Animal welfare is filled with jargon, with terms like “No Kill,” “Adoption Guarantee,” “Open Admission,” and “Stray Holding Facility.” We’d like to take a moment to explain what these terms mean and show how DCHS fits with these philosophies and operational models.

What is the difference between No Kill vs Kill Shelters?

One of the most common questions we get at DCHS is, “Are you No Kill?” DCHS does not use the term No Kill to describe our work for a variety of reasons. First, there isn’t a single agreed upon definition to explain what No Kill means throughout the animal welfare industry. The most commonly recognized threshold for No Kill status is a 90% save rate, meaning that 90% of the animals who come into the shelter leave the shelter alive, typically through adoption, transfer to a rescue partner, or returning to their family. DCHS has been at a 90% save rate or better for many years now, with our annual save rate for the last five years ranging from 91% to 95% for all companion animals. Nationwide, in 2023, 87% of animals had live outcomes in shelters reporting to Shelter Animals Count, a group that collects data so animal welfare agencies can measure progress.

However, the term No Kill is often misunderstood as meaning a 100% live release rate or that no animal is ever euthanized. When an animal comes to us that is too sick, irreparably injured, or behaviorally unsafe to be around people or other animals, and we’ve exhausted all other options, we believe euthanasia can be the most humane and compassionate choice. DCHS is sometimes court-ordered to euthanize dangerous animals who have been seized by Animal Service Officers. In addition, we take in senior, injured, and sick animals and neonatal kittens with fragile immune systems, who sometimes pass away despite all our efforts to help them. Some No Kill metrics also fault organizations for providing owner-requested euthanasia, despite this being an important community service for members of the public who cannot otherwise afford or access veterinary care. The alternative to euthanasia at some “No Kill shelters” often means an unadoptable pet sits in a crowded kennel with little human interaction, potentially waiting years for the end of their natural life while languishing in emotional distress.

Additionally, calling some shelters No Kill means other shelters are, by default, considered Kill shelters. We believe this is a loaded term and an unfair way to characterize the work being done in these organizations. We partner with shelters across the state and the nation that are struggling with inadequate funding, community support, facilities, and more. We see firsthand the compassion these professionals have for the animals in their care and know they are often doing everything in their power to provide the best outcomes they can despite their situation. We’d rather support organizations working to build better lives for animals than give them a shameful label that will only worsen their lack of community support. Through our transfer program, we bring in animals from some of these overcrowded and under-resourced shelters, not only saving lives but also allowing these source shelters to focus on community solutions to their pet overpopulation situation.

What is Adoption Guarantee?

Rather than measuring our success against the No Kill threshold described above, DCHS has strived to achieve and maintain an Adoption Guarantee status, a term coined in the early 2010s by Maddie’s Fund, a national foundation established by Dave and Cheryl Duffield to revolutionize the life-saving efforts and well-being of companion animals. Adoption Guarantee means we don’t euthanize for space or after any standardized length of stay. Every companion animal who is healthy, treatable, and safe is given whatever time and care it needs, for as long as it needs, to find a new home. We’re proud to say DCHS achieved this status in 2012 and has maintained this standard continuously since then.

What does it mean to be Adopters Welcome?

Our Adopters Welcome approach focuses on removing barriers and judgment from our adoption process, having open conversations with our adopters, and helping them find the pet who is going to be the best fit for their lifestyle. We’ve moved away from time-consuming requirements like lengthy applications, home visits, and background checks. We have instead accepted these things are simply not the best metrics for what makes a good pet guardian.

Rather than picking and choosing who gets to take a pet home, we celebrate our community’s willingness to adopt! We find ways to say “Yes” to adopters, we provide the tools needed to set them up for success regardless of their circumstances, and we build trusting relationships, so they continue to see us as a resource throughout the life of their pet. With this approach, we’ve significantly reduced the amount of time each animal stays in our care, allowing us to place more pets into new homes each year. You can learn more about Adopters Welcome here.

What does it mean to be a Socially Conscious Shelter?

Dane County Humane Society is a partner of the Socially Conscious Animal Community. Socially Conscious Shelters like DCHS strive to ensure the best possible outcomes for every homeless cat and dog in their care and community. We work in collaboration with partners and the community to support the individual needs of people and their pets. The Socially Conscious Sheltering movement defines itself as "a compassionate, transparent and thoughtful model outlining how animal shelters and rescues can best support vulnerable animals in their care and in their community. Socially Conscious Sheltering is a shared set of beliefs, defined by a framework of ‘tenets,’ that help ensure the best results for pets in shelters and rescues.”

