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These terms are meant to help those interested in getting a pet distinguish between the variety of choices out there. Some of the following options profit off of inhumane practices, while others give people the opportunity to save an animal’s life. By becoming familiar with all of these options, people can acquire their new pet from a responsible source and avoid contributing to the overpopulation crisis.

Shelters do not fall under a national governing body. They differ in many ways, from funding, to admission, to euthanasia policies. Regardless of type, all of the rescue categories have some wonderful, reputable groups as well as some that are not so great.

City & County Shelters

These shelters are owned and run by the government and are completely supported by tax dollars. They are usually named after the town or city followed by Animal Control or Animal Services. They are required to accept all dogs and cats being relinquished regardless of space available at their shelter. They often are responsible for enforcing city animal laws and investigating cruelty cases.

Private Shelters

Usually these are non-profit organizations run by a board of directors, and are supported by donations and grants. Larger, full service shelters are often named by the city followed by Humane Society or SPCA. Admission policies vary by the size of the shelter, and they usually try to keep the animal as long as they can. They often strive for low euthanasia rates and have active adoption, humane education, and spay/neuter programs. Occasionally private shelters will have a contract with the city to aid in animal control duties in the community.

Rescue Groups

Usually they are smaller, non-profit organizations with limited resources. They may or may not have an actual shelter, and those that don't typically house their animals in foster homes or board them at kennels while awaiting adoption. Some groups focus their rescue efforts solely on a specific breed.

National Groups

The Humane Society of the United States (HSUS), American Humane Association (AHA) and the American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (ASPCA) do not have a direct role in the running of shelters around the country. They are largely educational organizations and some are heavily involved in passing legislation. People often pay to join national groups as members mistakenly believing their donations will fund shelters in their own communities. While these groups do many wonderful things with their money, this is usually not the case (although the ASPCA does run a shelter in New York City). SPCA's across the country are own their own separate entities, and have NO affiliation with the ASPCA.

"No-kill" Shelter

This term is often misinterpreted, and its no wonder given the misleading (and sometimes intentionally deceptive) manner in which it's used. The term "no-kill" is generally accepted by the animal protection profession as meaning "no euthanasia of animals which are adoptable, or who will be adoptable after medical or behavioral treatment or rehabilitation." First and foremost, people often don’t realize that many "no-kill" shelters do in fact euthanize animals that they deem to be unadoptable. The confusion is largely due to the fact that different shelters have vastly different resources to put towards solving an animal’s issue, and making it "adoptable."

For example, Shelter A might have limited kennel space but also have a staff member trained in behavior modification. Shelter B might have more kennel space and no trainers on staff. If a dog has an upper respiratory infection, he’ll be treated and adopted at Shelter B, but euthanized at shelter A because they don't have the kennel space to isolate him while he recovers. Another dog coming in with mild resource-guarding issues would be adopted at Shelter A after working with the behaviorist, and euthanized at Shelter B which lacks a behaviorist. Technically, both shelters are "no-kill" because they are operating with a different set of resources to cope with the same problems.

There are some rescue groups that will not euthanize an animal for any reason. One concern is that many of these groups eventually find themselves overwhelmed with difficult to adopt animals. Quality of life often deteriorates for these animals, many living in overcrowded spaces and some spending the rest of their lives in a kennel and suffering severe psychological stress. Another commonly overlooked factor is that these essentially unadoptable dogs are also restricting the number of healthy, adoptable dogs these rescues could be taking in. The kennel space occupied by an unadoptable, aggressive dog for the remaining 5 years of his life could have housed dozens of highly adoptable animals in that same time period.

The "no kill" label is often attractive to donors, many of whom don't truly understand all the implications. It may sound wonderful to only support organizations that never have to euthanize an animal, but that doesn't make the overpopulation crisis any less real. The fact remains that there are currently more homeless animals than there are people willing to adopt them. While striving to make every shelter in the U.S. a "no-kill" shelter is a wonderful goal, until more people look to adoption instead of buying their pets, and until more mandatory spay/neuter laws take effect, that goal isn't realistic. If half of the U.S. shelters became no-kill overnight, the extra animals wouldn't simply disappear. It simply means the "kill" shelters would be even more overcrowded and their euthanasia rates would increase. The shelters that do take on the awful burden of euthanizing animals shouldn't be punished. The more support they receive through donations, volunteers and foster homes, the fewer they will have to euthanize. Whatever type of shelter you support, make sure you understand and agree with the organization’s policies and philosophy. No matter what you label it, what’s most important is that the shelter is providing every animal in its care with a humane lifestyle - however long it may be.

"Backyard Breeder"

This is the average pet owner who breeds their dogs "for fun", by accident, or to make extra cash just because it has AKC papers. They are willing to sell their puppies to anyone with money, and they often breed their dog at every heat cycle. This irresponsible behavior is physically hard on the mom, and it is also the largest contributor to the overpopulation problem that exists. The backyard breeder has no understanding of genetics, bloodlines, pedigree or breed improvement, so they’re usually breeding dogs with faults. This often results in puppies with health or temperament problems that may not show up until years later (like hip dysplasia). If for any reason the buyer can’t keep the dog, a backyard breeder won't take it back.

