What's The Difference Between A Shelter And A Rescue?

Next stop: Forever home 💞

shelter vs rescue

If you’re interested in adopting a cat or a dog from either a shelter or a rescue, you probably want to know what the differences are between the two.

Or maybe you didn’t even know there was a difference. The words “shelter” and “rescue” might seem interchangeable, but they’re actually not.

Both shelters and rescues do the same general thing — which is rescue homeless animals and try to find them permanent homes — but there are some very distinct differences.

We spoke with Sasha Abelson, the founder of Love Leo Rescue in Los Angeles, and Dr. Chyrle Bonk, a veterinarian working with Hepper, to find out what separates shelters from rescues.

What is an animal shelter?

“A shelter is generally funded by city or state tax dollars,” Abelson told The Dodo. “It is the first stop for a dog that has been found as a stray or surrendered by their owners.”

If you call animal control about a stray dog, an abandoned litter or an abusive living situation, odds are they’ll bring the animals to a shelter since animal control is also typically government funded.

Because most shelters have to take in any animal who comes their way (including animals who are extremely ill or have various needs), they might euthanize animals to make room for others who need help.

“Often shelters have a limited amount of space and either have to turn animals away or euthanize some if they get overpopulated,” Dr. Bonk told The Dodo.

What is a no-kill shelter?

The name “no-kill shelter” implies the organization doesn’t euthanize animals, but that isn’t entirely true.

“No-kill is a label that many shelters have in order to convey that they don’t euthanize animals willy-nilly,” Dr. Bonk said. “However, even no-kill shelters still euthanize animals, just not in the numbers that other shelters might.”

According to Dr. Bonk, no-kill shelters may euthanize animals with health or behavioral issues, but won’t typically euthanize because of overpopulation.

What is an animal rescue?

“A rescue is usually a nonprofit entity funded by donations,” Abelson said. “Rescues will take dogs from shelters, get them the medical care they need and help them find forever homes.”

Since some shelters euthanize animals when they run out of room, rescues will actually take in pets from shelters to save them from that fate, in addition to rescuing animals directly themselves.

When you’re looking at rescues, check their nonprofit status to make sure they’re reputable. You’ll want to find a place that has 501(c)(3) status because that means they aren't breeding animals for money or selling them for profit.

Animal shelter vs. rescue: The similarities

Shelters and rescues both do the same thing, which is take in animals who don’t have a home and give them a safe place to stay. And they allow these pets to be adopted by any potential pet parents looking to expand their families.

Both shelters and rescues provide food, water and temporary housing while the staff waits for the pets in their care to find their forever homes.

You can oftentimes foster through rescues, which will provide a pet with a temporary home and make more space for the rescue to help other animals.

“Animal shelters may foster too, especially when they get too full or have an animal that needs some specific behavioral or health-care need,” Dr. Bonk said.

Both shelters and rescues may take care of certain medical procedures before you bring your BFF home.

“Animals that go through shelters often receive vaccinations, sterilization and other basic health care,” Dr. Bonk said.

(But that’s going to vary from organization to organization — some shelters might spay or neuter pets before they get adopted, but other medical responsibilities will fall on the adopter.)

Animal shelter vs. rescue: The differences

A big difference between shelters and rescues is that shelters usually have more limitations in how many animals they can care for at once.

“Rescues may have a little more flexibility for the number of animals that they can help if they have the resources and foster homes available,” Dr. Bonk said.

For funding reasons, shelters don’t always have the same access to resources.

“[Animal] shelters are often government funded, so they will have a very limited budget, while rescues rely on donations,” Dr. Bonk said. “Depending on the rescue group, this could mean that they will have more resources available than shelters, allowing them to give animals more time to find their forever home, while animals in shelters may be more limited.”

Because shelters can fill up fast, some shelters will try to get their animals adopted quickly by establishing a less extensive adoption process.

“Rescues usually have a more stringent adoption policy, longer applications and additional requirements for adopters,” Abelson explained.

But that doesn’t necessarily mean that a rescue is better than a shelter.

“They both serve different purposes, so it is a bit like comparing apples and oranges,” Abelson said.

Animal shelter vs. rescue: Where to adopt from

“Both are great options,” Abselson said. “However, a rescue generally will have more information on the dog’s behavior, etc. ... as well as have the dog fully vetted.”

Whether you’re adopting from a shelter or a rescue, the most important thing is to make sure you’re finding the right pet for you.

“Do your research and make sure you are adopting a dog that fits your lifestyle,” Abelson explained. “If you are active, don't get a couch potato, etc.”

The best way to find the right match is by asking a lot of questions — no matter where you decide to adopt your new best friend from.

We independently pick all the products we recommend because we love them and think you will too. If you buy a product from a link on our site, we may earn a commission.