The Difference Between Kill and No-Kill Animal Shelters Isn't as Simple as You Think

If you find a stray dog, should you take it to a kill or no-kill animal shelter? It sounds like a trick question, like "Would you rather win one or one million dollars?" But really, it's not such a straightforward choice.

"No-Kill" Doesn't Mean "No Problems"

There's actually no universal definition for a no-kill shelter, and it's not even true that no-kill shelters never euthanize animals they take in. Generally, no-kill shelters try to maintain a 90 percent "live-release rate," according to the Washington Post. That means no-kill shelters try to save nine out of every 10 animals, and may still euthanize pets that are elderly or sick and genuinely need to be put down — though not all do. Regardless, as a result of these policies, no-kill shelters are usually full.

Every shelter has limited space, and at no-kill shelters, animals can stay for their whole natural lifetime. That's ... not a ton of turnover. When no-kill shelters turn animals away — and usually it's the struggling, not-cute animals they can't find room for — they more or less sentence those animals to the streets or to kill shelters.

Of the two, kill shelters are clearly the more humane option. Even PETA acknowledges this, and that's an organization that recently expressed reservations about the phrase "kill two birds with one stone." (It normalizes animal cruelty, allegedly.)

"Kill shelters" — also called "traditional" or "open-admission" shelters — do indeed euthanize animals they no longer have room for, but they never turn an animal away. That makes them great for emergency cases, and anyway, what actual "killing" they do is humane. Animals killed on the streets, meanwhile, tend to die more painfully — at the hands of animal abusers, in car accidents, of exposure, of starvation. Leaving them on the streets is, according to one animal control officer, "euthanasia by proxy."

What's more, animals left on the streets can reproduce, creating even more homeless animals. They can also cause public safety issues. In San Antonio, striving to become a no-kill city where less than 10 percent of strays are euthanized, dog bites are a major issue. There are about 4,000 reported each year, whereas in Houston, it's closer to 1,000.

What Really Helps Animals?

Before we can really help animals, we have to identify what really hurts them. It's not traditional shelters so much as the force that pushes them into any kind of shelter in the first place: animal homelessness.

Every U.S. city is obligated to round up "stray and unwanted animals," and there are more animals than there is space. Kill and no-kill shelters are trying to tackle this problem practically and ethically. There are pros and cons to both approaches, but ultimately, there's no clear moral high ground. Most no-kill shelters either depend on kill shelters to take in the animals they can't or relegate hordes of animals to the street (and a roadkill death).

Ultimately, what helps animals more than protesting kill shelters is working to make them unnecessary. PETA recommends advocating for spay and neuter laws in your area; Amy Heinz, CEO of AHeinz57 Pet Rescue & Transport, also recommends cracking down on puppy mills, which cause dog overpopulation. This will be solved at the level of public policy, not at the level of individual shelters.

And if you stumble on a stray, sure, it'd be ideal to take it to a no-kill shelter. But consider traditional shelters (and adoption!) too — the no-kill shelter's likely full.

Get stories like this one in your inbox or your headphones: Sign up for our daily email and subscribe to the Curiosity Daily podcast.

If you need your heartstrings pulled, check out the photography book "Animal Shelter Portraits" by Mark Ross (you'll have to provide your own Sarah McLachlan soundtrack). We handpick reading recommendations we think you may like. If you choose to make a purchase, Curiosity will get a share of the sale.

Written by Mae Rice February 4, 2019

Curiosity uses cookies to improve site performance, for analytics and for advertising. By continuing to use our site, you accept our use of cookies, our Privacy Policy and Terms of Use.