Position Statement on Responsibilities of Animal Shelters


This Position Statement sets forth the ASPCA’s views concerning the responsibilities of animal shelters[1] –both those recommended as best practices and those that are or should be mandated by law.  Many of the goals and policies outlined here relate to a set of topics that are commonly known as “shelter access”[2] issues.  In general terms, “shelter access” refers to various legal measures, proposed or enacted, which attempt to strictly limit the circumstances in which animals in the care of shelters may be euthanized, in some cases seemingly without regard to considerations that appropriately underlie euthanasia decisions, such as public safety and animal health or welfare.  Such measures seek to accomplish this goal in various ways by, for example, increasing disclosure requirements, mandating specific protocols for euthanasia decisions, or requiring shelters, in lieu of euthanasia, to release animals to almost any person or organization willing to take them.     

Independent of these recent initiatives, the number of animals euthanized in shelters has seen a precipitous decline in the past four decades, from around 15 million annually in the 1970’s to around 3 million currently, a drop which may be attributed to a host of factors including broader access to and acceptance of spay/neuter, progressive shelter policies, and active adoption efforts. Despite this progress, there are public and private shelters whose policies and practices fail by any reasonable measure to protect the animals and people they serve. Thus, while there may be disagreement with the tactics of shelter access initiatives, there are also shared interests and goals among many in animal sheltering, including, for example, setting standards which may result in increased opportunities for adoption and live-release of sheltered animals.   

Considering these issues and shared interests, we outline here a set of goals and policy statements, for both public and private animal shelters, which represent positions that the ASPCA affirmatively supports.  As discussed below, these policy statements are designed to address five major areas: animal welfare, adoption and live-release, owner returns, operational transparency, and euthanasia.  In some cases, the ASPCA recommends that these policies be enacted as a matter of law; in others, that the policies serve as guides for recommended action.  Taken together, these goals and policies represent the ASPCA’s desire to chart a pragmatic path that holds shelters appropriately accountable for the substantial responsibilities that come with the job of sheltering animals.     

It was challenging to consider the responsibilities of shelters regarding adoptions without using the word “adoptable”.  While it is a term commonly used within animal sheltering, the potential that it can be manipulated to justify unacceptable practices is troubling.   On one end of the spectrum, any animal might be considered adoptable if it can be adopted, even if it in fact dangerous or irredeemably suffering.  On the other end of the spectrum, a very limited definition of what is adoptable could provide justification for decisions to euthanize that are not well grounded.  Because the interpretation of what is “adoptable” is widely variable, use of the word doesn’t lend any meaningful value to the discussion of sheltering responsibilities.  The ASPCA expects animal sheltering organizations to make every effort to find adoption or placement options for the animals in their care, while also recognizing that shelters require discretion to make the best decisions for those animals and the communities in which they live, particularly in cases involving severe behavior or medical issues or dogs deemed dangerous under applicable law. Specific minimum standards for the care of animals in shelters vary significantly among the jurisdictions that have enacted them.  Considering such specific standards of care for animals in shelters is outside the scope of this general policy statement, which is aimed at providing guidance for jurisdictions seeking to implement general shelter regulations.[3]

Goals and Positions

Goal 1:  Animals in shelters routinely receive necessary and appropriate care

A.  Minimum standards for facilities, sanitation, medical protocols, and enrichment/socialization should be required by law.

State and local regulation of shelters is far from uniform, and there remain significant numbers of jurisdictions in which meaningful regulation and oversight of animal shelters are minimal or essentially non-existent.  Minimum operational standards for shelters should be set as a matter of law in order to protect the mental and physical health of populations of animals housed within the shelter.   Minimum standards such as those related to primary enclosures and enrichment can also help ensure that shelters are places where health or behavioral problems are not exacerbated but may be appropriately managed or addressed.  As such, minimum standards can help ensure that animals do not become less likely to be adopted as a result of the sheltering experience, thus preserving their potential for adoption or live-release to, for example, an animal rescue organization. 

Goal 2:  Adoption and live release opportunities are expanded

A.  Shelters should retain broad discretion in adoption and placement decisions, provided that adoption policies and decisions should not discriminate against or disparately impact minority or underserved populations.       

The structure of adoption programs at shelters across the country varies widely from no screening (any animal available to anyone) to use of rigid guidelines to screen potential adopters.  An approach known as “open adoptions” falls somewhere in-between these two extremes, matching adopters and pets through dialogue and conversation, in a climate of trust, communication and understanding. Open adoption approaches under which shelters retain broad discretion are best both for expanding adoption opportunities and for protecting animals from situations where they might be put at risk. The same approach is recommended for policies related to transfers of animals to partner 501(c) (3) animal rescue organizations.  While detailed, written adoption policies are not necessary to accomplish these goals, discretion can cut both ways. To help ensure that prejudicial considerations do not inappropriately affect adoption decisions, shelters should be required to implement non-discriminatory adoption policies, recognizing generally-accepted categories of protected status, e.g., race, religion, national origin, gender, sexual orientation, etc., and should scrutinize even facially neutral policies and practices to ensure that they do not disparately impact adoptions to members of these protected classes, including minority or underserved populations.

