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Rescue Group Best Practices: animal intake

Rescue groups often do not feel that they have much choice when it comes to bringing animals into their organization. They tend to bring in the ones in the greatest need—animals that are out of time at the local shelter or have serious medical or behavioral issues. Despite the temptation to always take on the hardest cases, organizations should try to balance the types of animals that come into the rescue. Take the difficult cases, but also take in a few easy ones to help offset monetary costs and increase your confidence.

Once an organization accepts an animal, the rescue group is generally expected to keep the animal until she has been adopted to her permanent home. There are exceptions (e.g., pulling a cat and later learning it was FeLV positive, accepting a dog that turned out to be more aggressive than the organization could have known), but if a rescue group is regularly transferring animals to other organizations because it does not have the necessary resources, the group needs to immediately reevaluate its policies. Further, the organization should stop accepting additional animals until it has a handle on its current population. This situation is different from when an organization partners with other rescue groups in a different area of the country and responsibly transfers animals to them on a regular basis.


Taking in animals from the streets, owner surrenders and local shelters are traditionally acceptable sources of animal intake, based on your organization’s mission. If you take in strays, make sure you notify the local animal shelter and other rescue groups so that a unified effort can be made to reunite the pet with his owners. Acquiring pets directly from breeders, dealers or auctions, however, should be done more cautiously. By purchasing pets from an auction, for example, you may be inadvertently creating demand for dogs for sale, and perpetuating the problem of puppy mills. If your rescue group acquires pets from bulk sources of animals, make sure you consider all of the ramifications, and avoid creating a situation where unscrupulous breeders are profiting from your kindness. If you take in a litter, make sure the mother is also safe whether from a breeder, puppy mill or shelter.

Under no circumstances should a rescue group acquire pets by stealing them from their owners, no matter how poorly the animals are being treated. Instead, if you see an animal being neglected or abused you should immediately report this to your local animal control department or the police.

When determining the source of your organization’s pets, consider the impact that it will have on your local community. For example, take stock of the shelters in your state and, if they are overcrowded or overwhelmed, think about reaching out locally before spending significant resources importing pets from other areas.


It is important to create a plan for every animal that comes through your organization. While most rescue groups have the luxury of time with their charges, it does not mean the animals should languish in foster homes. The faster you can adopt out your organization’s animals, the more animals you can save. To create a plan, your rescue group should evaluate, both medically and behaviorally, every animal upon arrival and then keep the animal in a quiet and stress-free environment. You should also create a protocol for standard items that all animals need when entering your rescue, such as creating a new record in your system, scheduling a spay or neuter appointment along with implanting a microchip, administering vaccinations and setting reminders for booster shots.

Talk to your veterinarian about best practices for bringing a foster into a new home. You will probably want to isolate the foster from all other animals for a certain amount of time after arrival to ensure that there are no disease concerns. During that time, it is also important that the animal is housed in an area that can be properly and easily sanitized. Use the first few days to allow the animal to transition from her previous situation, feel safe, show her true personality and exhibit any health issues. After the animal has adjusted to her new situation, or after a time period of your organization’s choosing, you should reevaluate the animal and update your findings and description.

While most rescue groups do not hesitate to take their charges to the veterinarian, it is also a good idea to have a list of trainers and behavior experts that you work with regularly to evaluate and train animals that have potential problems. Nipping any behavior issues in the bud as early as possible gives the pet the best chance for a successful adoption.

When creating a plan for the animals that come through your organization, you should consider their age, health needs and psychological needs. A healthy young cat with special markings or litter of 10-week-old puppies should be fairly easy to adopt and the organization should try to find those animals a home as quickly as possible. Animals that need more time to heal or become comfortable in their new environment should not be pushed into adoption until they are truly ready. Then again, some people love adopting the hard-luck cases. You do not need to pass up such an adoption as long as you fully disclose any medical or behavioral issues (as with all adoptions). Some organizations use a medical waiver to ensure the adopter knows the animal is sick and promises to provide proper treatment.

While the length-of-stay concept was developed for shelters, the same theme applies to rescue groups. Essentially, this entails calculating how long on average animals stay in your organization from intake through adoption or other disposition to help determine your organization's efficiency. This also means putting more adoptable animals on a fast track to adoption and giving more space and time to pets who need a longer period of adjustment prior to going to a new home. This approach benefits all animals in your organization and allows you to rescue more animals over the course of a year. Check out these resources on fast-tracking your highly adoptable animals.

For any animal you might have long-term, you should have a plan that includes evaluation, training, fostering and marketing. You can find a sample intake plan in Appendix D.

