Ranking the Nation’s Top No Kill Shelters – Part 3: Lifesaving Programs

This blog is the third in a series on finding the nation’s best no kill animal control shelter. In Part 1, I described the five shelters under consideration and compared the difficulty of their challenges. In Part 2, I rated each shelter’s commitment to respecting life and not killing animals. You can read those two blogs here and here. In this blog, I’ll examine the efficiency and effectiveness of each shelter’s programs to save lives and ensure the organizations don’t kill animals.

Lake County Animal Shelter Excels at Returning Dogs to Owners

The primary purpose of shelters is to return lost pets home. If an animal has an owner, that animal should go to its family rather than to a new place. Due to a variety of reasons, shelters generally only have success returning lost dogs to owners. In other words, almost all shelters have difficulty reuniting stray cats with their families.

Lake County Animal Shelter returned the greatest percentage of its dogs to owners in 2019 followed by Williamson County Animal Shelter, Austin Animal Center, Pima Animal Care Center and KC Pet Project. With the exception of the likely inaccurate 2019 pit bull results from Williamson County Animal Shelter, Lake County Animal Shelter led all the shelters for each dog grouping.

The 2020 total dog results followed the same pattern. In fact, Lake County Animal Shelter outperformed the other shelters by an even greater margin in 2020 than in 2019.

Since the owner reclaims percentage of all dog outcomes might not accurately represent the true percentage of lost dogs shelters return to owners, I also calculated the percentage of stray dogs returned to owners during 2019. Once again, Lake County Animal Shelter returned the greatest percentage of dogs to owners. When looking at this metric, Pima County Animal Care Center jumped from fourth to second place while the other shelters followed the same order as the owner reclaim percentage of total dog outcomes.

While socioeconomic factors drive differences in return to owner rates between shelters, this typically applies to regressive shelters that take a passive approach to returning lost pets to their families (i.e. primarily rely on licenses and microchips rather than doing proactive work). In fact, Lake County Animal Shelter increased the percentage of dogs it returned to owners by a greater amount from 2016 to 2020 than any of the other shelters did over much longer periods of time (periods selected based on first year before no kill effort started, or if not available, the oldest year accessible after the no kill effort started). As I mentioned in a prior blog on Lake County Animal Shelter, the facility achieved this success by doing good old fashioned hard work and using technological solutions.

Shelter-Neuter Return Programs Differ

Austin Animal Center returned the greatest percentage of its community cats to their outdoor homes followed by Pima Animal Care Center, Lake County Animal Shelter and Williamson County Animal Shelter and KC Pet Project. KC Pet Project could not conduct shelter-neuter return due to ordinance restrictions, but the organization is trying to change the statute.

The three shelters conducting shelter-neuter-return had different policies for including young kittens. Under Austin Animal Center’s shelter-neuter-return program, the shelter transfers community cats “who are in good health, older than three months and weigh no less than three pounds” to Austin Humane Society to do the veterinary procedures. However, critics argue Austin Animal Center shelter-neuter-returns too many young kittens (i.e. under six months), which may have higher mortality rates on the streets. In fact, 204 or 20% of the 1,022 community cats Austin Animal Center returned to field in 2019 were two to five months old. Similarly, 15% of Pima Animal Care Center’s shelter-neuter-return cats in 2019 were between one to five months old (almost all were three to five months old). In contrast, Lake County Animal Shelter only shelter-neuter-returned cats that were six months of age and older.

Several shelters conducted significant numbers of cat sterilizations through TNR programs that are not included in the above statistics. If we count these cats, Lake County Animal Shelter and Williamson County Animal Shelter would have returned 22% and 11% of their cats sterilized to their communities. Unfortunately, Pima Animal Care Center did not break out the TNR and owned cat portions of its cat sterilizations at its vet clinics. If we counted all these cat sterilizations, Pima Animal Care Center would have returned 41% of their cats sterilized to their communities. However, this would clearly overstate Pima Animal Care Center community cat sterilizations.

KC Pet Project’s Adoption Results Stand Out

The following table lists each shelter’s dog adoption rates. KC Pet Project had the highest dog adoption rate followed by Austin Animal Center (adjusted for the estimated number of Austin Pets Alive’s adoptions of transferred dogs), Williamson County Animal Shelter, Pima Animal Care Center and Lake County Animal Shelter. Austin Animal Center was dead last due to its heavy reliance on Austin Pets Alive to adopt out its dogs.