Furthermore, the ASPCA views spay/neuter before adoption to be a vitally important part of shelter adoptions programs and one that should be required by law.

B.  Shelters should be authorized and encouraged to reduce or waive fees related to adoptions by individuals and to the transfer of animals to 501(c) (3) animal rescue organizations.   

The ASPCA supports creating specific legal authorization for shelters to reduce or waive adoption and placement fees.  Situations where fees are strictly mandated by law or policy often create a disincentive for animal rescue organizations seeking to transfer animals from shelters to rescues.  While such fees do provide a portion of the funds that allow shelters to operate, a lack of flexibility may actually cost shelters money in situations where funds could be saved in the long run simply by releasing the animal.  Furthermore, giving shelters the flexibility to lower or waive fees[4] in the case of individual adoptions, as a component of an adoption promotion or campaign or to facilitate the adoption of certain categories of animals, allows shelters to expand adoption opportunities to adapt to economic and community dynamics.   The ASPCA encourages shelters to employ their discretion to waive or reduce fees whenever possible in order to save more lives in their communities.

C.  Shelters should be required to take all steps necessary to ensure placement of as many animals in their custody as possible.

Along with ensuring that the medical and behavioral needs of animals are met while they are sheltered (Goal 1 above); another critical responsibility of all shelters is finding homes or placement options for the animals in their care.  Shelters should be required to take all steps necessary to ensure the placement of as many animals entering their facilities as possible, whether they arrive as owner surrenders, strays or through other means. In practice, this means that adoption or other placement programs (including direct adoption to the public, transfer to rescue organizations or other shelters where the opportunity for adoption is greater) must be robust and aggressive.  Once animals are available for adoption or transfer, every effort must be made to move them as quickly as possible into new homes or into a transfer program.   While shelters should make every effort to find placement for animals, they should also retain the discretion (delineated in paragraphs (D) and (E) to make appropriate euthanasia decisions, particularly in instances involving severe medical or behavioral issues.  

Shelters should never use the expiration of applicable holding periods or owner relinquishment as license to immediately euthanize animals simply because, at least legally, their “time is up”.  Shelters should not fail to take steps to find placement for dogs based solely on breed.

Recognizing that resources are required to support quality of care for sheltered animals and placement programs that ultimately lead to adoption, shelters and communities share in the responsibility to ensure that adequate resources are available.

D. Shelters should be encouraged, but not required, to seek placements of animals being considered for euthanasia with partner 501(c) (3) animal rescue organizations. 

Seeking placements for animals being considered for euthanasia with partner 501(c) (3) animal rescue organizations can be an effective strategy that should be encouraged in many instances.  Since some animals should not be placed due to serious health or behavior issues, and given the wide differences in resources and relationships among various communities, shelters, and rescues, the ASPCA does not recommend requiring such a process as a matter of law.     

E.  Shelters should retain the discretion to decline placement of animals with severe behavior or medical issues or dogs deemed dangerous under applicable law.

Shelters should retain discretion in adoption and placement decisions generally, and specifically with regard to animals with serious medical issues or where there are valid concerns regarding behavior or aggression.  Obviously, the capacity of potential adopters or animal rescue organizations to provide adequate care for animals with serious medical or behavior conditions must be considered, as well as the safety of the public. 

Where concerns regarding behavior are present, it is important to rely on multiple sources of information whenever possible.  An owner surrendering an animal may not always provide a candid or accurate description of the animal’s past, and thus observations by shelter staff should be given appropriate weight, along with the results of behavioral and medical assessments, where available.  These decisions are not often straightforward ones and discretion in these matters properly rests with the shelter. 

F.  Measures which incentivize adoptions from public shelters, including tax and fee credits or offsets, should be supported.            

The ASPCA supports creative attempts to incentivize adoptions from shelters.  Discounts on adoption fees are routinely offered based on the belief that they incentivize adoptions, and, to the extent a local or state government can create incentives through tax policy, there is reason to believe that such measures could positively affect decisions to adopt. 