For organizations that utilize multiple adoption coordinators, each one should be in charge of a set number of animals that includes a range of fast-track and slow-track charges along with any that are in boarding or have to remain at a veterinarian’s office. For example, if each adoption coordinator is in charge of 10 animals at a time, they should ideally have four that will be easy to adopt, four that will be more difficult to adopt and two that are staying at the veterinarian or boarding facility. This will ensure that someone is keeping tabs on all the animals that come into the rescue group and that no animal is inadvertently left at the veterinarian’s office or boarding for months at a time. This system also sets the adoption coordinator up for success and prevents the frustration of having too many difficult charges at once.


Partnering with the local open admission shelter is a great way to build relationships and help solve the animal homelessness problem in your specific community. As many open admission shelters depend on rescue partners to help them reduce their animal populations, this partnership is crucial to decreasing euthanasia rates and provides a great source of animals in need for your organization.

Building a successful and productive relationship between rescue groups and local open admission shelters takes a lot of work and trust. It requires building mutual respect between the rescue and the shelter staff. Once you get to know each other as individuals, it will be much easier to work together on difficult issues. A few ways to start building mutually respectful and trusting relationships include:

  • Take the shelter director and/or rescue coordinator out to lunch or hold an informal gathering.
  • Hold monthly meetings to discuss animal welfare issues in your community.
  • Ask the shelter to identify what they see as the major needs in the community and where they need the most help.
  • Implement “no bash, no trash” agreements—if a shelter is not worried that anything they discuss with you may be used against them, they will be much more willing to work with you.
  • Be accountable for things your volunteers and staff say and do—if they start spreading rumors, it is your reputation that is on the line.
  • Ask the shelter to identify scenarios that concern them most about a partnership and build solutions to those issues before they even arise.
  • Be a role model—if volunteers see the rescue group’s staff engaging in respectful behavior, they will follow suit.
  • Eliminate the “us versus them” mentality—the language you use matters.
    • Provide a “lifetime commitment to the animals” or an “adoption guarantee”.
    • Instead of saying that you are “rescuing an animal from a shelter,” say you are “rescuing an animal with the shelter”.
  • Treat the shelters as your partners.
    • Talk to the shelter staff to get the full story about the animal and include the information in the animal’s bio.
    • Follow up with the shelter to let them know the animals’ outcome.
  • Share successes! Credit each other through social media and other outlets when there are happy stories that took the efforts of multiple animal welfare organizations. This will show that you are a united front and not separate agencies competing for public support.
  • Identify issues and troubleshoot problems through open communication.
  • Plan ahead—map out the year in an effort to solve problems before they even arise. For example, you know kitten season starts in April so start a joint campaign to adopt out as many cats as possible by March to make room.

This is not to say that if you see or hear of something happening in your local shelter that sounds questionable you should not do anything. Instead, go to the shelter with your concerns in a respectful manner and get to the bottom of the problem. Building strong relationships with the shelter staff will make those difficult conversations much easier to have. You can find tips on making positive changes at your local shelter.

When developing new relationships with shelter staff, it may be helpful to put yourself in their shoes. Rescue groups have the luxury of only taking in animals when they choose; but imagine if you could not limit the number of animals that came into your organization on a daily basis, nor know how many would be coming in every day. How would you feel if you found out that one of the rescue groups you transferred animals to was later charged with hoarding or cruelty? When we start to understand other people’s viewpoints, it allows us to be more compassionate toward them.


There is tremendous value in realizing that many of the people who contact your organization to surrender their pet, or individuals who return a pet they adopted from you, do not truly want to give up their animals. Thankfully, many reasons for pet relinquishment are solvable problems. While the traditional solution to owner surrender placement requests is to automatically take in the pet for care and adoption, this can lead to an overwhelming number of pets to rehome. Moreover, this approach assumes that the pet’s current home is not a good one since the animal is being surrendered, but even the best pet owners sometimes need a little extra support and knowledge. Many people are happy to be presented with a solution that might allow them to keep their pet.

By having either a few retention strategies or a formal program set up to offer guidance, solutions and free and low cost resources, you can help pets stay in the homes they already have and save your time, space and funds for animals who truly have nowhere to go.

For example, since many cat behavior issues are solvable, having a volunteer trained to provide cat behavior counseling over the phone can help many cats and owners stay together. This can prevent your group from being overloaded with cats that already had a good home, but whose owners just needed a bit of guidance. The HSUS’s interactive Cat Answer Tool has detailed, user-friendly information on common cat behavior issues and solutions. It is a good learning tool for new cat behavior counselors and can also be a helpful resource for cat owners.

Other pet retention solutions and services you might offer are dog training using partner dog trainers who offer free or low cost training, including phone sessions; covering protocols to resolve common behavior issues such as house training, separation anxiety and inter-pet squabbles; tenant advocacy to help people keep their pets in the face of landlord threats when the law is on their side; low cost temporary boarding through partner kennels for pets of people in crisis; referrals to free and low cost spay/ neuter and veterinarian care through partner veterinarians; creation of or referral to a pet food bank for people going through a financial rough spot; and allergy and shedding solutions.

