Animal Shelter Speak: Understanding Common Animal Services Jargon

Table of Contents

New volunteers and staff are introduced to a large vocabulary of terms they don’t understand. This can pose challenges for training personnel, ensuring consistent client services, and providing excellent care to sheltered pets.

This guide is intended to be used as an onboarding document that can be shared with all people who are new to the organization. It can also be shared with existing staff and volunteers to give them a better understanding of the common terms they use and hear.

To submit new terminology, use this form. >>

Animal Shelter Industry Language

Adoption Barriers

Policies or procedures that make adoption, fostering, or volunteering a challenge. 

  • Example barriers include: landlord checks, background checks, or veterinarian references. 
  • Barriers can also be put into place for foster caregivers, too.
Animal Protection/Animal Protection Officer (APO) and Animal Services Officer (ASO)

Alternative names for department and animal field staff that places emphasis on community support services. 

Behavior Dogs

Dogs who have been labeled as having challenging behaviors.

Community Cat

An unowned cat, can be social with people or not.

TNR / Trap Neuter Return

Cats that are being cared for by colony caretakers that are brought to a spay/neuter clinic, spay/neutered and vaccinated, and returned to the colony. TNR cats are often not taken into the custody of an organization because they generally have established caretakers or colonies. 

SNR / Shelter Neuter Return

Stray, owned or unowned cats who are brought into the custody of the shelter, spay/neutered, vaccinated, and returned to where they were found.


An animal who is not social with humans and shows little to no signs of being interested in becoming social with humans.

  • Semi-feral: A companion animal who may display some unsocial behavior with humans, but shows signs of curiosity.

A companion animal who displays fearful behavior with humans or other animals.

Fear Free

A method of animal handling and care to improve the emotional experiences of animals by applying key strategies and techniques designed to reduce the negative emotional states that are commonly experienced by shelter and rescue animals, including fear, anxiety, stress (FAS), and frustration.


A behavior used to describe animals that are difficult to handle or display resistance behaviors.


Animals between 0-6 weeks of age.

  • Bottle babies: neonatal animals who rely on human intervention to be fed and nourished.
Barn Cat/ Working Cat Programs

Programs to sterilize, vaccinate, microchip, and adopt out cats to local homeowners, landowners, and businesses who have a need or desire for the pest control that a cat can provide that are not candidates for traditional TNR or SNR programs and would otherwise be killed.

Breed Labels

Breeds assigned to a dog or cat by an organization, often arbitrarily based on subjective, visual identification. 

Brick and Mortar Shelter

An organization with a physical facility used to house animals.

Closed Adoption

Adoption policies with strict rules, guidelines, or background checks.

Closed Intake

An organization that is not mandated to take particular animals, but instead selects which animals to take in. Also referred to as ‘limited intake.’

Dangerous Dog or Vicious Dog

A term assigned to some dogs based on circumstances outlined in local laws and ordinances.

Dead on Arrival (DOA)

An animal that was dead at the time of intervention, pick-up, or intake at the shelter.

“Dictionary Definition of Euthanasia” 

Medical intervention to end the life of an animal that is irremediably suffering with no chance of recovery.

Finder to Foster

Those finding lost or stray pets who keep the pet in their home, opposed to relinquishing the pet to stay in shelter. These fosters hold the pet and make efforts to get the pet home. If the pet is not reunited with its owner, the finder may assist with getting the pet a new home. 


Typically an organization that does not have a facility and whose animals are housed in volunteer homes.

Foster Care

Temporary placement for animals while in the custody of an organization. Animals are housed outside of a shelter facility in a home environment.  

  • Adoption Ambassadors / Foster Adopters:  foster caregivers who have been empowered to complete the adoption process for the animals in their care. 
  • Day Trips / Field Trips: Animals spend an hour or a few hours outside of the shelter with a volunteer or potential adopter. 
  • Emergency Foster: a foster recruitment initiative used during a crisis or natural disaster, meant to move pets out of the shelter as quickly as possible. 
  • Foster Caregiver: a person who houses an animal in their home temporarily.
  • Foster to Adopt: 
    • a trial adoption period that allows for a caregiver to take a pet home, get to know the animal,  and have time to make a decision to adopt. 
    • Adoption option for animals not yet cleared for adoption, primarily due to needed medical care, as most shelters cannot provide medical care to owned pets.
  • Foster on Deck: Programs that have fosters lined up to foster when needed. 
  • Fospice: palliative programs that provide end of life care in a home for foster pets. 
  • Foster Failure: a term used to describe a foster who decided to adopt their foster pet. 
  • Long term Foster: foster placement that lasts longer than a day or two.
  • Short term Foster: which consists of day trips, field trips, over nights, and weekends
  • Safety-net Foster: temporary caregivers for pets whose caregivers are in temporary crisis.  Typically <90 days with the intent of returning the pet to the guardian.
  • Sleepovers: animals spend the night or a couple nights with a foster family or potential adopter. 
    • Also referred to as overnights.
Foster Centric Shelter

A shelter that believes foster care is the most humane method of housing homeless pets and that works to find foster homes for all viable animals in their care. 

Foster Plea

A request for foster homes through email, phone call, or social media.

Government Contract

Any contract an organization might have with the local county or city government.  

  • Some examples include: 
    • A nonprofit organization overseeing animal protection for a city or county. 
    • A government shelter taking over the operations of another local jurisdiction.
Gruel Babies

Kittens or puppies that have outgrown the bottle. At about 3 1⁄2 weeks, a kitten’s teeth will begin to break through the skin. Also referred to as ‘mushers.’