            G.  Owner-surrendered animals should be immediately eligible for adoption.

For owner-surrendered animals, the ASPCA supports the elimination of hold times to the extent that they unnecessarily delay shelters’ efforts to adopt or find placement for such animals.  The elimination of hold times for owner-surrendered animals should not, by itself, serve as justification for immediate euthanasia of animals, but rather should be treated as an opportunity to more quickly make owner-surrendered animals available for adoption pending appropriate medical and behavioral evaluation.

Goal 3:  Owned animals are quickly and reliably returned to their owners

A.  Shelters must check for ID, including microchips, tattoos, etc., at the time of intake.

Checking animals for identification at the time of intake should be required by law of all animal shelters, public and private.  The administrative burden associated with this requirement is minimal compared to the benefits of quickly reuniting animals with their owners.  This requirement should be extended to owner-surrendered animals, as the information concerning ownership of a micro-chipped animal can confirm current ownership, shed light on possibility that other owners may exist, and must be updated regardless in the event of a subsequent adoption.  

B. Shelters must serve notice to identified owners of stray animals, and the hold times for stray animals must account for mail delivery.        

Even in 2015, the U.S. Mail continues to represent the method by which many, if not most, people receive communications from local government, utility companies, financial institutions, the courts, etc.  Thus, the mail represents a relatively reliable means of communication, and while other means of contacting owners are encouraged, shelters should be required to serve notice to identified owners by mail, regardless of other methods of communication that might be attempted.  In order to provide owners with a meaningful opportunity to reclaim their animals, stray animal hold times should be of sufficient length to account for the additional time that notice by mail requires.     

C.  Shelters must provide public notice, appropriate to the community, of stray animals entering the shelter.         

Shelters have an obligation to give notice to the community of stray pets that enter their facilities in order to assist and facilitate the return of those pets to their owners.  While online postings, whether on a shelter’s website or other web platforms, have become commonplace, this may still not be feasible for all shelters.  Thus, the form this notice should take may vary by community.  Nevertheless, notice that is reasonably calculated to reach community members should be required of all shelters accepting stray animals.   

D.    Shelters must provide clear notice to the public concerning shelter locations, hours, fees and the return-to-owner process.

The ASPCA strongly supports requiring the provision of this information to the public.  Where possible, it should be available on a shelter’s website, but certainly, information regarding fees and the return-to-owner process should be available in written form at the shelter itself.

            E.  Shelters must establish a reasonable process for matching stray animals admitted to the shelter with reports of lost pets received by the shelter from owners.

The ASPCA supports a requirement that shelters establish and publicize a reasonable process for helping stray pets return to owners in search of them.  The most effective approaches will include a process for monitoring lost pet reports for possible matches with stray animals admitted to the shelter.  However, because the appearance of an animal may change significantly while lost, or information provided in lost pet reports may be incomplete or inaccurate, the ASPCA believes that shelters should provide clear notice to owners searching for their lost pets that there is no substitute for visiting the shelter in person.   

F. Shelters must be accessible to the public during reasonable hours for the return-to owner process.

The ASPCA supports a requirement that shelters be accessible during reasonable hours to owners seeking to reclaim their pet.  These hours should include some reasonable additional period of time beyond the typical workday (e.g. 9am to 5pm Monday through Friday) so that pet owners who may not have flexible work schedules have the best opportunity to reclaim their pets.  What constitutes “reasonable” access depends on factors including the length of the hold period, the nature of the community, e.g., urban, suburban, rural, and the resources of the shelter.  

            G.    Shelters should be authorized and encouraged to reduce or waive redemption fees.

For the reasons discussed above in relation to adoption and placement, the ASPCA supports the granting of specific authorization for shelters to reduce or waive fees to owners seeking to reclaim their pets and encourages shelters to regularly and consistently use this tool to reunite more pets with their families.

            H.  Return-to-owner from the field should be expressly authorized. 

The ASPCA strongly supports legal authorization of return-to-owner from the field for animals with identification.  This practice not only reduces burdens on shelters, but it straightforwardly accomplishes the goal of quick and reliable return.

            I.  Identification tags should be required for dogs and cats living or venturing outdoors.   

The ASPCA supports requirements of ID tags for owned dogs and cats living or venturing outdoors as a useful measure both to ensure return-to-owner and to distinguish owned cats from ferals.[5]

Goal 4:  Animal sheltering is increasingly transparent

A.  All public and private shelters should make written descriptions of key processes and information easily and readily available for public inspection.  

Transparency fosters public trust, and a clear dissemination of information regarding a shelter’s key processes can help satisfy the general public’s need to know.  To the extent they are accurately reducible to writing, the ASPCA recommends that shelters, both public and private, provide descriptions of both their public-facing processes, e.g., intake, release to animal rescues, etc., as well as certain internal processes, e.g., medical care, enrichment, euthanasia decisions, etc.  Doing so allows shelters to provide information that the public wants in a way that also allows the shelter to place the information in context and tell its own story.    

