How to Start an Animal Rescue - Starting an Animal Shelter from Scratch in 5 Steps!

How to Start an Animal Rescue - Starting an Animal Shelter from Scratch in 5 Steps!

With all of the turmoil going on in the world right now like high inflation, housing insecurity, and the economic hardships whole families are experiencing due to the dramatic rise of inflation, it’s easy to loose sight of the negative effects it has on not just the people experiencing them, but on the abandoned pets and animals of all types that are the silent victims that no one sees.

And this isn’t just about pets like dogs and cats any longer, even animals in the wild are beginning to be effected as people look for more ways to make money through poaching and hunting to help ease their financial hardships.

Now more than ever animals across the world need assistance, both in the form of animal shelters and rescues as well as wildlife preservation and sanctuaries. And anyone willing to step up and take on the responsibility by creating an animal shelter, rescue or refuge would be greatly appreciated by pets around the world as well as its wildlife.

But know that like most nonprofits at the moment, there are are a few problems you’ll need to tackle along the way. Things like rising inflation also mean animal shelters need more money to stay sustainable, and with the recent declines seen in donors as well as their donation sizes, there will be a few hurdles without a proper plan in place.

Luckily starting an animal welfare nonprofit isn’t as complicated as it may seem at first. There are definitely a few important things you’ll need to consider and steps that need to be taken, but this article will go into depth on every single thing you will need to know and do in order to start your own animal nonprofit and keep it running for the foreseeable future.

animal rescue site

What is an Animal Rescue Organization?

An animal rescue is an organization or facility dedicated to rescuing, rehabilitating, and rehoming animals in need. These organizations are typically non-profit and work to provide shelter, care, and medical attention to animals that have been abandoned, abused, neglected, or are otherwise at risk. The primary goals of animal rescues include:

  1. Rescuing Animals: There are all sorts of dangerous situations for animals that are usually created by humans like abuse, neglect or abandonment. It’s during these times when non-profit volunteers and staff can make the most difference in an animals life and decrease their suffering immensely.
  2. Rehabilitation: Many times when animals are rescued they’ve been physically or psychologically traumatized through abuse or neglect, this mean they’ll most likely need medical attention as well as looking into their overall well-being. Traumatized animals may also need further socialization and training to improve their behavior and quality of life.
  3. Temporary Shelter: Your organization will most likely need to provide temporary shelter to any animals that are rescued and should be a safe and comfortable place where they can recover and thrive until a new permanent and loving home is found.
  4. Spaying and Neutering: One of the most common medical procedures animal shelter perform is spaying and neutering to help control the overpopulation of pets. Most will not even allow adoption until the animal has been properly spayed or neutered and most even go as far as doing these procedures for their communities for free or at a reduced cost.
  5. Adoption Services: Adoption of any rescue is always the primary goal of any animal shelter and is also one of the hardest aspects, especially for pets that have health problems or are older or not as cute as some other options. But even so, it’s up to the organization to be sure the pet adoption placement ends up in a loving environment which entails carefully screening potential adopters to ensure that animals are placed in suitable homes.
  6. Educational Outreach: Animal rescues can work to mitigate the existence of homeless and abused animals by educating their communities about responsible pet ownership, animal welfare issues, and the importance of adopting animals from shelters and rescues as well as neutering and spaying any pets they may already own.
  7. Advocacy: When organizations get large enough to have a say in local politics, advocacy work to promote animal welfare legislation and policies can play a major role in creating stricter laws against animal cruelty and work to raise awareness about issues affecting animals and their relationships with human beings.
  8. Emergency Disaster Response: During natural disasters or emergencies, animal rescues are often looked at to step up and offer immediate housing and medical treatment to all sorts of creatures.

Animal rescues can vary in size and scope, ranging from small, volunteer-run operations to larger, well-funded organizations with multiple locations. They may focus on specific types of animals, such as cats, dogs, or exotic animals, or they may be more general and take in a variety of species. The common thread among all animal rescues is their commitment to improving the lives of animals in need and finding them safe, loving homes.

What Are the Differences Between Rescues, Shelters, and Sanctuaries?

Animal rescues, animal shelters, and animal sanctuaries are all most often nonprofits looking to help animals in various ways. The differences are how they go about assisting these creatures through their missions, operations, and goals.


Animal rescues do just that, rescue animals that are in need of assistance for any numbers of reasons including abuse, neglect or abandonment, or other forms of danger. They will not only work to rescue the animal, but will also follow up with rehabilitating through any means necessary until a viable and permanent home becomes available.

Thee types of organizations are usually nonprofits and are mostly staffed and run by volunteers. Their primary goal is to rescue and home any animal that needs their help, but they can specialize in one type of creature or even a specific breed of pet. Think The Horse Shelter that only rescues horses or the Kennel to Couch organization that works only with pit bulls.

