Breaking Down the Difference in Shelters & Rescue Organizations:

Municipal Shelters

These are your government run shelter facilities funded primarily on tax dollars. Almost all of these facilities are considered “kill shelters” and here is why. Municipal shelters have the responsibility of taking in any of the animals in the community regardless of circumstances. They take strays, injured animals, owner surrenders, police evidence animals, and personal property cases. They do not and cannot turn away an animal in need. Each shelter has limited space. If their intakes exceed their adoptions they have to resort to euthanasia as an animal control measure. For example, if there is only 1 empty kennel at a shelter and they have 30 intakes that day, then the tough decision has to be made to euthanize and make space for the new animals. Usually it’s the longest residents of the shelter or the older, less adoptable animals – some with medical issues, some with behavioral issues that get red listed. Kill shelters receive much backlash but when you think about the root of the problem, it all stems from the community. A shelter that is in an area that has lot of strays or that has a higher population of unfixed animals will consequently have a higher kill rate. Conversely, there are many municipal shelters that won’t ever come close to having to euthanize an animal because they don’t have as much of a community burden.

Private Shelters

These shelters are privately funded and individually operated. They rely heavily on private donations. They follow their own set of rules that are usually established by their board of directors. They typically focus on community education, spay and neuter programs, and many have a robust adoption program to help facilitate the success of their placements. Many are low kill or even no kill. Depending on the bylaws that they have set some may accept strays and some may not. They are able to regulate which animals they take in and which animals they don’t. Because they can set their own rules, this allows them to keep their shelters operating at much more manageable numbers therefore resulting in being able to keep animals longer and keeping their euthanasia rates low. These shelters tend to have a strong fundraising component and therefore are able to raise a significant amount of money to put towards improved shelter conditions, rescue efforts, and more extensive medical care.

Private Shelters with Municipal Contracts

In certain communities, private shelters partner with local governments to take on the responsibility and duties of animal control. These duties include responding to public animal related complaints, enforcing licensing laws, and taking in all the animals that a municipal shelter is required to do to support their community. These shelters receive funding from the government but are also able to perform their own fundraising efforts. They are still independently operated and follow the laws established by their board of directors but they have to also adhere to their government contract and service the public’s needs. This can create a conflict of interest because the primary focus of a private shelter is to serve the needs and the best interest of the animals; while the municipal shelter also seeks to support the needs of the animals, their ultimate responsibility is to service the public. Because these shelters have to take in every animal to serve the public, they often will have higher euthanasia rate similar to that of a municipal shelter.


Rescues are privately run nonprofit organizations that are governed by a board of directors. They have the freedom to create their own rules and operational structure. Some operate out of a facility where their animals are cared for in kennels or communal living spaces while others operate solely with foster families who care for the animals in their homes. Rescues can get their animals in a multitude of different ways. Most pull animals from local shelters to alleviate the overcrowding and depending on their business model some also take in strays or owner surrenders directly. Many even do rescue missions and take in animals from the community that are in an unsafe environment or who are victims of abuse. They usually have their own team of veterinarians and trainers that they partner with to care for these animals. Rescues rely heavily on private donors and are able to fundraise to generate money to cover these expenses. Because they are able to fundraise, many are able to take animals that have more extensive needs and raise money for their medical care. Often times, rescues will pull animals from municipal shelters that have been red listed. Rescues many times have more resources to deal with rehabilitation than shelters do. Adoption fees can be higher through a rescue than their shelter counterparts but this is usually due to the increased level of care that the animals receive. Rescues sometimes are able to give their potential adopters more thorough information about their animals especially if the animals are being cared for in a foster home. This allows the rescue to observe the animals behavior, temperament, and how they interact with other animals or children for example.