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  • Writer's pictureSusan Houser

How Many Public Shelters Are There?

[Dear Readers – This is the first in a series of occasional posts on shelter data. Not statistics on individual shelters, but more general things such as how to calculate success rates, how adoption rates have changed over time, and, today’s topic, the number of animal shelters in the United States. I get so many requests from people for this kind of data that it seems as though there is really a need for it, and it can be hard to find. I will collect these posts – and a few older posts on data topics – in a “Shelter Data” tab in the blog’s header.]

Did you ever wonder how many public shelters there are in the United States? By “public shelter” I mean a shelter that is charged with impounding strays and other animals taken in by animal control, and usually takes in owner surrenders as well. A public shelter may be run by a city or county government, or the government may contract with a private entity to run the shelter. The surprising fact is that no one seems to know for sure how many of these shelters exist in the United States. One estimate often cited is about 5000 shelters. This estimate was made by the National Council on Pet Population Study and Policy for surveys they did in the 1990s, but about 1/4th of the shelters included were private. In 1999 HSUS developed a list of about 3500 shelters, although some of these were duplicates. Today we usually hear one or the other of these figures cited as the number of public shelters in the United States.

The 3500 figure correlates pretty well with the number of counties in the United States plus the larger cities. We have 3144 counties in the United States according to the United States Census Bureau. The National League of Cities, using a slightly older census, has identified 3033 counties that have governments. There are about 300 cities in the United States with 100,000 or more people, and another 362 cities with a population of 50,000 to 100,000. If you reduce the number of counties slightly to account for the few counties that have no animal shelter, you could derive an estimate of about 3500 for all counties, plus cities of 50,000 or more.

This estimate of 3500 is probably good if you don’t mind missing small shelters, but it may be too low if you want to capture all public shelters. The National League puts the total number of city/town governments in the United States at 19,492 (this does not count townships or special districts). If we subtract the 662 cities of 50,000 population or more, that leaves 18,830 small jurisdictions that could potentially have small shelters. Many of these jurisdictions (probably the great majority of them) do not have their own public shelters because they are served by a larger nearby jurisdiction, but some of them do have small community shelters. Thus, the estimate of 5000 shelters in the United States may be closer to the mark if you want to cover all public shelters. But as you can see, both the 3500 and the 5000 estimates have a wide potential margin of error.

Is there any easy way to get an actual count or a better estimate of the number of public shelters in the United States? One way to get a better estimate might be to look at states that have reporting requirements for public shelters. There are several states, including Colorado, Michigan, California, North Carolina, and Virginia that require public shelters to report to the state each year. In theory one could figure out the number of public shelters in all of those states and then extrapolate to the United States population. In practice, this would be time consuming because many private shelters and rescues are also subject to reporting requirements, so a lot of research would be involved to sort out the public shelters. Plus, there is no guarantee that states that require reporting are representative of the other states.

Another way might be to find out from the makers of the various shelter software programs how many shelters use each program, and add them up – or to count the shelters on Petfinder. The problem is that, as with the state databases, there are a great many private shelters that use shelter software, and a great many private shelters and rescues that use Petfinder. There is no easy way to separate out the public shelters from the rest.

One could make an actual count by looking at every county and every city and town, but with over 20,000 of those jurisdictions in the United States it would be an enormous task. Each community would have to be researched to find out if it has a public shelter. In many communities telephone calls would have to be made to determine where strays and owner surrenders from the jurisdiction are sheltered, because the information is often not easily accessible online. And even if we could derive an exact number and create a list of public shelters it would be something of a moving target, since governments frequently change their animal sheltering arrangements.

Another problem would be how to account for large private shelters that voluntarily take in owner surrenders from the public but do not take in strays and do not have any contract with a city or county. These large humane societies might take in half or more of the homeless animals in their jurisdiction, even though they are not municipal shelters and do not contract with the local government for animal sheltering.

Why is it important for us to know the number of public shelters? If we want to measure how we are doing in the United States at saving the lives of homeless animals, we have to know how many homeless animals there are each year and what happens to them. If we look at all shelters, both public and private, then we have a lot of transfers of animals from one shelter to another, making it difficult or impossible to know how many animals we are dealing with. What we need to know is the number of animals impounded by animal control plus the number of owner surrenders in each jurisdiction, and that means limiting our inquiry to those public shelters that have animal control duties, plus any private shelters in the community that take in significant numbers of owner surrenders directly from the public (since they are serving a public function). Without that data we will never know for sure how we are doing.

I think if we are ever going to be able to have accurate, up-to-date counts of animals coming into shelters in the United States we may need to rely on private organizations doing counts on a state-by-state basis. The Michigan Pet Fund Alliance has a project of this sort, where they list shelters each year by category. They have a head start on this project because Michigan is one of the states that requires shelters to report, but they have also invested the time to determine if each shelter is public or private and how it handles admissions. The shelter federation in New Hampshire records data for the state’s public shelters, although they make only aggregate data available and not the data from each shelter. Best Friends could probably tell us how many public shelters are in Utah and their intake and disposition of animals. State alliances and organizations are ideally suited to simplify the task of identifying public shelters, because coalitions of people who work on sheltering within a state will have a great deal of knowledge about local situations starting out and will need to spend much less time on research than an outsider would. Perhaps one of these days one of the big national organizations will offer grants to state alliances to collect such data in a standard format and make it available. State alliances that would pitch in and do this task, especially where combined with state reporting systems, could quickly solve our data-collection problem and give us valuable information about how we are doing nationwide at shelter lifesaving.


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