Shelters (Animal Control Shelters or Municipal Shelters)

Animal shelters are similar to animal rescues, the main difference is in their funding and are supported by government agencies or local authorities. Like resues, they work to help animals find new homes and care for them until they do, including working with any animal that isn’t adoption ready due to having been abused or has health issues.

Since these facilities are funded by governments or tax dollars, they are often more well funded than other charities like rescues. They are also mostly staffed by paid employees but can still reply heavily on volunteer workers. These shelters will often accept any type of animal regardless of size, although many still may euthanize animals if they can’t find them a new home in a set period of time due to budget and other resource constraints.


The main purpose of animal sanctuaries is the long term care of animals that have been rescued from abusive or exploitative situations and can not be rehomed for one reason or another. These non-profit organizations don’t usually work to seek adoption, but rather adopt the rescue themselves providing a permanent, safe, and comfortable home where they can live out their lives without fear of harm.

This long term care is sometimes necessary due to trauma inflicted on the animals, or health issues or host of other factors that make adoption unobtainable. Animal sanctuaries take on long commitments that can last many years and are often specialized like the Wild Animal Sanctuary which deals with large carnivores or the Professional Animal Retirement Center (PARC) that only deals with animals from places like circuses or zoos.

Although each type of organization plays a crucial role in animal welfare, their missions and and goals are all different. So know exactly which type of organization you’re looking to start before moving forward.

Starting an Animal Shelter Step-By-Step

While starting an animal shelter may take a bit of work, it is doable if you're seriously passionate about helping animals and are willing to put in the work it'll take to get your new venture off the ground. In order to save you some time and frustration, we've outlined all the necessary steps in order so that you can create a clear plan of action when starting out. We've worked with many animal charities and clearly understand what's needed for them to thrive and complete their missions of reducing animal cruelty and suffering and would love to see more individuals step up and take on this important task. If that's you, then read on and just follow each step, and you'll have your very own completely legal nonprofit animal shelter up in running in no time.

Step 1: Research and Planning your Nonprofit

Research and planning are the very first steps in order to create and structure a proper animal shelter and rescue. The idea here is to gather everything you can in order to incorporate it all into a compelling nonprofit business plan once you've established an actual need for your nonprofit. We have some nonprofit business plan templates here to make this process as easy as possible once you've read through this section and answered all of the questions listed clearly.


Step one should always be research and the initial planning of your idea. And the first thing that you should start with is understanding what needs are actually present within your community when it comes to animal welfare that aren’t being met. Just because you want to start your own organization doesn’t necessarily mean there is a need.

Be sure to talk with other organizations in your immediate area and ask what they think of you starting a nonprofit shelter or rescue. This way you’ll be able to understand the landscape from those actually doing the work, and you’ll be creating strategic relationships that can help you a lot once you’re up and running.

Another reason you should visit shelters in your area is to see how they deal with rescues themselves and what steps they take in order to better understand what you can implement in your own shelter. Most animal nonprofits are willing to give you advice and tips as animal lovers are all looking towards the same goals, helping alleviate the misery of all living creatures, big or small. So use these valuable resources as much as possible.


If you’ve done proper research and have identified a true need, the next few things that should be considered is what types of animals you want to rescue and what services will you be providing for them? Will you have facilities to house them long term? Will you have a time limit on adoptions, or are you will to use euthanasia once you’ve reached capacity? All of these questions require resources that in some way cost money. So it’s smart to clearly understand what your organization will look like in the begging, and what your end goals are.

You’ll also need to start planning out how you envision your nonprofit to look like both short and long term. How will it act, function, what is its primary goal and mission statement? There are a lot of things to think about, and just to help you out, we’ve listed a bunch of very important questions that you need to clearly answer if you want your organization to be effective and viable long term. Once you can answer all of these, you should feel certain that you have a viable plan that should be clearly laid out as a nonprofit business plan. This will help you in so many ways when it comes time go through the actual process of creating your charity.