"Responsible Breeder"

Their goal is to further the best qualities of the breed (and diminish faults). They are knowledgeable about genetics, bloodlines, and canine health. They will screen buyers and turn away those whose lifestyle, commitment or home situation doesn’t agree with the needs of that breed. A good breeder keeps their dogs inside their home as a part of the family. They do NOT keep their dogs in the yard or in kennel runs. They feed high quality "premium" brand pet food. The dogs will appear happy, healthy and eager to meet new people and you will be encouraged to spend time with the puppy's parents when you visit. A responsible breeder will only breed one or two types of dog. They will be knowledgeable about breed standards (size, proportion, coat, color and temperament) and be involved in showing of purebred dogs. They will explain in detail the potential genetic problems inherent in that breed and will provide you with documentation that the puppy's bloodline has been tested to ensure that they are free of these genetic problems. A good breeder will give you guidance on caring for and training your puppy, even after you take him home. A quality breeder doesn’t always have puppies available because they only breed their dog every few years. They will keep a list of interested people for their next litter and they don't advertise in the newspaper. Responsible breeders will provide you with a written contract and health guarantee for the life of your dog. They will require some things of the adopter as well, which might include a home check, a veterinary reference and proof from your landlord that you are allowed a dog. You will be required to sign a contract stating that you will spay or neuter the dog and that you will return the dog to the breeder should you no longer be able to care for the dog at any point in the dog's life.

Puppy Mills & Pet Stores

Puppy mills are mass breeding facilities that exist only for profit. The minimum care standards are rarely enforced due to the lack of inspection officials. This means thousands of animals are kept in inhumane conditions, often for their whole lives. Breeding dogs will never see the inside of a home or experience human companionship. They will spend their entire lives in small, cramped cages stacked one of top of another. Facilities are not climate controlled and there is often insufficient food and water. The cages aren’t cleaned so their feces often winds up on themselves and in the cages underneath them. Dogs aren’t groomed so their coats often become painfully matted. Despite the rampant illness that spreads from living in such unsanitary, stressful conditions, the dogs receive little or no veterinary care. When they are no longer fertile, the dogs are simply killed or abandoned.

Pet store employees are experts at convincing well-intentioned consumers that their dogs come from private breeders. The fact is, no respectable breeder would let a pet store sell their puppies. The biggest problem with these puppies is poor health. Puppies are taken from their mother too early since they are often shipped out of state. This compromises their undeveloped immune systems so they often get sick in transit. Upon arrival at the pet store, sick puppies are then placed in poorly ventilated enclosures creating further health problems. Inbreeding is common, and since no care is taken at puppy mills to weed out undesirable genetic traits inherent to its breed, health problems are common yet might not show up until later in the dog's life. Behavioral issues are the second most common problem with pet store puppies. Puppies learn critical developmental lessons from their pack, such as bite inhibition and socialization, between 4 and 8 weeks of age. Since puppy mills commonly remove the puppies by 5 weeks, they lose this valuable education in appropriate dog behavior. By the time the puppy is purchased from the store weeks or months later, it has spent its entire life eating, sleeping and eliminating in a small confined space. This behavior is not natural for dogs. Given a choice, they prefer to avoid areas they soil. However, once they have become accustomed to living in their own filth from such a young age, it is extremely difficult to ever fully housetrain the animal.

AKC Papers

AKC stands for American Kennel Club, which is an organization that maintains a purebred dog registry. Responsible breeders use registration certificates and pedigree in order to make sure they aren't breeding two animals that are closely related (resulting in health problems). A pedigree is simply a list of names of the dog’s parents and grandparents going back many generations.

There is a commonly mistaken belief that if a dog comes with AKC papers, it's a guarantee of a quality, purebred animal. The reality is, the only criteria for AKC registration is that the puppy's parents are already registered. There is no requirement to meet any health, temperament, behavior or soundness qualifications in order to receive registration papers or pedigree. AKC papers are also not a guarantee the dog is even purebred. Most registries, including the AKC, rely on the honor system. The breeder fills in the dogs’ names on the paperwork and mails it in with a fee. The registry simply takes the breeders word for it that the information is accurate, even though it's possible the mom was actually impregnated by the neighbor's mutt by accident. The AKC does have a voluntary DNA program for those breeders that want to prove their litter's parentage (for a higher fee). The reason AKC papers are important is not because it means you’re getting a quality purebred, but because NOT having them means you’re dealing with an irresponsible breeder. If a breeder was too lazy or inexperienced to bother checking the lineage of the dogs before he bred them, you’re probably going to get an unhealthy puppy - and that's not someone you want to reward with cash.

Paws and Learn Recommendation:

The best place to get a pet is through a shelter or rescue group. Shelters across the country are overwhelmed with dogs and cats of all ages and breeds that are in desperate need of loving homes. There are also numerous rescues dedicated to small companion animals like rabbits, birds and guinea pigs, as well as horses and farm animals. Save a life! If you are set on going to a breeder, however, it's critical to research how to find one that's responsible. You’ll wind up with a healthier animal, and if at any point you need to give it up the breeder will take it back, which means you won’t be adding another dog to an already overcrowded shelter.

All experts agree that pet stores are the worst place to get a puppy and should never be considered as an option. Aside from getting an unhealthy animal, you're supporting an industry that subjects animals to incredibly inhumane living conditions. This industry will only be shut down when consumers stop buying their dogs.