Understanding Animal Organizations: Shelters, Humane Societies, and Sanctuaries

If you search the Internet for pet adoptions or volunteer opportunities, you may get overwhelmed: shelters, rescue leagues, humane societies, sanctuaries, refuges. They seem interchangeable (and some do use them interchangeably), but each provides different services. Some of the services overlap, but all animal organizations missions align to prioritize animal health and safety.

Regardless of the organization, do your research before adopting, donating, or volunteering. Ask local veterinarians, groomers, and walkers about them. If you can’t get information about the organization from trusted local sources, it’s probably best to avoid it.

Animal Shelters

The word “shelter” brings to mind dogs confined to cages and cats piled into a small space. But a shelter is simply a government-owned facility that takes in and cares for homeless animals. Depending on the town income and funding assignments, they vary in size, resources, and capabilities.

Outside of major cities, shelters serve as the town’s animal control, concentrating primarily on homeless pets. Police and animal control officers manage and staff them. They may have a non-profit arm created by volunteers to raise money for food and medical expenses so they can care for animals long term.

(Note: A small amount of non-government animal organizations identify as shelters, using the word literally: a shelter for animals. Please see our article on rescue organizations to learn more about them.)

Minimizing Euthanasia

In the past, shelters had a bad reputation with euthanasia. Today, many lead the no-kill movement. They partner and network with local veterinarians, rescue organizations, and private animal lovers to prioritize pet lives. In addition, spay and neuter laws have reduced the amount of stray animals, removing the stress of high-intake situations.

The Quincy Animal Shelter outside of Boston, MA is a nationally recognized, no-kill shelter that has found homes for more than 7,500 cats and dogs.

Regulation and Laws

Because they are government facilities, states have laws for shelter procedures. Some states require spaying and neutering before adoption. Others have researched and defined examination and quarantine procedures.

Massachusetts requires incoming animals to be quarantined for 48 hours in shelter facilities that meet defined isolation requirements. All incoming animals have to receive a veterinarian examination and should be spayed or neutered before being adopted or fostered.

A few states have little to no regulations. Research your state laws and the shelter you want to work with.

Humane Societies

There’s a common misconception that any animal organization with the words “humane society” in their name is affiliated with the Humane Society of the United States (HSUS). Simply put: they’re not. While HSUS concentrates on advocacy, awareness, and prevention of cruelty, local humane societies have become catch-all shelters and education centers.


Each humane society is different, operating with a Jack-of-all-trades mentality. They will mix and match services found at shelters, rescue organizations, and sanctuaries. They typically have a combination of the following:

  • An adoption center.
  • Educational programs for animal professionals and pet owners.
  • Public spay and neuter services.
  • Pet training classes.
  • A foster network.
  • Feral cat or dog sanctuaries.

The Dakin Humane Society has a center in Leverett, MA, outside of Boston, MA. In addition to adoptions, they provide pet training, an education center, and spay and neuter services.

A Note about Euthanasia

No one regulates the use of titles. Some people believe that, if an animal organization uses “humane society” in their name, they are a no-kill facility. Humane societies use euthanasia as much as any shelter or rescue organization. If this is important to you, do your research.

Sanctuaries and Refuges

Sanctuaries and refuges are more common when discussing wildlife—not domesticated animals. Sanctuaries take in animals for the remainder of their lives. Once an animal moves to a sanctuary, they cannot be adopted out. They live side by side with other animals, mimicking a more natural or “wild” environment.

How they arrive at a sanctuary varies. Some take surrenders or rehome sick or elderly pets. Some partner with local shelters and humane societies to save an animal from euthanasia. Most simply find an animal and integrate them (after ensuring they don’t belong to someone, of course).

Cat and dog sanctuaries can be indoor, outdoor, or both. They can also have other animals, such as livestock. Contrary to what many believe, the animals aren’t feral or otherwise dangerous. But they may be a bit more in touch with their wild roots, due to their independent lifestyle.

Winslow Farm Animal Sanctuary, located outside of Boston, Massachusetts in Norton, has cats, dogs, horses, llamas, and many other animals living together.

Limited Regulation

Without regulatory guidelines, some organizations still use whichever title they want—a few with the intent to misguide goodhearted people. It’s imperative to research any shelter, rescue, humane society, sanctuary, or refuge you plan to work with.