Starting A Rescue Group

Starting A Rescue


So you’re thinking about opening an animal rescue and you’re curious about what you need to know?

The very, very first thing that you need to determine is your determination.  How committed are you to this project?  Are you aware of the dedication, time, energy and money that will be needed to start such a venture and continue its operation?

Many rescues are started with the best of intentions but fail in the long run because sincere, loving people really had no idea of the stress of the day to day operation of a rescue.  Not only in the terms of operational requirements, but, and maybe more importantly, in emotional terms.  The good heartedness that prompted the desire to start a rescue may be the same reason for its failure.  There are continuous highs and lows of emotion from finding an animal a new forever home to not being able to help at all.

Before starting your own rescue it is probably a good idea to volunteer at a rescue in your area.  Go to PGAA’s State Rescue Listings; click on your State, review the listings, and choose one near you.  Visit the rescue(s) and if you like what you see ask to join their team (most will accept qualified volunteers, but don’t expect any payment).  If you can’t find a rescue near you send us an e-mail at and we’ll see if we can find rescues that are not on PGAA’s current listings.  Work with the group for as long as you deem necessary but 6 months should give you a good idea of what situations you can expect to see in your own rescue.

Determine where you would set up your rescue and what types of animals you want to rescue.  Does the area need an animal rescue/shelter?  What kind of shelter structure will you need?  Check with your county and city or town to make sure you can get the necessary zoning, health clearances, and licenses.

Determine how you plan to “house” and care for the animals and how much money you will need to keep the shelter open for at least 18 months.  If you are still a determined rescuer after 18 months you should be good to go (just in case, ask other rescues if they would provide assistance if you need to close down).  Your experience as a volunteer will give you the information you need to understand and budget your costs (remember:  food, bedding, cages, kennels, runs, vet bills and other items to keep your animals safe, healthy and happy).  It may help if you decide to use Foster Homes to house and care for the animals, but you need to carefully select and qualify any such homes.

Based on your costs you need to develop adoption fees that will cover your actual costs as well as emergency and expansion costs.  Plan for emergencies – they will happen.  Check with other shelters to get a sense of their fee schedules but remember:  you have to cover your costs! However, you will also need to consider what will be an acceptable rate for your adopters.  When developing costs be sure to include vet costs.  Without a doubt some of your rescued animals will require some sort of treatment.  It is a good idea to set up a working arrangement with a local vet, and possibly work out a low cost spay/neuter program.

There are organizations that financially help rescue shelters and you should do an Internet search for such groups.  You can also organize fund raisers.  Get creative and come up with ways of gathering people and asking for their contributions.  Many businesses will gladly help.  Hold raffles, dog events, and other ways to get people to know your organization and to donate.  Remember that if you are organized as a 501c3 all donations are tax deductible.  You can collect donations via a website by using PayPal or other Internet collection services.

You may want to incorporate to take advantage of not-for-profit tax laws (501c3).  If you have a lawyer that you know you may want to use him to help you incorporate and to also advise on any other animal laws applicable in your county and state, including animal rights laws.  If you don’t know of an appropriate lawyer ask other rescue groups, do a Google search for lawyers in your area, or ask your local lawyer referral service.

If you incorporate you will need to form a Board of Directors.  This can simply be you and another individual, but you may want to consider including other professionals in the area (a vet, another rescue owner, pet store manager, etc.)  Meetings of the Board can be as few as once a year and no more than 5 minutes per meeting, but having a relationship with the aforementioned persons can help in providing advice when needed.

Ways that a lawyer can help:

” Incorporation and 501c3 filings ” By-laws, Policies and Procedures for Operating a Rescue ” County and State zoning, licenses and permits ” Foster home agreements/contracts (if you plan to use foster homes) ” Euthanasia requirements (this is one emotional downside to rescue) ” Adoption and screening criteria including home visits.  (To whom would you feel comfortable in releasing the custody of an animal?) ” Adoption contract including fees, spay/neuter requirement, and return of an adoption

Determine how and where you are going to get the animals.  Most pet owners immediately think of turning unwanted animals into local government shelters.  Many of these shelters have high-kill rates and this can be a great source especially if you plan to become a No-Kill shelter.  If you plan to become a breed-specific shelter you should contact breed clubs (locally and nationally) to see if they will include you as a recommended rescue.

Consider getting dogs taken from Puppy Mills but be very careful.  The adult dogs were poorly treated and abused and may not make for good pets.  Puppies can have serious health issues that may not become fully apparent for 1-2 years.  Parvo infections are very common and one infected dog can wipe out an entire kennel.  In any event, you MUST advise any adopter that the dog or puppy came from a Puppy Mill.

You then, of course, need to advertise what animals you have for adoption.  You can list them on rescue websites like PetFinder or Adopt-A-Pet.  You can contact local pet stores and see if they will help organize/advertise a “Pet Adoption” day where people can actually visit some of your adoptable pets (this helps you and the store), and  is another good way to get donations.   Build your own website or social media page to advertise.  When you are up and running let PGAA know at and we will list your rescue in the appropriate State.

As mentioned earlier the rewards of operating a successful animal rescue are usually emotional and hopefully, for the most part, happy.  There are usually little monetary rewards, if any, but that shouldn’t have been your motive in the first place.  The motive should be saving the animals.  Keeping that as your intent and determination you should have a successful and rewarding adventure.  Good luck.  If PGAA can be of any help let us know at

Also see:  The Dollars and Sense of Sheltering: A Tool for Financially Evaluating Your Shelters™ Programs

Written by Ron Lueth, Pet Guardian Angels of America