance of Animal Shelters“, Richell USA, November 25, 2019
“Laws Regulating Rescue and Foster Care Programs for Companion Animals“, Animal Legal & Historical Center (animallaw.info)
“NYC Pet Adoption Guide: Animal Shelters For Dogs And Cats” – CBS New York (cbslocal.com)
“Original Purpose of Animal ‘Control’ Shelters, that you might not know” by Donna, bostonterriernetwork.com
“Position Statement on Responsibilities of Animal Shelters“, ASPCA
“Rescue Bank” (greatergood.org)
“Rescue Best Practice Guide” (humanepro.org)
“Rescue or Rotten?” – Catwatch Newsletter
“Shelter/Rescue Transport Programs” – Animal Shelter, Inc. of Sterling (sterlingshelter.org)
“Shelter Resources“, Cornell University College of Veterinary Medicine
“Shelters and rescues FAQ“, The Humane Society of the United States
“Starting A Pet-Adoption Organization“, Petfinder
“Understanding Your Local Government & Animal Control Information for Cats” (alleycat.org)
“What Is Hoarding Disorder?” (psychiatry.org)
Updated March 2, 2023