How Long Should Shelters Keep Animals?

Question to STAF:

“Are there any regulations for animal shelters or adoption centers? In early July, my mother turned in our dog because she was moving out of state. When she went to the shelter in person on August 14 and asked for the dog, they told her he had been put to sleep July 22. What is the point of putting an animal in a shelter if they are not even going to bother to wait a reasonable time for him to be adopted? They said the reason they put him to sleep was “there was no room.” When my mom went, there was an empty cage. If they had just waited a little longer, my dog would have been adopted and alive right now.”

STAF’s reply:

We’re so sorry about your loss. How sad that a dog you loved has died. We suggest you visit the web site at There is much comfort to be found there, although nothing can make up for the death of a beloved animal companion.

New Jersey has a few regulations that cover dogs and cats turned in to shelters or adoption centers. Any animal brought in as a stray, where the owner is unknown, must be kept for 7 days to allow the owner a chance to find the dog. After that time, the dog becomes the property of the shelter, and they can determine what will happen to the dog. Animals surrendered by their owners become shelter property immediately.

NJ has a law that prohibits shelters from turning over any animal for use in laboratory testing. In some states, dogs that are not claimed can be used for medical research, and in other states, the law says they MUST be turned over for research.

NJ law regulates methods of euthanasia. In some states, dogs can be shot, gassed, or killed in a decompression chamber. NJ provides protection from these horrible methods, and shelters must use more humane methods, such as lethal injection of drugs, the same drugs that are used by veterinarians who put seriously injured or diseased animals to sleep.

Shelters in NJ all operate under basic guidelines regarding the care and housing of animals, but other than the rules I’ve mentioned, there is no law that tells shelters how long to keep animals.

Some shelters claim to be “no kill” – which can be interpreted in several ways. For some this means they will accept animals until their space if filled, and then not accept any more until a cage becomes available. Animals who are not adopted may end up spending their entire lives in a cage, without the opportunity to sit on a couch, go for a walk, or have a family to love. Other “no kill” shelters do not kill “adoptable animals” but the definition of “unadoptable” is determined by the shelter. It might include animals with a congenital defect, a crippling condition, aggression toward people or other animals, a severe skin condition, extreme shyness, incontinence, or other serious problems.

According to state law, every township must provide animal control, and shelters which hold these contracts must accept all animals brought in by animal control officers. Strays must be held for the required 7 days before being put up for adoption or euthanized. Some shelters hold animals involved in cruelty or criminal cases. Because the animals cannot be seized from the owner until the court decides the case, they cannot be adopted out or euthanized until the case is settled, sometimes months later.

All shelters have limited space. For every baby born, 12 puppies and 40 kittens are also born. Although humane groups try to educate the public about spay/neuter, the reality is that there are more animals than homes. And as you have experienced first hand, many animals who do have homes do not get to stay there for their entire lives. They are given up because of moving, divorce, owners who become ill, and many other reasons.

When a family can no longer keep their animal, the best thing to do is to find a new home. But not everyone knows how, and many end up bringing their unwanted animals to a shelter. If you spent a week at any shelter, you would be amazed by the beautiful, healthy, and loved dogs, cats, rabbits, ferrets, potbellied pigs, guinea pigs and other animals who come through the doors. Fewer than 40% end up in new homes.

At most shelters, the animals get clean cages, fresh water, nutritious food, and health care. But the stress of being moved from a home to a crowded shelter can cause any animal to have problems. Friendly dogs may become terrified or aggressive. They may forget their toilet training because don’t get out for walks. They may become sick because they are exposed to so many other animals. And new animals come into the shelter every day.

Shelters have a limited number of cages, and new animals need space, food and care. Most shelters operate on a tight budget and depend on donations. Shelter work is a difficult and dirty job, which includes cleaning cages, dealing with noise, nurturing and loving the animals, and then killing them when there is not enough space.

What is a “reasonable” amount of time for a shelter to keep an animal? It depends on the animal. Some suffer so badly in a cage that one or two days is more than they can endure. Others adjust to being confined, but are not appealing to potential adopters. Too big, small, noisy, timid, old or young. Hair too long or short or the wrong color. Potential adopters are like shoppers in a store. They may look at dozens of “items” before they find one they want, and the rest of the “merchandise” at the shelter stays “on the shelf.” Stores can have a clearance sale, and then throw unsold items in a dumpster. Shelters resort to euthanasia.

Is it fair? Of course not. Is killing homeless animals the right way to deal with the situation? Absolutely not! Wonderful animals become victims. Your dog was a victim. Was it the shelter’s fault? Should the shelter have kept your dog for more than three weeks? We don’t know which shelter, and we didn’t know your dog, so we can’t say for sure. Most shelters sincerely try to do the best they can for every animal who enters their doors. We’re sorry your dog did not find a good home. We truly hope he did not suffer. We hope this answers your question.