In an ideal world, there would be no need for animal shelters. But stray and unwanted pets need a place to go and hopefully they wind up at "no-kill" facilities.

But what exactly does "no-kill" mean? The answer isn't necessarily as simple as it seems.

Most animal rights and rescue organizations define no-kill with caveats. It's saving healthy and treatable animals, with euthanasia reserved for only those animals who are severely unhealthy and who can't be rehabilitated.

This delves into a bit of a gray area as it's up to the shelter to define which animals are healthy and which can be rehabilitated. Organizations have limited budgets and have to decide what is worth spending on a single animal. So while one shelter may decide to treat heartworms and amputations, another could question the expenditure and instead use the funds to save several pets.

And for behavior, how much of a training investment should be put into an animal with fear or aggression issues? Maybe a dog is just lashing out because he's afraid in the scary shelter environment. But it's a call employees have to make.

Putting a number on 'no kill'

scared dog in shelter Sometimes behavior issues might be because an animal is frightened. (Photo: Pongsatorn Singnoy/Facebook)

So "no kill" doesn't mean no animals are euthanized, but in most cases, the shelters try their best.

According to Best Friends Animal Society, "In our view, for a community to be considered truly no-kill, it means that no healthy or treatable animal is killed. The community’s focus should be on saving as many lives as possible through positive outcomes (adoption, transfer to rescue groups, etc.), not solely on reducing the killing to achieve a numerical goal."

The organization also points out the importance of having a benchmark, in order to give shelters goals and accountability. Generally, the no-kill threshold for a community is considered to be 90 percent, Best Friends says, which means nine out of 10 dogs leave the shelter alive.

But Best Friends says the figure comes with a caveat.

"It is important to note that a 90 percent save rate is not necessarily defined as no-kill. This is because a community with a 90 percent save rate could still be killing animals who are not cases of true euthanasia. It is also possible that the opposite could be true — that a given community may achieve no-kill even if the save rate isn’t 90 percent. Each community is different, and data must be tracked efficiently, comprehensively and accurately in order for the outcomes of animals to be understood."

Other facilities and organizations also cite the 90 percent figure.

Nathan Winograd, founder of the No Kill Advocacy Center, told The Washington Post that he developed the 90 percent target goal more than a decade ago, then it became popular in his book “Redemption: The Myth of Pet Overpopulation and the No Kill Revolution in America.”

“I wrote: ‘A shelter succeeds at saving all healthy and treatable dogs and cats, including feral cats, when it is saving roughly 90 to 95 percent of all impounded animals,’ ” Winograd told the Post. “I had not heard anyone speaking about target live release rates before that.”

A new goal

cat in cage at shelter No-kill shelters typically will keep healthy animals with no behavior issues. (Photo: Dwight Smith/Shutterstock)

These days, however, the 90 percent goal seems a little low for many supporters of the no-kill movement, including Winograd.

"The goal of the No Kill movement is not to reduce killing to some consensus-based level such as 10 percent. It is to end killing for all animals who are not irremediably physically suffering, rigorously defined," according to a statement on the No Kill Advocacy Center website.

"Irremediable suffering" is defined as "an animal who has a poor or grave prognosis for being able to live without severe, unremitting physical pain even with prompt, necessary, and comprehensive veterinary care."

(At Best Friends, for example, treatable medical and behavioral issues include ringworm, heartworm, mange, aggression issues, resource guarding and amputation.)

The No Kill Advocacy Center says the target benchmark ideally should be higher.

"Today, there are cities and towns across America above 95 percent of the animals and, of those, there are communities with live release rates of 97, 98, even 99 percent, proving that 90 percent is too low."

Sometimes misleading information

In some cases, shelters and organizations with incredibly high no-kill numbers may not have reached those numbers with the best of intentions. No-kill shelters often have "managed admissions" — where owner-surrendered pets can only be turned in when there is room and some pets aren't accepted for health or behavior reasons. Because of those policies, owners often are referred down the road to a high-kill shelter, or pets are let loose to fend for themselves, according to the People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA).

The No Kill Advocacy Center tells about a Michigan shelter that has a live release rate of 98 percent, but has a policy that requires anyone turning in a feral cat to fill out a "euthanize card," even if the cat is healthy.

Paying off all around

An adoptable pup plays at Austin Animal Center. An adoptable pup plays at Austin Animal Center. (Photo: Austin Animal Center/Facebook)

Many shelters and communities are honestly raising no-kill rates by treating medical conditions and working with behavior issues. In Austin, the country's largest no-kill community, that dedication is paying off in saved lives and financial success.

An October 2017 study by the University of Denver found that from 2010 to 2016, Austin's no-kill policy has had a $157 million impact on the community.

The study found, “The majority of the positive economic impacts result from increased employment within animal services as well as the increased use of pet care and pet retail services. An additional benefit appears to be the positive contribution of Austin’s progressive animal welfare policies to its brand equity. This impact is important as municipalities compete with each other to attract employee demographics that in turn draw new business and new economic growth to their area.”

According to Austin TV station KXAN, in 2016 the city’s no-kill rate was 94 percent. This year it’s 97 percent.

At the Austin Animal Center, the county's largest no-kill municipal shelter, last year the save rate was 96.4 percent. Tawny Hammond, who is chief animal services officer for Austin, runs that shelter. She told the Washington Post she thinks her shelter can do better.

“We treat the pets as individuals,” Hammond said. “This is about looking at how we approach, as a society, homeless pets vs. owned pets and how decisions are made in animal shelters.”

Philadelphia's push to go no-kill

A dog hopes to find a new home at a Philadelphia adoption event. A dog hopes to find a new home at a Philadelphia adoption event. (Photo: Citizens for a No-Kill Philadelphia/Facebook)

In January 2018, more than a dozen animal welfare organizations in Philadelphia formed a no-kill coalition, with the mission of "ultimately attaining 100% safe placement of healthy and treatable pets."

The city was already making impressive progress. In 2005, only 11 percent of cats and dogs entering the city's animal control shelter survived, compared with 82 percent in 2017.

Funded in part by a $178,000 grant from PetSmart, the coalition hopes to not only find homes for more animals that are brought to shelters, but also keep them from being surrendered in the first place. The group will set up a help desk inside animal control to counsel people bringing in unwanted cats and dogs. They'll offer advice on behavior issues and access to low-cost veterinary care and pet food if those are the reasons an animal is being turned in to the shelter.

"If you're willing to keep your pet, we're here to work with you," say Samantha Holbrook, president of Citizens for a No-Kill Philadelphia, one of the groups that is part of the new coalition.

There are dozens of other counties and cities throughout the country that are working toward the same goal, hoping to empty the shelters with adoptions and fostering, not euthanasia. In January 2018, for example, the city of Los Angeles announced it reached its no-kill goal for dogs under the care of the Department of Animal Services.

"We're a big city and we have a lot of animals, a tight budget and a lot of impoverished areas," Philadelphia's Holbrook points out, all things that will make this no-kill effort a challenge. But with the help of grants, donations, volunteers and national exposure, they hope to make it work ... and become a role model, she says.

"If we're able to really make a difference in lives of animals, it will really put Philly on the map and encourage other cities around the state and around the country to follow suit."

Editor's note: This story has been updated since it was originally published in October 2017.

Mary Jo DiLonardo writes about everything from health to parenting — and anything that helps explain why her dog does what he does.

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