The tenets of Socially Conscious Sheltering are:

  • Ensure every unwanted or homeless pet has a safe place to go for shelter and care.
  • Place (at least) every healthy and safe animal.
  • Assess the medical and behavioral needs of homeless animals, and ensure these needs are thoughtfully addressed.
  • Alleviate suffering and make appropriate euthanasia decisions.
  • Align policy with the needs of the community.
  • Enhance the human-animal bond through thoughtful placements and post-adoption support.
  • Consider the health and wellness of each animal and community when transferring animals between communities.
  • Implement inclusive policies and practices.
  • Foster a culture of transparency, ethical decision making, mutual respect, continual learning, and collaboration.

You can learn more about Socially Conscious Sheltering here.

What is a Stray Holding Facility?

While DCHS is a private, nonprofit organization that isn’t a part of any government agency, we do have an annual contract with Public Health Madison & Dane County. This contract makes us the county’s official “stray holding facility.” If you find a lost (or “stray”) animal in Dane County and call Animal Services, they’ll send Animal Service Officers (who are employees of Public Health Madison & Dane County) to pick the animal up and bring it to DCHS. Day or night, Animal Service Officers and local police officers can bring found, abandoned, or seized animals to DCHS.

Animals who are brought to DCHS this way stay with us through the required stray holding period as outlined by Wisconsin state law (4-8 days, depending on the circumstances) so they can hopefully be redeemed by their families. In fact, many are, with 66% of dogs and 17% of cats being returned home in 2022. (The national average for lost animals being returned home is just 41% of dogs and 5% of cats). DCHS receives a small stipend from the county contract for holding these animals each day they are in our care, which covers less than 8% of our total annual expenses. After the stray holding period expires, DCHS becomes the legal custodian of the animal and we can move forward with further medical and behavioral assessments, with the goal of making the animal ready for adoption as soon as possible.

What is the difference between Open Admission and Limited Admission?

DCHS is an Open Admission shelter, meaning we accept all animals who come to our doors, no matter their age, behavior, or health status. Limited Admission shelters choose which animals to admit. This means they could accept only highly adoptable animals, limit the number of animals coming in, or require animals meet certain standards to be admitted. When a shelter is Open Admission, they often end up falling below the 90% threshold frequently used for No Kill status since they have no control over what animals come through their doors. However, DCHS is proud to have maintained our Adoption Guarantee and a 90% or higher save rate while also remaining an Open Admission shelter.

Without a local Open Admission organization, our community could be at risk of a high level of stray animals and disease transmission. Animals would suffer without having a safe place to go. DCHS is proud to have served this crucial community need for decades.

If you are Open Admission, why do I have to make an appointment to bring in an animal?

DCHS uses a managed intake philosophy to help us control the number of animals coming into our shelter at a time. This means we ask community members to schedule surrender appointments with us rather than showing up at the doors unexpectedly. Before scheduling appointments, we also provide a counseling appointment to see if we can prevent the animal from losing its home through behavior counseling, some pet supplies like food and cat litter, or referral to our Pets for Life program for additional services. Appointments allow DCHS to ensure we have the space ready, veterinarians available for intake exams, staffing levels to meet the needs for the day, and we can simply give the best customer service to our community members. We also encourage families needing to surrender their pet to use the rehoming page on our website so their pet can have an easier transition to their new home.

If you find a lost animal and call DCHS, you’ll likely be asked if you can care for the animal until our next available appointment. This helps animals avoid the stress of coming to an unknown shelter environment and saves our limited resources for animals who truly need us. Because nearly 70% of lost pets are within a mile of home, and the majority are reunited within the first 48 hours, community members housing lost pets for just one or two nights gets animals back home quicker and saves precious shelter resources. Of course, we understand that not every animal coming into the shelter can be held until the next available appointment, so we are able to work these surprise animals into our schedule as needed.

What does all of this mean for the animals?

Since DCHS is both the county’s stray holding facility and an Open Admission shelter, any animal who arrives at DCHS will be welcomed into the shelter (hopefully during a scheduled appointment). Our vets and other expert staff members will evaluate the animal to determine and address any health or behavioral concerns. With a team of veterinarians and animal behavior experts on staff, partnerships with local veterinary specialists, and dedicated staff and volunteers to provide care, the vast majority of animals are returned to their families, or quickly made available for adoption or transfer. Most concerns found at the initial intake exam are resolved with an individualized care plan put in place right away. Thanks to significant community support, we can also provide positive reinforcement behavior modification training, lots of brain-teasing enrichment, breaks from shelter life with foster homes and outings, specialty surgeries, physical therapy, and more.

DCHS is proud to continue to provide all animals who come to our doors with excellent care and compassion, thanks to the support we receive from our community. We are constantly reviewing and improving systems, building new relationships, and working with fellow experts in the field to continue to be a national leader in animal welfare and a resource for our animal and human neighbors.