Some things to consider are:

  • What is the primary goal or mission of the animal shelter?
  • What is your long-term vision for the organization and the animals you will serve?
  • How will the organization be governed and structured (e.g., board of directors, staff roles)?
  • How will you secure funding for the shelter's operations and programs?
  • Have you identified potential funding sources, such as grants, donations, and fundraising events?
  • What will be the initial startup costs, and how will you cover them?
  • Where will the shelter be located, and is it accessible to the community?
  • What facilities and infrastructure will you need for housing and caring for animals?
  • What will be your policies and protocols for the care and welfare of the animals?
  • How will you handle animal and medical waste in an environmentally efficient manner?
  • How will you address medical care, spaying/neutering, vaccinations, and behavior training?
  • How will you handle adoptions, including screening potential adopters?
  • Will you have partnerships with other organizations for rehoming animals?
  • How will you recruit, train, and manage volunteers and staff?
  • What roles and responsibilities will they have in the shelter?
  • How will you engage the local community and raise awareness about your shelter?
  • How will you manage the shelter's animal population to prevent overcrowding?
  • Will your shelter have a no-kill policy, and if not, under what circumstances would euthanasia be considered?
  • How will you communicate your policies to the public?
  • What plans do you have for the shelter's long-term sustainability and growth?
  • Are there opportunities for expanding services or facilities in the future?
  • How can you collaborate with other nonprofits, animal welfare organizations, and local businesses to support your mission?
  • How will you track and manage information about the animals, adoptions, and finances?
  • Will you invest in technology and software to streamline operations?
  • What marketing strategies will you use to promote your shelter and animals for adoption?
  • Do you have a website and social media presence?
  • How will you handle emergencies or natural disasters that may impact the shelter and the animals?
  • Do you have a contingency plan in place?
  • How will you gather feedback from adopters, volunteers, and the community to continuously improve your services?
  • What metrics will you use to assess the shelter's impact and success?
  • Are there any legal or ethical challenges specific to animal shelters in your region that you need to address?

Yes, maybe we went overboard with the questions, but as you can see they are thorough and once you can clearly answer all of them, you'll be sure you're also on the road to creating an animal shelter that can have a positive impact in the near term as well as in the future.

Step 2: Legal Considerations

Setting up a nonprofit animal shelter in the United States requires a variety of legal considerations including obtaining special permits, licenses, and zoning regulations at the federal, state, and local levels. It’s best to work with an attorney on many of these as they require strict adherence to the ways these various applications and laws are applied for. One tip here is when you’re creating your Board of Directors, try to secure at least one board member that is an attorney and willing to take care of all the necessary paperwork pro bono.

Below is a list of the most important legal considerations to be aware of when it comes to setting up your animal nonprofit.

Legal Structure

When starting your shelter, the first thing you want to do is to apply for 501(c)(3) nonprofit corporation status which requires you to also submit a Form 1023 or Form 1023-EZ with the IRS. This allows you to do fundraising for your organization while offering tax free benefits to your donors. You will also not need to pay taxes on any money donated to your cause. Once you have obtained your 501(c)(3) nonprofit corporation status, you’ll be assigned an EIN from the IRS, which serves as a unique identifier for your organization, similar to a Social Security Number for individuals.

Articles of Incorporation

Once this is completed, you’ll need to register your shelter with the appropriate state authorities. This usually involves filing articles of incorporation or a similar document with state agencies, such as the Attorney General's office or the Secretary of State's office, depending on your state's requirements for charitable organizations. Each state has different requirements, so you’ll need to research further depending on the state you’ll be operating in.

Local Zoning and Building Permits

One mistake that is often made by someone that has never worked for an animal nonprofit is overlooking zoning laws and building permits. Many communities have strict regulations when it comes to housing animals, especially if you’re taking cre of larger or more exotic animals. Make sure the land or buildings you plan to use for your shelter are zoned for your charity, and be sure to obtain the correct building permits from your local building department for any construction or renovations required for your shelter facilities.


Insurance is one of those necessary evils, especially for an animal shelter that rescues sometimes traumatized animals that may end up biting someone. Even though you’re a nonprofit, that doesn’t exclude you from liabilities when it comes from harmful acts. Furthermore there are other insurances to consider like fire, theft and property or renter’s insurance. You’ll need to seek advice from a professional to understand what’s required and the costs involved.

Step 3: Finding a Suitable Location for your Shelter

Now that you’ve done all the work in laying out your organization, it’s time to start looking for a proper place to run it. Your choice of location is crucial and will significantly impact your organization's effectiveness, reach, and overall long term success and there are a few factors why. 

Accessibility and Visibility

If you’re looking for people to be able to drop off strays, volunteer their time or more importantly make a donation in person, then you need to be somewhere that is within easy reach visibility of the people you’re also serving, preferably somewhere with handicapped parking and ramp access with  a major road access. Furthermore, if you plan on doing emergency rescues, being as close as possible to potential emergencies also helps as a convenient location can reduce response times and save more animals' lives.

Zoning and Legal Considerations

Don’t forget, you’re running an animal rescue here, so that means the possibility of barking dogs or other loud noises, something not everyone appreciates. Nor is a kennel or sanctuary even legal in all places. So be aware of what your buildings or properties are zoned for, and think about your neighbors and the impact your organization will have on them as well as the environmental impact of running an animal shelter. Noise pollution, animal waste disposal facilities are all real issues that can impact your organization’s perception and legality.

