Learn How to Start an Animal Rescue

Stray Dog Finds Safety In Helping Arms Of Men

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Starting an animal rescue or shelter requires proper planning, facility preparation, and dedicated fundraising efforts. The Humane Society of the United State is a good resource for finding models to follow and understanding the standards you must meet. It's also important to understand what sort of animal rescue organization you intend to establish. Some oversee a network of foster homes for animals in need of permanent homes, while others maintain an actual physical shelter, or some combination of both approaches.

Some animal rescues focus on common household pets like dogs or cats, and others specialize in rescuing other animals, such as horses or more exotic pets. Regardless of the type of operation, starting a rescue organization is a big undertaking that involves a lot of detailed preparation.

Initial Considerations

The first step is determining what type of animals you want to rescue, and how many animals you can adequately provide care for at your facility or within your network. Since animal care is a 24-hours-per-day, seven-days-per-week responsibility, you likely will need to enlist the help of volunteers, full-time employees, or both.

Your organization might focus on rescue efforts in the county where you live, but cross-promotion with similar organizations in surrounding areas can help establish your presence.

Come up with a good name and logo for your rescue and start promoting it through a website, social media, and networks of other animal rescue organizations. You also will need to set up a dedicated phone line and post office box to facilitate adoption efforts. Brochures and business cards with your organization's name and logo also will be helpful.

Legal Considerations

If your rescue group qualifies for nonprofit status (also known as 501(c)3 tax-exempt status), donors will be allowed to write off their contributions of money, food, and supplies as a tax deduction. After filling out the proper paperwork with the IRS and paying the appropriate fees, it can take three to six months to obtain nonprofit status. This designation can be vital for successful fundraising campaigns.

Licensing requirements vary by city and state, but you likely will need a business license, and perhaps a kennel license if you are maintaining your own shelter.

It is important to have release forms drafted for use when an animal is dropped off, adopted out, or placed in a foster home. As a nonprofit organization, you might be able to connect with an attorney in your community who also is an animal lover and willing to help with such forms.


Check zoning regulations for the land you plan to use for your rescue facility and evaluate whether pre-existing structures on the land can be converted for your purposes or if new construction will be necessary.

The facility needs to have sections available to separate dogs from cats, nursing mothers with offspring from the general population, small animals from large animals, and young animals from adults. Isolation areas also are necessary to quarantine new additions so any infectious diseases are not transmitted to healthy animals.

Fundraising & Donations

A membership program can raise regular funds from animal lovers in the community. A website and email newsletter should be available to your members to demonstrate what is being accomplished with their support. Be sure to send acknowledgments for donations.

Popular fundraising activities include applying for grants and endowments, hosting benefit events (dinners, fashion shows, or art shows), asking local animal businesses to keep a donation jar on their desks, seeking publicity from the news media, and selling items such as t-shirts and hats featuring the rescue’s name and logo.

Donations of goods and services often are as important as financial contributions. Pet food companies may provide discounted or free bags of food. Hotels may provide old bedding and towels for use in cages. Newspaper stands may donate unsold papers. Local pet photographers may agree to take photos of your animals for your website or brochures.

Experience, Training, & Veterinary Assistance

Even if you have extensive experience working with animals, it is wise to take the time to volunteer at local shelters or rescues to learn how they operate prior to starting your own animal rescue. A working knowledge of animal health, pet first aid, and pet CPR is beneficial.

Establishing a good relationship with a local veterinarian also is critical. Many dogs and cats that are turned in to rescue groups need spay and neuter services, basic vaccinations, and medication. Some vets may agree to discount the cost of medical services for rescue animals, or even do some work pro bono.

Record Keeping & Insurance

Accurate records must be kept at all times. Donations should be carefully recorded for tax purposes. Detailed cage cards and files should be kept for each animal. All release and adoption forms also should be filed.

You will need to obtain an insurance policy that covers liability and other needs. The coverage will protect you in the event that someone is bitten or injured by an animal or is otherwise injured on the premises.