Education Station

Kill vs. No-Kill Animal Shelters – What You Think You Know Is Probably Wrong

Learn the difference between kill and no-kill shelters and why they are both important and necessary. Find out how you can help.

“I wouldn’t adopt from a kill shelter.”

“Oh, you volunteer at a no-kill animal shelter, right?”

“Why would anyone work at a kill shelter? I wouldn’t do it.”

Those are all things I said, and I’m humbled to admit, I didn’t know what the HELL I was talking about. Kill vs. no-kill is more complicated than it seems on the surface.

I consider myself a loving, kind person, so I figured if I didn’t know, it’s possible other loving and really great people don’t know either. I’ll do my best in this post to simplify it and give you the info you need to make smart decisions about donating, volunteering, working, or just inserting facts into conversation.

More of a visual learner? That’s okay (me too!). I highly recommend watching this video by the Kitten Lady, Why I Support “Kill Shelters.”

“We aren’t no-kill …” What Did I Get Myself Into?

At volunteer orientation, the trainer said, “We are a satellite location for ACCT Philly, the city’s open intake shelter. We aren’t no-kill …”

My heart sank. How did I sign up to volunteer at a “kill” shelter? How do I get out of here? Help!

They continued, “… but that’s because we are open intake, so we have to take all animals that are surrendered to us, even when we are full. Other nonprofit rescues can turn animals away when they are full. I can tell you, I’ve personally seen lots of tears at the main shelter when those tough decisions have to be made. No one likes making them.”

Woman kissing cat on head
Tammy is an angel to the kitties. She runs the Feline Lifesaving Program at ACCT Philly and helps kitties get fostered, rescued, adopted, or even placed in a barn (to hunt mice).

Oh. Wait. That makes sense. If you can’t turn animals away, you would have to euthanize, especially when you are full.

And like that, I got it, and realized I had been so wrong for most of my life.

Open Intake Animal Shelters Under Contract

A shelter like ACCT Philly is contractually obligated by the government to provide a public service, and take every animal surrendered. Reason animals are surrendered include:

  • Financial, behavioral or health issues
  • Deceased person leaves animal behind
  • Hoarding or abuse situations
  • Stray/lost/abandoned
  • Some people just change their mind and don’t want their pet anymore (not a judgement, a statement)
Man Hugging Gray Cat
Nate works at ACCT Philly in the Lifesaving department. He helps cats (like Sheeta here), dogs, and other animals get adopted or rescued.

Once an animal is surrendered, they are vetted by the medical staff, spayed/neutered, microchipped, vaccinated, dewormed and placed in a kennel for adoption. If they need additional medical or behavioral help, they become candidates for foster care or other animal rescues. (BTW, this is an extreme simplification of their process, but works for our purposes here.)

Why “Kill” Terminology Hurts Us

Most open intake shelters are also referred to as “kill shelters” by the public. This is because a “no-kill” label comes with a very specific save rate of at least 90%. So if a place uses “no-kill” to market their save rate, a place that doesn’t meet that rate becomes the opposite, based on the English language.

Enter the terminology of “kill shelter,” which plants negative visions in our heads. In mine, cue the maniacal laughs and people running around with syringes, excited to euthanize a box of kittens that just arrived.

Really? Yes. I’m embarrassed to say it, but it’s how I thought.

Not very maniacal, is she?

Girl holding a dog
Kelsie, who works at a satellite location for ACCT Philly, was so excited when Grams got adopted. She works to help cats and dogs find forever homes, and she has quite a menagerie of her own.

The Biggest Flaw in My Thought Process

A person who euthanizes animals is on the medical staff, which means they care for sick animals daily. This involves:

  • Cleaning poop
  • Getting peed and puked on
  • Giving medicine
  • Administering fluids
  • Performing surgeries
  • Examining stool samples

So someone is going to do all of that for animals they don’t like so they can also maybe euthanize them?

I was so stuck on the “kill” word, I honestly never thought about these things.

Why “No-Kill” Hurts Us Too

So no-kill means they all live happily ever after, right?


A no-kill shelter/rescue is one with a 90% save rate, which means 9 out of 10 animals are saved.

We say #SaveThemAll, and we do mean it, but it doesn’t mean zero euthanasia. Remember, sometimes animals are sick (really sick), injured beyond help, suffering from a chronic illness or are at the end of their lives. Humane euthanasia is often recommended to end suffering.