Pima Animal Care Center had the highest pit bull adoption rate followed by KC Pet Project, Lake County Animal Shelter, Austin Animal Center (adjusted for Austin Pets Alive and puppies born from transferred dogs), Austin Animal Center (adjusted for Austin Pets Alive) and unadjusted Austin Animal Center. As the table discusses, Williamson County Animal Shelter’s pit bull adoption rate is unreliable, but it was quite high in the most recent year the shelter broke out most breeds.

The 2020 dog adoption rates showed slightly different results. Overall, KC Pet Project had the highest dog adoption rate followed by Austin Animal Center (adjusted for Austin Pets Alive and puppies born from transferred dogs), Austin Animal Center (adjusted for Austin Pets Alive), Pima Animal Care Center, Williamson County Animal Shelter, unadjusted Austin Animal Center and Lake County Animal Shelter.

KC Pet Project had the highest cat adoption rate in 2019 followed by Williamson County Animal Shelter, Lake County Animal Shelter, Austin Animal Center (adjusted for estimated Austin Pets Alive adoptions of Austin Animal Center cats), Pima Animal Care Center and Austin Animal Center (unadjusted). Both Pima Animal Care Center and Austin Animal Center had significantly lower cat adoption rates. In the case of Pima Animal Care Center, this was largely due to its higher transfer percentage and death rate. For Austin Animal Center, this was due to its very high transfer percentage and large percentage of cats shelter-neutered-returned.

The 2020 cat adoption rates followed the same pattern. Specifically, the cat adoption rates rankings were exactly the same as in 2019.

To better assess the scale of the shelters’ adoption programs, we need to look at how many animals the facilities adopt out relative to the human populations in their service areas. For example, a shelter may have adoptions make up a large percentage of total outcomes, but adopt few animals out.

KC Pet Project had the highest per capita dog adoption rate in 2019 followed by Pima Animal Care Center, Austin Animal Center (adjusted for estimated Austin Pets Alive adoptions of Austin Animal Center dogs), Williamson County Animal Shelter, Lake County Animal Shelter and Austin Animal Center (unadjusted). When we just look at pit bulls, Lake County Animal Shelter jumped to third place and Williamson County Animal Shelter fell to last place. Most notably, KC Pet Project achieved the highest pit bull per capita adoption rate I’ve ever seen.

In 2020, the results were similar with a few changes. First, all of the shelters adopted out fewer dogs due to COVID-19 reducing intake. Second, Lake County Animal Shelter jumped up to third place. Third, Williamson County Animal Shelter moved ahead of Austin Animal Center (adjusted for transferred dogs to Austin Pets Alive).

KC Pet Project had the highest per capita cat adoption rate in 2019 followed by Lake County Animal Shelter, Williamson County Animal Shelter, Austin Animal Center (adjusted for estimated Austin Pets Alive adoptions of Austin Animal Center cats), Pima Animal Care Center, and Austin Animal Center (unadjusted). Once again, Austin Animal Center itself had a much lower per capita adoption rate than the other organizations. When we look at just adult cats, both KC Pet Project and Lake County Animal Shelter adopted out far more of these animals than the other shelters.

In 2020, KC Pet Project had the highest per capita cat adoption rate followed by Williamson County Animal Shelter Lake County Animal Shelter, Austin Animal Center (adjusted for estimated Austin Pets Alive adoptions of Austin Animal Center cats and kittens born from those cats), Pima Animal Care Center, Austin Animal Center (adjusted for estimated Austin Pets Alive adoptions of Austin Animal Center cats) and Austin Animal Center (unadjusted). KC Pet Project increased its per capita cat adoptions in 2020 while all the other shelters had lower cat adoptions per 1,000 people figures. Notably, Pima Animal Care Center and Austin Animal Center had much lower per capita cat adoptions than the other shelters in 2020.

When looking at per capita adoption rates, one must also consider several factors. First, shelters with higher animal intake will be able to adopt out more pets, and especially easier to adopt ones. Second, shelters that return fewer animals to owners and shelter-neuter return less cats will have more animals to adopt out. Thus, these factors partially helped increase KC Pet Project’s per capita adoption rates for dogs and cats and Pima Animal Care Center’s per capita dog adoption rate.