B.  Records and data concerning key processes, information, and outcomes must be maintained by all public and private shelters and made publicly available.  

The ASPCA strongly supports a requirement that key records and data be maintained by all shelters, both public and private, routinely reported to an appropriate central entity, and made available to the public.[6]  While much of this information, for public shelters at least, may already be considered a public record under various state laws, the ASPCA believes that standardizing the information that must be collected and extending these requirements to private shelters is not only an important step toward transparency, but also an effective way to gain a fuller picture of the community’s at-risk animals.  When the only information available concerning intake and outcomes is that which must be provided by public shelters through Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) requests, the public is receiving an incomplete and perhaps distorted representation of these matters. Broader disclosure requirements can begin to address this.  At this time, the ASPCA recommends that legal requirements extend only to shelters housing animals at brick and mortar operations.  However, we believe 501(c) (3) animal rescue organizations should be encouraged to maintain and provide the same data so as to promote even greater transparency regarding outcomes for animals at risk in any community.         

Goal 5:  Euthanasia is minimized through procedural safeguards

A.  The processes and protections outlined above should be seen as vital parts of strategies to increase opportunities for live- release and minimize euthanasia.

In addition to Section 2.C’s requirement that shelters take all necessary steps to find placement for animals, many of the policies outlined here regarding shelter standards, live-release, return of owned animals, and transparency, also provide procedural safeguards for animals entering shelters that make euthanasia a less likely outcome.  For example, policies that protect animal well-being and preserve adoptability make euthanasia less likely.  Policies that remove barriers to and encourage adoption and live-release make euthanasia less likely.  Policies that support quick, reliable returns to owners make euthanasia less likely.  Policies that remove financial barriers to the reclaiming of owned animals make euthanasia less likely.  And, in the long term, access to more complete information concerning the broadest number of a community’s animals can inform other strategies – including those related to spay/neuter, housing policies, safety-net and intervention programs – that may also make euthanasia less likely.  Accordingly, the ASPCA believes that, taken a whole, its recommendations are consistent with and supportive of existing efforts, such as active adoption and relocation programs, to increase opportunities for live- release and to minimize euthanasia.        


The goals and position outlined here represent the ASPCA’s views concerning subject areas which we deem significant, and where we believe progress in the sheltering community  is desirable, achievable and in many cases, necessary. While not comprehensive of all the issues that may arise when considering shelter standards and policies, this document provides guidance in evaluating local and state legislative initiatives and should help shelters identify areas of needed improvement in their own facilities.   

 The ASPCA believes that while effective shelter policies must strike a difficult balance between appropriate discretion and necessary accountability, the primary responsibilities of animal shelters are to identify and pursue successful placement options for the animals in their care, provide quality care to the animals sheltered and to fulfill the needs of pets and people in the community they serve.  These responsibilities cannot be met without adequate public funding, and the ASPCA strongly supports a level of funding from local communities that ensures these essential needs for sheltered animals are being met.

[1] Throughout this document, the term “animal shelter” generally refers to facilities which house and care for stray, homeless, impounded, surrendered or abandoned animals.  The term “public” animal shelter refers to all such facilities which are owned, operated, or maintained by, or are under contract with, a government entity, e.g., animal control agencies, counties, cities, and other municipalities.  The term “private” animal shelter refers to such facilities which are operated by a duly incorporated humane society, society for the prevention of cruelty to animals, or other nonprofit organization devoted to the welfare, protection, rehabilitation, or humane treatment of animals, but which are not under contract with a government entity.

[2] The term “shelter access” has come to be a label generally applied to the legislative efforts of groups who oppose euthanasia of animals in shelters in all or nearly all cases.  As noted above, while these efforts often include measures that expand public “access” to animals in shelters, e.g., requiring shelters to release animals to almost any person or organization, “shelter access” legislation may encompass other strategies as well, including measures that directly prohibit euthanasia or impose additional administrative barriers or requirements on animal shelters and their staff related to euthanasia decisions.     

[3] Guidelines for Standards of Care for Animal Shelters, a publication of the Association of Shelter Veterinarians, is currently the primary industry reference for specific standards of care.

[5] Although “feral” is a well defined term in biology and behavioral ecology, in animal sheltering it is a term used to describe a cat exhibiting certain behaviors.  “Feral cat” is a commonly used phrase; generally referring to a cat that demonstrates feral behavior.  Feral behavior refers to a cat that appears unaccustomed to close contact with people and, if it enters an animal shelter, is typically not a candidate for adoption into a home as a pet.

[6]The National Federation of Humane Societies Basic Data Matrix is the recommended matrix for animal data reporting and collection in a summary format.