Man holding cat
Sterling is a kennel attendant at ACCT Philly. It’s a tough job, but he always does it with a smile and lots of pets:-)

But 90% is not 100%, and 100% just isn’t realistic from what I’ve just outlined. Our goal (those in animal welfare – donors, volunteers, and of course the people working in it every day), is to save every healthy or savable animal. The number formally attached to that is 90%, but I firmly believe we save the savable ones – and if that’s 92% GREAT, but if that’s 88%, we’re still doing right by the animals.

Regardless, 90% Is Impressive

One popular organization that has achieved a “no-kill” status is the Best Friends Animal Society. The work they do is extraordinary, and my comments above are not to diminish that at all. 90% save is INCREDIBLE and deserves a celebration. My comments are more that the actual terms kill vs. no-kill create division and at the end of the day, blur the facts, which doesn’t help us save more animals.

Girl kisses dog on cheek
Brianna, ACCT employee, gives Allison a smooch. She helps match adopters to cats and dogs that are the right fit for their home and family.

Shelters and Rescues Work Together

The pet you adopted from a “no-kill” rescue might be from a “kill” shelter. Open intake shelters rely on the following for extra help:

  • Rescue organizations
  • Fosters
  • Volunteers
  • Donors
Senior orange tabby cat
Senior Sunny was saved from ACCT Philly by a rescue, City of Elderly Love, which focuses on senior animals in Philadelphia.

Rescue organizations will help save as many animals as they can given their space and foster network. When they are at capacity in those regards, they just don’t take on more than they can handle. Hence the “no-kill” tag.

They also often “pull” (remove) animals from open intake shelters. Some rescues take everything, while others focus on specific types of animals (i.e. neonatal kittens, special needs dogs, senior pets, etc.). Often, people think that a rescue must hate a shelter and vice versa, but many times, they work together to help the animal, and it’s more positive than you would expect.

ACCT Philly Save Rates Are Public Record

No one is hiding euthanasia information. ACCT Philly, Philly’s open intake shelter, lists dogs and cats timestamped for euthanasia on their website. ACCT includes the reason for the timestamp, as well as who can save them (either fosters, adopters, or rescues). Monthly save rates are also published, along with ASPCA and Best Friends Animal Society.

People helping cats and dogs at animal shelter.
Wonderful people at ACCT doing wonderful work with cats and dogs.

Check out this year’s Live Release/Save rates through Oct:


  • ACCT Philly = 84%
  • ASPCA = 80%
  • Best Friends = 84%


  • ACCT Philly = 79%
  • ASPCA = 77%
  • Best Friends = 85%

You can view the numbers broken down by month.

Amazing People Work in Philly Too

The people in all of these pics work or have worked for ACCT Philly. I look at their smiles and see pure souls, big hearts, extreme dedication, and a deep love for animals. Animal welfare is hard and heartbreaking. The things they see on a daily basis are likely worse than your job (I know they’re worse than mine). Many people in this line of work suffer from compassion fatigue and depression at some point because it’s so difficult. I respect them all and feel so bad that I questioned their intentions when I was misinformed.

People with dogs
ACCT Philly staff members care for all of the animals in the shelter every single day.

Don’t Like the Problem? Be the Solution.

Open intake shelters are desperately in need of help, not judgement. I know you don’t like animals getting euthanized, but guess what – I don’t like it either. That’s why I’m doing something about it.

There are plenty of other rescue organizations where I could foster. I choose to help ACCT because I know they need it. When I foster, I’m saving that animal, plus the next animal coming in that needs the kennel I just emptied.

Please consider adopting from, volunteering for, or donating to a local open intake shelter (like ACCT Philly) where you live. And hey, if that’s not your thing, there are plenty of animal rescues who need your help too. Do a little research in your area and you’ll find one that’s the right fit for your time and talents.

It matters, makes a difference, and helps us reach our goal of #SaveThemAll.

Disclaimer: This post is my personal perspective and feelings and is not endorsed by any organization. The individuals in the photos gave me permission to use their photos, but these words are mine, not theirs. I understand euthanasia is a sensitive topic, and my only goal is to share facts and my experiences as a volunteer and foster for ACCT Philly.

I’ve loved all my fosters, but one has totally stolen my heart! Foster care saved her life. This is how she came to me …

By LizsKittyBootCamp

Hi, I'm Liz, and I'm a cat behaviorist who provides advice and insights on cat behavior.

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