As mentioned in my discussion about respect for life, Austin Animal Center’s results may appear better than they really are. Since I used Austin Pets Alive’s overall adoption rates in the tables above, it could overstate the Austin Animal Center-Austin Pets Alive adoption rates if Austin Pets Alive adopted out a greater percentage of animals obtained from places other than Austin Animal Center. Based on Austin Pets Alive’s overall dog death rates only changing a few tenths of a percent using overly conservative assumptions, this would not have large impact on the dog adoption rates. Additionally, I have no data to suggest Austin Pets Alive’s cat adoption rates are radically different for Austin Animal Center cats and cats taken in from elsewhere.

Pima Animal Care Center Moves Animals Out of the Shelter Quickly

Reducing the time animals spend in shelters is crucial to achieving no kill. When animals stay at shelters longer, the animals are more likely to get sick or develop behavior problems. Furthermore, shelters where animals stay too long cost more to run, have frequent serious disease outbreaks and become overcrowded. Simply put, an animal control shelter must have a short average length of stay to achieve and sustain no kill.

Pima Animal Care Center had the shortest average length of stay for dogs followed by Austin Animal Center, Lake County Animal Shelter, KC Pet Project and Williamson County Animal Shelter (see explanation in table for data issues). Impressively, Pima Animal Care Center’s average length of stay was less than half that of the second place shelter. Overall, all the shelters had short average lengths of stay for dogs with the possible exception of Williamson County Animal Shelter.

When we just look at pit bulls, the results change a bit. While Pima Animal Care Center still had the shortest average length of stay, the margin between it and the other facilities was smaller. Also, KC Pet Project had the second shortest average length of stay for pit bulls.

Pima Animal Care Center also had the shortest average length of stay for cats followed by Austin Animal Center, Lake County Animal Shelter, KC Pet Project and Williamson County Animal Shelter (see explanation in table for data issues). Pima Animal Care Center’s average length of stay was around one third that of the second place shelter. All the shelters had short average lengths of stay for cats with the possible exception of Williamson County Animal Shelter.

Since the overall average length of stay can be lower due to killing animals quickly, transferring many animals, returning many animals to owners and shelter-neuter-returning large numbers of cats, its helpful to look at the adoption average length of stay. In other words, this measures the average time it took to adopt animals out.

Pima Animal Care Center had the shortest adoption average length of stay for dogs followed by KC Pet Project, Austin Animal Center, Lake County Animal Shelter and Williamson County Animal Shelter (see explanation in table for data issues). Pima Animal Care Center’s adoption average length of stay was less than half that of the second place shelter. With the possible exception of Williamson County Animal Shelter, all the other shelters had short adoption average lengths of stay.

When we just look at pit bulls, the results change a bit. While Pima Animal Care Center still had the shortest adoption average length of stay, the difference between it and KC Pet Project was smaller. Interestingly, Austin Animal Center’s pit bull adoption average length of stay was much higher than the other shelters. When coupled with its low per capita pit bull adoption rate, this suggests Austin Animal Center needs to do a better job adopting out its pit bulls. As previously mentioned, Williamson County Animal Shelter’s pit bull adoption average length of stay is likely not accurate due to the shelter labeling very few dogs as pit bulls (i.e. data is only for 16 adoptions).

Pima Animal Care Center also had the shortest adoption average length of stay for cats followed by Lake County Animal Shelter, KC Pet Project, Austin Animal Center and Williamson County Animal Shelter (see explanation in table for data issues). Pima Animal Care Center’s cat adoption average length of stay was less than one third of the second place shelter’s figure. All the shelters had short adoption average lengths of stay for cats with the possible exception of Williamson County Animal Shelter. Austin Animal Center’s difference between its cat adoption average length of stay and its overall cat average length of stay was much larger than the other shelters. This is due to Austin Animal Center’s heavy reliance on both Austin Humane Society, for shelter-neuter return, and Austin Pets Alive, for cat rescues.

Finally, when examining the average length of stay figures, readers should consider differences in death rates. Specifically, shelters with lower death rates will have a more challenging mix of animals to save. Thus, all else being equal, these shelters would have longer overall and adoption average lengths of stay.

In Part 4, I’ll share my overall rankings of the five shelters and my rationale for doing so.

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