Three dogs standing behind a fence at a rescue shelter.

Rescue Me: What’s in an Adoption Agency? The Difference Between Rescues, Shelters and Everything in Between

“Rescue Me” is a recurring column by Samantha Randall, editor-in-chief at Top Dog Tips. She’ll provide personal anecdotes and perspective about her life as a pet lover with a passion for cat and dog rescue. Today, she discusses the differences between adoption agencies so you can find the one that suits you the most.

Adopting a dog is a big decision. Fortunately, there are many organizations and agencies where you can find your next family member and get the help you need with the process of bringing them home.

However, the fact that there are so many different organizations that deal with pet adoption can sometimes confuse potential adopters. Let’s break down all the different places you can find your next best friend.

Animal Shelters

Animal shelters are basically private nonprofits or charities. While they can sometimes take animals on behalf of local authorities or municipal services, they are most commonly run by animal welfare agencies like the Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (SPCA) or The Humane Society. There are usually a few shelters operating in or near each community in the U.S.

Shelters can dramatically range in size. Some have more than 200 kennels, while others may only have a few. The biggest shelters can have really complex operations and even marketing teams that coordinate different adoption events. Some animal shelters may even have foster homes for their animals, but they are more commonly housed on site, at their kennels.

Shelters usually run comprehensive exams on the animals they receive, especially physical exams to ensure that the animal is healthy. However, the best shelters also run tests to determine the temperament of the animal. Some shelters accept animals from the public, but they usually have long waiting lists due to the lack of space.

If you are thinking of adopting a dog, animal shelters are a good place to look because they assess the dog’s health and temperament to find the right fit. They also let you meet a few different dogs and spend time with each, so you can find the perfect companion for you. However, shelters are usually quite busy and don’t always have the time to follow up with you after adoption.

Kill Shelters vs. No-Kill Shelters

Not all shelters operate in the same way. Some of them have a “no-kill policy,” which means that they won’t euthanize animals that are not adopted after some time. Exceptions are sometimes made for animals that are seriously ill or too old.

Shelters with a “kill policy” usually house animals for a previously determined number of days, after which they euthanize the animal if it is not adopted and they don’t have enough space. Animals that are sick and diseased are often euthanized immediately.

While no-kill shelters don’t euthanize their animals, they usually don’t accept animals that can’t be adopted somewhat quickly, like animals with difficult temperaments, senior animals and animals that are currently ill.


Pounds are basically municipal animal shelters. Some pounds are run by the local humane society contracted by the municipality to serve as a pound but most of them are run by municipal administration.

Animals that end up in pounds are often found in the streets and seized by rangers or contracted dog catchers. They can also be surrendered by the public. The animals are then held for several days to give the owner a chance to claim them before they give them up for adoption.

If nobody claims or adopts the animal, it’s likely to be euthanized. Some pounds may try to give the animal more time to get adopted, but that all depends on many factors, like having enough space to keep the animal longer. In some cases, a rescue group or a private shelter may pick up the animal and try to rehome it.

If you are considering adoption from your local pound, keep in mind that this can be a bit risky because these animals haven’t been properly screened in most cases. That said, these pets are generally similar to those you’ll find in rescues or shelters, and adopting from a pound means you’re helping the homeless pet population directly.

Rescue Groups

An animal rescue group is commonly a group of animal enthusiasts and volunteers. They accept animals that don’t have a place in shelters and pounds and sometimes also take surrenders from owners.

There are many quality animal rescues in the U.S., and these rescue groups usually don’t have their own space for keeping the animals, although some do have kennels. Most of them keep animals at the volunteers’ homes or find foster homes for them.

This is beneficial to both the animals and potential adopters. Animals can live in a stress-free environment and get better care than they can get at shelters, allowing them to adjust to their new circumstances easier. The adopters can get better information about the individual animal and its health, temperament, energy levels, etc.

Rescue groups are also known as foster care groups or breed-specific rescue groups. If you are looking to adopt a certain dog breed, your best chance may be finding a local breed-specific rescue.

Since rescue groups are essentially networks of volunteers, they may not always be available to take your call or answer your email. You might have to make an appointment in advance if you want to meet a pet so they can find a time that suits both the foster family and yourself.

Humane Societies

There is a distinction to be made between the Humane Society of the United States and local humane societies. While many think that the Humane Society of the U.S. is the crown organization that runs all the humane societies, they are actually all independent of each other. In fact, the Humane Society of the U.S. doesn’t even have a shelter but instead helps animals in disasters and through legislation.

Local humane societies and SPCAs are dedicated to animal welfare. Some of them have shelters and adoption programs. They also work on education in their community and on local legislation that protects animals. Some humane societies and SPCAs provide limited admission, which means that they only accept animals if they have room. They don’t have to euthanize animals to make room, while other humane societies that have an “open door” policy euthanize animals if they can’t keep them anymore.

Satellite Adoption Centers

A satellite adoption center is a term for a pet store or some other location that displays animals for adoption from a humane society, SPCA or another rescue organization. If you are interested in adoption from these centers, you have to go through the same screening process as you would if you went directly to the adoption agency that displays those animals.


All adoption agencies are similar and have a singular goal — finding new homes for their animals. Reputable adoption organizations usually provide a full vet checkup, vaccinations, spaying/neutering and microchipping for a small adoption fee or without one in certain cases.

Most communities have more than one adoption agency, so it shouldn’t be too hard to find the right animal for you.

The information in this blog has been developed with our veterinarian and is designed to help educate pet parents. If you have questions or concerns about your pet's health or nutrition, please talk with your veterinarian.


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