Keeping Families Together

Identifying different ways to provide families and their pet(s) with support, such as increasing access to pet support services and human support services, so that more families can stay together and less animals enter the shelter system. 

Kitten Season

A busy time in the animal shelter world, when cats have kittens. Veteran shelter employees know this season well.  The season occurs during warm weather months, and will vary depending on weather. Also referred to as cat breeding season. The most typical kitten season is March-October, but varies from place to place and in some areas is year round. 

Known History

Any records an animal has of her behavior or health before taken into the custody of an organization, eg. owner surrender notes. 

Intake Types

The various ways animals can enter an organization’s custody:

  • From the Field: picked up by an officer or other team member. 
  • Over-the-Counter: brought in either by an owner or a good Samaritan also referred to as public drop-off
  • Transferred-In: an animal transferred into custody from another organization
  • Stray: an animal without a known owner
  • Owner Surrender: an animal surrender by the legal owner
Intake Vaccines

Vaccines administered to an animal when they enter a shelter or rescue. Intake vaccines prevent the spread of disease. AmPA! recommends vaccinating all animals immediately upon intake and prior to entering a kennel, or prior to intake, if possible.

Length of Stay

The amount of time an animal stays in the custody of an organization. Usually tracked in days. 

Live Outcome Types
  • Adoption: an animal is adopted
  • Return-to-Owner: an animal is returned to the custody of their human/s
  • Transferred-Out: an animal is transferred to the custody of another organization 
  • Shelter Neuter Return (SNR): an animal is returned to their habitat or community after being taken into the custody of an organization for medical services, including spay/neuter 
  • Return in the Field: returning an animal without bringing the animal into the shelter or a kennel environment. 
  • Return to Field: Putting an animal back where it was found, often after realizing it was altered, or after spaying and neutering, microchipping, vaccinating, and/or as a part of a TNR strategy.
Live Release Rate (LRR)

The percentage of animals taken into custody who leave an organization alive. Live release rate can be calculated by total live animal outcomes divided by all animal outcomes. 

Low Hanging Fruit

The easiest-to-place animals who are not yet being saved in a community.

Managed Intake

Appointment-based intake process or policies. 


A place in a shelter that cares for animals between the ages of 0-6 weeks of age. 

Open Adoption/Conversation Based Adoption

Adoption practices that encourage matching animals to people based on their needs and desires through conversation and a ‘getting to know you’ approach. The idea is to find a match for every person interested in adopting pets, through understanding the specific personalities of the animals in your care and what potential adopters are looking for. 

Open Admission

Shelters that accept animals from the public via owner surrender. Also known as open intake.

Orphaned Kittens and Puppies

Kittens and puppies who are not yet weaned, but end up in a shelter or in human care with no mother.

Other Outcomes Types
  • Died in Care: any animal who died while in the custody of the shelter, not by euthanasia. 
  • Euthanized/Killed: any animal whose life was ended purposefully while in custody of the organization.
Lost/Missing in Care

Any animal who did not have a live outcome and can not be located. 

Pet Retention

Keeping pets with their human companions. 

  • Also referred to as keeping pets with families, diversion, or pet support.
Pet Resource Center

Programs designed to connect people with resources to help keep their pets outside of the shelter whenever necessary. Also referred to as Pet Support Center.


An enrichment program that allows animals to socialize with other members of their species.


Commitment by a member of the public to adopt a pet on the day it is available, pending return to home.  This may include a deposit or contract.

Pending Adoption

An adoption that is in the process of being completed.

Shelter History

Notes an animal has acquired related to the behavior, health or well-being during the time they are housed in the shelter.  

  • Foster history: same as above for foster
Shelter Software

Software that has been designed specifically for organizations who shelter animals. Examples include ShelterLuv, Chameleon, and Petpoint. Can be referred to as SMS or Shelter Management Software.

Shelter Types
  • Municipal: an organization that provides the animal care services of a city, county, or counties.
  • Municipal Contract: a private organization that provides contracted services for the animal care of a city, county, or counties. 
  • Rescue without a Municipal Contract: a private organization that has no affiliation to the city or county animal services. 
  • Foster based Rescue without Shelter: an organization who houses all animals in their custody in foster homes. 
  • Sanctuary: An organization that offers animals a place to live out the remainder of their life. 
    • Sometimes sanctuaries offer the option of adoption placement. 
    • Animal welfare sanctuaries often offer this space for animals that have exhausted all other local resources, as an alternative to death.
Raw Data

An organization’s data that includes all animals, regardless of the reason for intake or type of outcome. Also referred to as noses in, noses out.

Rescue Only

Animals that organizations have decided will only be released to the care of another organization, for eventual placement in a home or a sanctuary.

Return in the Field

An animal that was not taken into the custody of an organization but services were utilized to return the pet to its home or habitat.

Return to the Field

An animal who has been returned to her home or habitat. Also referred to as relocate, return to community, or return to wild.

Stray Hold

The amount of time a shelter must hold a stray animal before determining the outcome, as determined by local ordinances. These vary from place to place. 

Transparent Shelter

A shelter that publicly posts animal data, including all animal intake, all live outcomes (adoption, SNR, transfer-out, return-to-owner) and all other outcomes (died in care, owner requested euthanasia, lost/missing, euthanized).

Transport Programs

Animal shelter programs that transport animals from one community to another. 

  • Often transport programs send animals from shelters where there are currently few live outcome options, to communities where there is a demand for cats and dogs.