What no-kill really means

No-kill is defined as saving every dog and cat in a shelter who can be saved. It means healing the animals who can be healed, treating behaviors that can be treated, and prioritizing safety and a high quality of life for both pets and people in our communities.

It means reducing the number of animals entering shelters through spay/neuter education and services and increasing the number of animals leaving shelters through adoption and other programs that lead to them finding safe places to call home.

When animal shelters and the communities they serve value those objectives, euthanasia is used only as a last resort, when an animal is suffering from an irreparable medical or behavioral condition. No-kill means that an end-of-life decision for a pet is an act of mercy rather than one done for convenience or lack of space.

The no-kill philosophy and the 90% save rate

When shelters and communities follow no-kill principles, every animal is recognized as an individual with a life worth saving. There are no quotas to be met or set number of animals to be killed or saved.

A 90% save rate for the animals entering a shelter is the common-sense benchmark for measuring lifesaving progress. Typically, the number of pets who are suffering from irreparable medical or behavioral issues that compromise their quality of life and prevent them from being rehomed is not more than 10% of all pets entering shelters.

What it means to be a no-kill animal shelter

While the 90% benchmark offers a meaningful, consistent way to gauge progress, it is neither a floor nor a ceiling. For many shelters, a true no-kill statistic may be closer to a 95% save rate or higher. For some shelters, particularly those offering unique care and services such as neonatal kitten programs or compassionate end-of-life services for residents with pets in under-resourced communities, the benchmark may be slightly below 90%.

The goal is for every shelter, no matter what type of shelter it may be, to make a clear commitment to lifesaving and transparency while working to achieve and sustain no-kill in philosophy and practice, rather than simply working to obtain a no-kill designation.

What it means to be a no-kill community

A no-kill community is a city or town in which every brick-and-mortar shelter serving and/or located within that community has reached a 90% save rate or higher and adheres to the no-kill philosophy, saving every animal who can be saved.

Two defining characteristics of a no-kill community are collaboration and collective responsibility. For any community to be no-kill, all stakeholders in that community must work together to achieve and sustain that common goal. This means cooperation among animal shelters, animal rescue groups, other government agencies and stakeholders, and community members, all committed to progressive lifesaving.

No-kill communities are safe and humane

Community safety and quality of life for pets are guiding principles of the no-kill philosophy and are attainable when animal welfare professionals engage in best practices and protocols.

Humane euthanasia is used as a last resort in instances when an animal is deemed too ill or too dangerous for rehabilitation. Euthanasia is appropriate when a veterinarian has assessed that there is no chance of recovering an acceptable quality of life for that animal.

The no-kill philosophy acknowledges that euthanasia may sometimes be an appropriate choice in rare cases of irremediable canine aggression in which public safety cannot be reasonably assured and other interventions would compromise the animal’s quality of life.

Effective strategies to achieve no-kill

The most effective path to no-kill includes a combination of (1) collaborative partnerships and coalitions among animal shelters, animal rescue groups and other community stakeholders working toward a collective goal; (2) data-driven decision-making for each individual community; and (3) proven programs and best practices designed to save the most lives possible.

1.) No-kill coalition building

Creating a no-kill community or a no-kill state requires collaboration among organizations and individuals committed to achieving a common goal. Through the coalition model, communities can better utilize resources; create unified public messaging; maintain consistent, transparent reporting; take collective ownership of lifesaving; and measure and sustain progress over time. Best Friends’ No-Kill Utah (NKUT) and No-Kill Los Angeles (NKLA) initiatives are examples of successful no-kill coalitions at the state and city levels. Effective coalitions also pursue opportunities for providing professional development and training to help shelter staff, animal control officers and other animal welfare leaders gain the expertise they need to save more lives.

2.) Best practices and lifesaving programs

While lifesaving needs are unique to each shelter and community, there are a number of best practices and programs that are utilized in some form or another in any community working toward no-kill. These programs include:

  • Targeted spay/neuter services to reduce the number of dogs and cats entering shelters
  • Adoption programs to increase the number of pets leaving shelters and minimize their time in shelters
  • Community cat programs that utilize trap-neuter-return (TNR) and return-to-field (RTF) strategies to keep unowned, free-roaming cats (aka stray or feral cats) out of shelters
  • Various other programs, such as neonatal kitten nurseries, foster programs and transport programs

3.) Data-driven decision-making

Collecting accurate and current data on how many and what types of animals are entering and leaving shelters helps shelter leadership decide exactly which lifesaving programs are most needed in a given community. For example, if a particular shelter is saving homeless dogs successfully but is struggling to reduce the number of free-roaming cats entering the shelter, it may need to prioritize implementing a community cat program and/or training animal control officers to engage effectively with residents to address cat-related issues. A common first step for most shelters is to conduct a gap analysis to determine their lifesaving needs.

Why “high-kill” shelters still need support

The problem with the phrase “kill shelter” is that it suggests that shelters bear full responsibility for killing pets when that responsibility rests with the community as well. This label prevents people from supporting such a shelter, when in fact support is often exactly what that shelter needs.

Every animal shelter needs adopters, donors, volunteers and community advocates in order to increase lifesaving and become no-kill. Not supporting a shelter simply because it isn’t no-kill often ensures that nothing will ever change there.

Some shelters have yet to embrace the no-kill philosophy simply because they’ve never known another way of doing things, while others are afraid to ask for help for fear of being criticized or attacked. This is why it is essential for communities to create collaborative spaces committed to lifesaving, so that shelters feel supported and open to change.

Pet rescue groups and no-kill

Animal rescue groups are essential lifesaving partners in any no-kill community. And collaborative partnerships between brick-and-mortar shelters and local rescue groups can positively impact a community’s lifesaving status. The stronger these partnerships are, the more likely that community is to be no-kill.

Like limited-admission shelters, rescue groups are not required to accept every animal and can select which animals they admit. Because these organizations have this choice available to them, it is typically assumed that they are no-kill. Animal rescue organizations are encouraged to be transparent and publish their data in order to complete the lifesaving picture for their communities.

Why no-kill can be controversial

No-kill has been a controversial and divisive issue for many years, largely because of the following:

  • A fundamental misunderstanding about what the term means
  • A general lack of transparency and comprehensive data with regard to animal shelters
  • The failure of communities to assume collective responsibility for lifesaving

That’s why Best Friends engaged in years of national data collection and created the community lifesaving dashboard. This new platform provides a common-sense benchmark for no-kill and a transparent “apples to apples” view of animal data for all shelters that members of the public can easily access. Through that common understanding and access to information, we are inspiring community members to stay informed and support their local shelters, all with the goal of saving every pet who can be saved.

Helping animal shelters near me achieve no-kill

You can locate and view the lifesaving status of any shelter in your state and community through the community lifesaving dashboard. Each shelter’s page offers you an overview of how many pets are entering and leaving that shelter, as well as information about that shelter’s programs and the kind of support it needs.

Saving the lives of dogs and cats in animal shelters is the responsibility of each community. Animal shelters and the staff members who work there can only create and sustain lifesaving programs if they have community support and participation. Working together thoughtfully, honestly and collaboratively is what makes true no-kill possible.

Find out what’s happening in your community
Map of the United States with states color coded by number of animals killed