Costs and Expansion

If you’re planning to start off small and grow over time, is the area you’ve decided on large enough for an expansion, or will you need to relocate the entire operation once you’ve outgrown your current facilities? Starting small can help reduce costs, but it can also cap your future growth, or make it more expensive later to move. All of this needs to be taken into consideration when looking for properties for your new charity. 

Step 4: Gathering Resources and Building Your Rescue Team

All nonprofit animal shelters rely heavily on fundraising and donations as well as multiple volunteers to have a successful operation. So it’s extremely important that you have some fundraising strategies for your new charity from day one as well as a plan on getting the volunteers you’ll need.

As you are in business for a longer period of time, you’ll begin to see raising money and gathering volunteers for animal rescue go hand in hand. Many volunteers will come from events both online and off. These are often individuals that want to help, but may not have the financial resources to do so. Or they simply really love animals and want to be around them as much as possible.

Either way, creating fundraisers is a great way to raise money and get your charity into the public eye. And by the way, there is no better event management platform for nonprofits than PayBee, just check out out demo here and you'll see why.

If you’re new to fundraising or fundraiser marketing and need some ideas, here’s a list of the best ideas we’ve ever put together to inspire you:

Fundraising isn’t the only means of financial support nonprofits can seek out. There are also grants and sponsorships as well as collaborating with local businesses and communities in order to create strategic partnerships that can lead to donations in the form of supplies or catering space for offline events. And although grants may entail some work, they can end up funding your charity for years to come if you land the right one.

Step 5: Facility Setup and Management for Animals and People

When it comes to designing your facility, there are definitely some important aspects to keep in mind. First you’ll need to remember that the facility needs to be a safe and comfortable environment for both people and the animals in your care. If you’re not going to have separate office space for staff and volunteers, you need to consider things like noise, smells and just the general commotion that comes with having an abundance of animals around and the impact it can have on their performance.

On the flip side of this, not all animals you’ll have in your care necessarily enjoy being around humans twenty-four seven. So having separate spaces can be a good idea with perhaps some communal areas in your office space for those animals you’d like to have viable to potential adopters, or for humanizing training purposes. Think about each room and who or what will occupy it. What tasks need to be performed there, and how will the surrounding environment effect their ability to accomplish work or goals.

You’ll also need a medical treatment facility whether as part of the main building or by itself. But remember this is an area that must always be keep clean and sterile, so consider these when you’re thinking about your shelter’s design aspects. And it should also be easily accessible when you have medical emergencies.

There are some great and professional architecture design ideas and recommendations online and the two we most feel are accurate and trustworthy are this one and this one. We recommend you read both of these articles in their entirety so you’ll be adequately prepared to begin designing spaces that both humans and animals will love occupying.

Grow Your Animal Rescue With PayBee

Obviously there are a lot of moving parts when it comes to running an animal shelter successfully. You’ll need to keep track of volunteers and staff, assign tasks and communicate regularly with them. Then you’ll need to track any payroll, expenses and so on.

Then there are things like fundraising and creating on and offline events which further entail keeping track of contributions as well as your donors and any other finances that come in. And all of this needs to be compliant in order to keep your nonprofit status going.

It can all become overwhelming rather quickly without the right support. That’s why PayBee has created the ultimate platform that has been designed specifically for nonprofit organizations like yours. Armed with all of the powerful tools and feature we offer, we will not only make it much easier to get your charity up and running, but we’ll give you everything you need to grow it for years to come.

Take a minute now to sign up for our free demo and see just how easy it can be to run your entire organization from one easy to use dashboard. It only takes a minute to sign up, and that one minute can end up saving your organization thousands, not to mention the huge amount of time it would require to run a charity without it. Or feel free to have a quick glance at a few of our most popular tools for nonprofits here.

Wrapping Up

To be completely honest, creating and running a successful animal shelter takes a bit of work. But if you have the resilience and passion to move ahead with your plans, we believe combined with our step by step overview of creating an animal shelter from scratch, you can reach your goals of saving and lessening the suffering of animals all across the globe. You'll never really know the impact your organization can have until you try, and we hope we've made it a little easier for you to do just that. We would also love to know if this article is helpful and let us know of anything you feel we've left out in the comment section below so we can continue to help others looking to make a positive impact on the lives of animals and animal rights issues for years to come. 

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Bill Allen

Bill Allen is an expat that has been travelling the world for the past 25 years. He received his MA in writing in New York too long ago to remember, but has been writing on all sorts of subjects far varied publications ever since. When he isn't writing he enjoys meditating and working on his own website, UpscaleDrinks.com. Feel free to connect with him any time.

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