The Shelter Voice: Types of Animal Shelters

This post is the first in a series explaining the differences between types of homeless animal shelters. Check back in two weeks for part two!

by: Darlene Duggan

Just like the animals within their walls, shelters come in many different shapes and sizes. Some are large, some are small; some care for only dogs and cats, while others open their doors to all types of animals. Some have physical locations, whereas others house their animals only in foster homes. Let us closely examine the various types of animal welfare organizations in the business of re-homing animals.

Traditional Humane Societies. These types of organizations usually take in animals directly from the public and then adopt the animals to new families. They are privately funded through donations, grants, and adoption fees, and were founded by well-meaning citizens in the early to mid 1900s.

They are run by full- or part-time paid staff, and will most often have a robust and well-established volunteer program to assist in the care of the animals. Traditional shelters can vary in animal capacity depending on their resources— with the smallest shelters handling 500 animals and the largest handling more than 15,000.

Traditional shelters also deliver other services to their communities—including humane education programs, temporary housing for emergencies, and natural disaster assistance. In recent years, many traditional humane societies have also established low cost spay/neuter clinics in effort to further combat the pet overpopulation challenge facing many communities. In addition, traditional humane societies may have a contract with their local government to serve animal control functionality in their community as well.  We see this type of contract work in smaller cities, although the practice is also expanding to more densely populated areas as well.

Municipal Control Facilities. These types of organizations serve as a homeless/unwanted pet repository, as well as the enforcement division of the local municipal animal laws. Stray animals will most often find themselves at a control facility, and if you are caught walking your dog without a leash or if you do not update your dog’s Rabies vaccination, you will most likely be interacting with a control facility to rectify the issues.

Control facilities are totally funded by the local government (typically, city or county), and therefore are staffed by paid employees. In the antiquated stereotype of animal shelters (think: Lady and the Tramp), these employees were often depicted as the mean “dog catcher” rounding up all the stray dogs and cats on the streets. Thankfully, the field has dramatically changed, and this stereotype—while good for television drama—no longer holds true.

Because they are funded by taxpayers, control facilities are required to handle every animal that comes to them. Control facilities may or may not have a volunteer program. Some control facilities directly adopt their animals to the public, while some transfer their animals to other local shelters in efforts to save lives. In fact, many small rescue organizations were founded to pull animals out of control facilities.

Rescue Organizations. These types of organizations often specialize in certain breeds or categories of animals (such as Bully breeds, small dogs only, or special needs animals). Most often, these organizations obtain their animal populations by transferring from traditional shelters or municipal facilities—in other words, they usually do not take animals surrendered directly from the public.

More often than not, these organizations are all volunteer-based, or have only one or two paid staff members. What sets a rescue group apart from other types of animal shelters is that they usually do not have a physical location or brick and mortar building where the animals are housed in one location. Rather, they rely on a foster home network and/or boarding facilities to house their animals.

As with traditional shelters, rescue groups are privately funded through donations, private sector grants, and adoption fees. Rescue organizations tend to handle less animals than other types of shelters, but because of their smaller capacity, they can devote more resources per animal and can provide much more of a hands-on experience to potential adopters.

Animal Sanctuaries. These types of organizations serve as a respite for animals that may not be adoptable for one reason or another (behavior, age, medical condition). Sanctuaries get their animals from various sources—including other shelters, directly from the public, pet stores, farms, puppy mill raids, etc. In some limited situations animals may be adopted from a sanctuary, but most often they live out their lives with the organization.

Sanctuaries are privately funded, and rely on donations and support from the public. Like a rescue organization, sanctuaries may have paid staff, but primarily rely on volunteer participation for daily operations. Think of a sanctuary as a retirement home for animals!


Although their missions and strategies differ, these four types of organizations have the same purpose in mind: helping homeless animals. As a friend of animals, your support and dedication to any type of animal sheltering organization goes a long way in ensuring a safe and animal friendly community for all!


For many years, Darlene worked behind the scenes at The Anti-Cruelty Society in Chicago–overseeing volunteer programs, problem solving shelter issues, and laboring tirelessly for the welfare of animals. Her bi-weekly column, The Shelter Voice, will explore the complex concepts surrounding animal rescue and welfare usually reserved for discussions amongst those at the very front lines of the industry. She hopes to broaden the understanding and education of shelter supporters so they can act as well-informed advocates for the cause and help spread the adoption and rescue message throughout their community.

To read more from Darlene, check out her Blog–Shelter Report.



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