Companion Animal Law Blog

Bringing together those whose lives and livelihoods revolve around companion animals

How Do I Find A Good Rescue?


Data provided by the Virginia Department of Agriculture and Consumer Affairs (VDACS) demonstrate how vital rescues are to animal welfare. In Virginia in 2010, rescues accounted for 10,816 stray, seized, transferred and surrendered animals. These Virginia rescues adopted 4,886 and transferred another 1,846 of those animals. The rescues euthanized only 427 of those animals. This is an adoption rate of 45%, and euthanasia rate of only 4%.

The overall 2010 figures, including data for shelters, pounds, humane societies and rescues, show a different picture. Of an overall number of 185,948 stray, seized, transferred and surrendered animals, 54,425 were adopted, another 24,137 were transferred and 72,403 were euthanized. This is an adoption rate of 29%, and euthanasia rate of 39%.

With their high adoption rates and low euthanasia rates, rescues are a very attractive option for someone looking to adopt a companion animal. However, not all rescues are created equally.

On more than one occasion, I have gotten a phone call from a person who adopted an animal from a “rescue,” only to discover that the rescue was hardly a benevolent non-profit. The “rescue” instead was in the business of selling animals that are unhealthy or not the size or breed that was promised. And even when rescues have their heart in the right place, more and more rescues act as venues for animal hoarders, like we’ve seen recently with Annette Thompson in Goochland County and Janet Hollins in Prince William County.

In light of all this, there are several things that you can do to make sure that the rescue you are considering is legitimate.

First, if the rescue claims to be a 501(c)(3), you can double check this using the Guidestar website. Guidestar can show you vital information such as the non-profit’s mission statement and recent 990 tax filings. The rescue’s 990 will show you even more information, such as how the organization is funded and how much the organization spends on administration and fundraising versus costs directly related to the animals’ care.

Second, a rescue claiming to be a non-profit may have additional state regulations and obligations. For instance, all Virginia non-profits must register with VDACS’s Department of Consumer Affairs to solicit as a charitable organization. You can check whether the rescue is registered to solicit using the Department of Consumer Affairs’ website.

Third, check to see if the rescue is complying with its state registration or reporting obligations. In Virginia, rescues must register and report data annually to VDACS and the Office of the State Veterinarian. VDACS maintains an online database that tells you which rescues are reporting, and gives data for each rescue for how many animals they take in per year, the source of those animals, and the disposition of the animals.

Fourth, the rescue should have a written adoption contract that complies with all legal obligations. For instance, Virginia rescues must comply with Virginia Code Section 3.2-6574, which requires a written contract between the rescue and adopter in which the adopter agrees to neuter an intact dog or cat within 30 days of adoption or the date that the animal reaches six months of age.  Any decent rescue will likely also have a contractual provision that requires the adopter to return the animal to the rescue if the adopter can no longer care for the animal.

If you are checking out a rescue, here are some red flags to watch out for:

  • The “rescue” claims to be a 501(c)(3), but you can find no information using Guidestar and state regulatory sites.
  • The rescue uses a high percentage of funds for administrative costs, rather than costs directly related to care of the animals, such as veterinary care, food, training and boarding.
  • The “rescue” does not have a contract. Or it has a contract, but the contract lacks key provisions, such as requiring the adopter to spay or neuter the animal, or return the animal to the rescue if the adopter can no longer care for the animal.
  • The “rescue” cannot produce identifying information and veterinary records for their companion animals.
  • The “rescue” charges high “adoption fees,” and has a website promising to sell you the perfect purebred or designer breed puppies or kittens. Take a look at the ASPCA’s website for more information on internet scams.

As with any company, don’t just rely on the rescue’s website. You should be able to call the rescue and speak with a live person. When you see a particular companion animal you are interested in, you should be able to meet the animal and the foster, and review the animal’s veterinary records, before you decide if the animal is right for you. If you already have a dog and you are looking to adopt a second dog, ask to set up a meet and greet for the dogs.  If the rescue is hesitant with any of these requests, think again before you adopt from them!

Author: Heidi Meinzer

Attorney and Animal Lover, not necessarily in that order

7 thoughts on “How Do I Find A Good Rescue?

  1. Here are three important tips for caregivers who browse potential companions online before meeting the dog or cat of their dreams, which I call the “Companion Animal Adoption Honesty Policy”.

    Homeward Trails Animal Rescue shines high because of the initial depth of information they supply on their website as a guide. Homeward Trails:

    1. makes available detailed information on the adoption process;

    2. provides detailed resources about canine and feline health and behavior;

    3. uses helpful symbols on the dog or cats’ Petfinder page, such as a “heart” to indicate medical needs accompanied by a medical explanation, as well as symbols noting “no cats”, “no kids”, “no dogs.”

  2. I have to say that I consider 39% a very high euthanasia rate and your standards for finding a good rescue rather low. Rescues should neuter and spay before adopting, they should conduct home visits before adoption. They should conduct post adoption checks and provide full qualified/professional behavioural assessment of all dogs as well as ongoing behavioural support post adoption. Anything less is, in my opinion, not a responsible adoption agency.

    • Excellent points, Colette.

      About the euthanasia rate, I was looking at particular organizations that were lumped in with rescues — and if in particular one of them came out of the figures, the rate would go down quite a bit. I wish we could completely do away with euthanasia (except only when absolutely necessary for humane medical purposes), but it is unfortunately still a reality that we have to deal with and find ways to combat.

      I love your comment about conducting pre-adoption home visits, post-adoption checks and full behavior assessments and support. There is no doubt that these make for a truly responsible adoption agency, and I encourage anyone looking to adopt from a rescue to require all of these things from the rescue they use. That said, many rescues are out there doing far less than that — or worse, are just fronts for puppy mills or hoarders. The suggestions I made are just some of the red flags for people to watch for in order to be able to tell the difference.

  3. Excellent article Heidi! I love your tips for confirming whether a rescue is really a legitimate non-profit organization. Another tip I give my clients is to ask the rescue group whether they conduct any type of formal or informal temperament assessment, not all groups have the means or volunteers qualified to do this with all of the animals in their care, but if they are able to, it can be helpful information for the prospective adopter.

    I also tell clients to be very direct in asking what the organization does regarding animals with behavior problems in their care. For instance, if a dog has bitten after being adopted and is returned, do they place the dog again in another home right away (unfortunately, I have seen this happen before!) Some groups provide additional support or have special requirements of adopters who are taking on a pet with special behavioral needs. This is important to ensure that the homes they find for these pets are in a position to care for the pet.

    I also like to remind prospective adopters that many Certified Professional Dog Trainers offer behavioral evaluations, always a good first step with getting to know a newly adopted dog.

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