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Lifesaving Animal Service Contracts

When nonprofit organizations provide animal-care services on behalf of government entities, it’s crucial that contracts focus on saving the lives of dogs and cats to achieve no-kill by 2025. 

To help you craft effective contracts, we’ve included examples of language that works well for contracts aimed at saving pets’ lives and language that should be avoided. 

Note: This resource does not constitute specific legal advice. Consideration should be given to ensure that provisions reflect the values of the community involved.


I. Animal Impoundment and Payment Issues

Animals are best served if they are kept out of shelters. To that end, payment structures should not incentivize impoundments. Contracts can list the numbers of staff members and the services they provide, and include a section on providing medical care to stray dogs and cats as a tool for the rescue agency to prove value to the governmental authority and the public (many will say there is a cap per animal of a few hundred dollars). Agencies can calculate the cost for each animal per day, then multiply by the stray hold, adding a daily provision for longer-term holds.

Lifesaving language:

  • Animal Services may, but under no circumstances is required to, accept animals dropped off at the Animal Control Facility as its capabilities and space may permit. 
  • The agency may choose to accept owner-surrendered animals.

Language to avoid:

  • The rescue agency is required to accept all animals impounded or animals surrendered during all business hours during the period of the contract.

II. Fast-Tracking Vulnerable Pets and Release to Rescue Organizations

The most vulnerable pets (e.g., very young kittens and puppies, and pregnant or senior animals) should spend as little time as possible in the shelter environment. Contracts should empower the organization to use foster homes as much as possible.

Lifesaving language:

  • Kittens found as strays under the age of 16 weeks and all cats that are identified as feral, unowned or eligible to be part of a return-to-field program shall not be required to be held for the mandatory stray hold if being released back after sterilization, vaccination and ear tipping procedures or being placed into an adoption program.
  • Litters of kittens or puppies under the age of 8 weeks found as strays are not required to be held for the mandatory stray hold if placed to ensure a live outcome including, without limitation, adoption, foster, transfer, or transport programs.
  • Animals presented as strays that may have a compromised immune system, such as the very young, ill or elderly, may be placed into temporary foster care during the mandatory hold period.
  • Animals that are believed to be pregnant may be placed into temporary foster care during the mandatory hold period.
  • Animals surrendered by their owners may be placed immediately to ensure a live outcome including, without limitation, adoption, foster, transfer, or transport programs.
  • A companion animal may be reverse auctioned to rescue organizations or shelters at large on a two- (2) day basis with the lowest bidder receiving the companion animal and the bidding stipend from the city or county.

Language to avoid:

  • Under no circumstances shall an animal be released for adoption, to a rescue organization, or into a foster home prior to being held in the shelter seven (7) days.
  • In the event that an animal is being transferred to a rescue agency, through a bidding process or otherwise: The rescue agency needs to pick up the animal within 24 hours. If an agency fails to pick up an animal, it may be prohibited from taking possession of any animal for a period of two months.

III. Automatic Transfer of Ownership of Pets

To empower the animal care and sheltering organization to make lifesaving decisions about the appropriate care and achieve live outcomes for dogs and cats, ownership should automatically be transferred to the rescue organization at the end of the mandatory stray hold period. This will prevent confusion about who or what entity owns the pet and reduces the likelihood of litigation. (Community cats should be treated differently because they are not pets. Please see below.) This language should be in the contract if not contained in the relevant local ordinance or state law.

IV. Community Cats (Feral, Stray and Free-Roaming)

Community cats are cats who are unowned, free-roaming, feral, or outdoor barn or working cats who may be cared for by one or more residents of the area and who have no discernible form of ownership identification. Because they do not have owners, contracts should exempt healthy community cats from any mandatory stray hold period, which allows them to be released back to their caretaker, if known, and/or avoids a strict “impoundment.”

To read more about community cat programs, take a look at our Community Cat Programs Handbook.

Lifesaving language:

  • Community cats are not considered domesticated animals and will only be accepted upon prior approval, except in cases of bite holds and injured animals.

Language to avoid:

  • The agency is required to accept all animals impounded or surrendered.

V. Pet Retention and Return to Owner

Pets often arrive in shelters despite having owners who love them. This may be because their owners have been unable to secure pet-friendly housing or their pet may have escaped from their home. Contractual language should encourage return to owners.

Lifesaving language:

  • Service-providing agency has the sole discretion to return any animal to the animal’s owner or caretaker of a community cat, with or without impoundment. Agency has the sole discretion to waive any fees that may be assessed. 

Language to avoid:

  • The service-providing agency is required to issue any applicable citations as well as collect all fees and fines pursuant to [Ordinance ###/Fee Schedule]. The agency does not have the discretion to waive collection of such fees and fines.

VI. Community Involvement with Shelters

Best Friends is dedicated to changing “animal shelters” into “community resource centers.” The public should be encouraged to visit animal care facilities to volunteer, donate, meet dogs and cats, interact with caregivers and learn about their work, and receive low-cost veterinary care. Accessible policies with weekend and evening hours that are convenient for the general public will ensure that this community resource model is successful, and contract language that allows the organization to set these hours and policies is key. Jurisdictions may mandate minimal hours of operation. Complying with such laws should be viewed as the floor rather than the ceiling for accessibility.

VII. Shelter Transparency

Much of the lifesaving efforts in today’s animal sheltering environment are based on data-driven decisions that rely on tracking what the true needs are in each community. Society as a whole expects that the local animal control agency is being transparent so that community members know what is happening in regard to the animal population in their community. Therefore, a contract should include a provision that requires the contractor to submit monthly and annual reports that outline shelter activities. Almost all of the shelter management software being used today is capable of generating these standard reports.

A basic report should consist of:

  1. Animal intake total and broken down by species
  2. Animal intake total and broken down by species for stray, seized and surrendered by owner
  3. Break down of all final disposition of animals, total and by species, including returned to owner, adopted, transferred to another agency, returned to field (trap-neuter-return), euthanized at the owner’s request, and euthanasia for all other reasons
  4. Numbers of animal-control-related calls for service, including type of call, disposition of call, and number of animals impounded

VIII. Organization’s Lifesaving Mission

It’s a good idea to include language in the contract that explains the goal of securing a live outcome for every healthy and treatable animal, and the organization’s lifesaving philosophy. To support this, contracts should contain a page outlining the mission of the organization (to find new homes, reunite lost pets with families, ensure public safety, provide safe sheltering for homeless and abused animals, etc.). Contracts can also contain language requiring the municipality to comply with the lifesaving mission through adoption of ordinances or policies that proactively support the lifesaving mission.

Lifesaving language:

  • The service-providing agency shall not be mandated to perform any service that goes against the organization’s philosophical beliefs.

Language to avoid:

  • All decisions related to the final disposition of animals will remain within the authority of the municipality.