Start small, with one resource, perhaps one that addresses the reason you most frequently encounter for owner surrenders. Then assess how the program is going and add to your list of solutions and resources when possible.

Offering your pet retention strategies to adopters from the beginning goes a long way toward preventing returns and setting your adopters up for success. Build relationships with your adopters so that they feel comfortable coming to you for assistance when issues arise. Some other ways to set your adopters up for success include sending the adopter home with pamphlets on how to handle common behavior and medical issues; letting them know about the pet retention methods you offer; always telling adopters about any existing issues with the pet up front; and letting them know that you are there for assistance if they need help.

You can start your pet retention efforts by simply putting some supportive text on your website, in an automatic reply email and on your outgoing voicemail message. Look at the following websites to get ideas for wording you can use:


If none of your pet retention strategies work, another option to offer people looking to rehome their pets is a courtesy post with your organization. Under those circumstances, the owner keeps the pet in his home while the rescue group helps find a new home by listing the pet through their usual means or bringing the pet to adoption events. A potential new owner would fill out your organization’s application and the old owner would typically decide whether or not to approve it.

For those owner surrender pets you do take in, get as much medical and behavioral information about the pet as possible. You also need to ensure that the person surrendering the pet is indeed the actual owner. Ask for information (e.g., contract from wherever the individual obtained the pet, veterinarian bills, microchip registration, licensing) that suggests that the individual surrendering the pet is the only owner and have him sign a document stating that fact. You do not want to be in a situation where someone surrenders an animal and later the actual owner or co-owner comes to your facility to get the pet back.

When someone returns an animal they adopted from your rescue, make sure you record the reasons for the return. This will provide insight on what types of pet challenges the community can and cannot handle, and help you determine which surrender prevention resources you should work on first.

You can find a list of information to consider including in an owner surrender agreement in Appendix E.


If your organization takes in strays, check your local laws regarding stray hold periods. Many communities have stray hold laws that require an organization to hold animals for a certain period of time to allow owners to find their lost pets. In some communities, only the organization that has the county contract is allowed to take in stray animals or only certain types of organizations (shelters versus rescue groups) are required to adhere to the stray hold.

If you do decide to take in strays, make sure you also have a program that tries to unite lost pets with their owners. Having a microchip scanner is essential as is creating some sort of community resource that allows lost pets and their owners to be reunited. Always notify the local animal control department and other rescue groups when you take in a stray; many owners do not think to contact multiple organizations when searching for their lost pet. This is a great opportunity to coordinate efforts with your local shelter or animal control agency. Having a centralized lost and found program for your community will help reunite more lost pets with their families.


Some rescue groups may want to offer people a temporary home for their pets to prevent owners from surrendering their animals while they solve a certain issue, such as hospitalization or recovery from a natural disaster. Before offering this service, however, you should think through all the potential issues and design a contract that addresses them. For example, how long are you willing to hold the animal and what happens if the owner fails to return? Who makes medical decisions for the animal while the pet is in the rescue’s care? Who is responsible for veterinarian bills? What happens if the animal gets lost or escapes and causes damage or an accident? If the animal becomes seriously ill or injured, who makes the decision about euthanasia?

It is helpful to require the owner to have some sort of contact with you about the pet on a regular basis—whether it is in the form of in-person visits, emails or phone calls. It is also helpful to have the owner make a monthly payment, even if it is only a nominal amount. Both of these actions will help ensure that the human-animal bond is kept strong during the absence. Importantly, do not forget to listen when people come to you asking for temporary help. While they think they are asking for temporary fostering, perhaps what they really need is help with transport or keeping allergies at bay. If you dig a little deeper, you may be able to solve the problem without having to take in the animal at all. You can find a list of information to consider including in a temporary owner surrender agreement in Appendix F.


Some rescue groups have the luxury of their own holding facility or a relationship with a veterinarian or boarding facility that will provide them with kennel space. Best practices dictate that these types of housing facilities should be used as shortterm and/or emergency situations only and no animal in a rescue group should be boarded indefinitely. For any animals boarded, you need to make a plan (including evaluation, training and marketing) to get them into a foster or permanent home as soon as possible. Moreover, daily enrichment and socialization is a must for any animal in boarding or a cage. Warehousing animals and letting them languish inside a cage is unacceptable.


Transporting pets is an important part of the rescue process for many communities. But doing it according to best practices is crucial to ensure the health and safety of all animals involved—the ones you are transporting, as well as any animals they come into contact with before and after transport. At a minimum, you need to comply with all state and federal laws, which in most states require a health certificate prior to transport.

The National Federation of Humane Societies created a list of best practices for transporting animals that every transporting vehicle and organization should follow.