How to Start an Animal Shelter in 14 Steps (In-Depth Guide)

Updated: February 22, 2024 is reader-supported. When you buy through links on my site, we may earn an affiliate commission. Learn more

The pet industry continues its upward trend, with the pet care market expected to reach nearly $203 billion in 2024 according to the American Pet Products Association. As part of this growth, animal shelters play a critical role by providing temporary housing, medical care, and adoption services for homeless pets.


This guide will you through how to start an animal shelter. Topics include market research, competitive analysis, customer focus, registering an EIN, obtaining business insurance, and more.

1. Conduct Animal Shelter Market Research

Market research is important when starting a nonprofit organization. It offers insight into the type of rescue animals you can expect, how many animal rescue volunteers you’ll need, how to obtain your nonprofit status, and more.


Some details you’ll learn through market research for an animal rescue nonprofit organization include:

  • Location is key, targeting communities with high rates of overcrowding in existing shelters and/or limited shelter options will provide the best chance to impact animal homelessness.
  • Revenue opportunities exist in adoption fees, which typically range from $50-$500 depending on the animal.
  • Average annual veterinary expenses are $655 for dogs and $582 for cats as of 2020, providing ongoing income potential through medical services.
  • Grants, donations, fundraising events, retail stores, and dog training/boarding facilities also diversify income streams.
  • Operating costs range widely based on services offered and geographic location, but estimates are $250k in annual expenses.
  • Key costs include staff salaries, medical supplies/vet care, pet food and supplies, facility maintenance, utilities, and licensing/legal fees.

Proper planning and fundraising are essential before launch. Market research gives new businesses the information they need to get started and succeed.

2. Analyze the Competition

Thoroughly evaluating nearby animal shelters, both public and private, provides critical insight into the local landscape and opportunities to differentiate. Start by identifying all existing brick-and-mortar shelters and rescue/foster programs operating within a 20 to 30-mile radius.


Resources like Petfinder, online business directories, and municipal websites help compile a comprehensive list. For each competitor, gather key details through their website, public filings, and on-location observations:

  • Services offered – boarding, low-cost vet services, grooming, etc.
  • Their target audience – geographic, demographic, etc.
  • Marketing and outreach strategies in use – events, social media, etc.
  • Differentiators like shelter policies, accommodation types, adoption support programs, etc.

Take notes on areas of unmet need, overcrowding issues, and community feedback on their services and reputation. Also research the strength of each shelter’s online presence, including website traffic, mobile responsiveness, search engine visibility, and social media engagement.

Conducting this competitive analysis helps craft shelter offerings and policies that genuinely improve upon available options. Track competitor pain points like compliance violations, and damage control around scandals or complaints, to learn from their operational challenges.

3. Costs to Start an Animal Shelter Business

Although to start an animal rescue you must collect donations and raise money, you also need to spend some of your own. Starting an animal rescue organization takes more than a solid mission statement and a connection with local vets.

Start-up Costs

  • Launching an animal shelter demands extensive upfront investment, with estimates ranging from $350,000 to $850,000 depending on the shelter’s capacity and services.
  • A sizable portion must go toward securing and renovating the shelter facility itself. Either purchasing property or putting down a rental deposit will likely exceed $200,000 or more.
  • Further buildout costs for essential functional areas like veterinary exam rooms, kennels, quarantine zones, and yards for outdoor access amount to approximately $75,000.
  • Upgrading flooring, ventilation, surfaces, and more for commercial animal housing adds roughly another $20,000.
  • Special medical and safety gear represents another key startup investment, including exam tables, microscopes, surgical equipment, and medications totaling $15,000 or more.
  • Extremely thorough cleaning supplies and personal protective equipment minimize disease transmission risk, coming out to around $5,000.
  • Administrative, legal, and insurance needs cannot be overlooked either. Business and kennel permitting fees reach $100-$500 typically.
  • Vital liability coverage and animal bailee insurance equate annually to $6,000 or so.
  • Retaining professional services like an accountant and lawyer requires retainers around $2,000.
  • Owning or leasing cargo vans outfitted for safe animal transport requires a roughly $25,000 upfront expenditure.
  • Further vehicle maintenance and fuel costs land in the $3,000 range yearly.

Wrapping up major startup costs, building a functional website suits $15,000. Stocking initial inventories of food, toys, and cleaning items calls for $5,000 more. Marketing materials like printed signage or brochures add a few thousand in upfront outlays.

Ongoing Costs

  • Once opened, the shelter sees monthly operating expenses averaging $30,000 for vital staffing, medical needs, facilities, pet care, and more.
  • Staff salaries alone for positions like veterinarian, caregiver, outreach coordinator, fundraiser, director, and admin support likely exceed $18,000 a month.
  • Additional monthly costs stem from medical supplies and equipment upkeep ($3,500), mortgage/rent, utilities, and repair bills ($4,500), commercial cleaning services ($900), and expenses related directly to animal feeding, housing, exercise, and transportation ($1,800).

While daunting, these substantial startup and ongoing costs can be offset through careful financial planning, fundraising events, grant writing, and operating supplemental income generators like a retail shop, training programs, or boarding services.

4. Form a Legal Business Entity

When structuring a new animal shelter, the legal entity choice significantly impacts taxation, personal liability, operations, and more. Weighing the pros and cons for each helps determine the optimal fit.

Sole Proprietorship

A sole proprietorship constitutes the simplest route – you alone own and operate the shelter under your name without any formal business registration. This exposes all your assets should the shelter face a lawsuit or bankruptcy. The shelter’s finances also pass through to your tax return.


Forming a general partnership enables multiple owners to jointly launch and share ownership of the shelter. But similar to sole proprietors, general partners remain personally liable for all shelter debts, lawsuits, and obligations. Partners must also pay taxes on their proportionate business income on personal returns.

Limited Liability Company (LLC)

In contrast, a limited liability company (LLC) shields personal assets – your home, vehicles, investment accounts, etc. – from shelter-related legal and financial liabilities. Only assets invested directly into the LLC stand at risk. LLC profits and losses also bypass personal returns, with tax due only at the business level.


Forming a business corporation establishes the same liability buffer as an LLC while enabling owners to sell public stock shares in the shelter. However, the substantial administrative requirements around shareholder meetings, directors, company records, and strict regulations generally outweigh any benefits for small shelter operations.

5. Register Your Business For Taxes

Before hiring staff or accepting payments, every animal shelter must obtain an Employer Identification Number (EIN) from the IRS, used to identify business tax accounts. Obtaining an EIN is free and can be swiftly accomplished online via the IRS website.

The EIN registration process takes less than 15 minutes. Simply navigate to the IRS EIN Assistant and answer a short series of questions about your shelter entity structure, owners, and location. No submitting sensitive data like Social Security numbers occurs, the IRS automatically assigns a unique 9-digit EIN once the information is validated.

This EIN gets used on all tax filings and reporting for the shelter business. It also enables opening crucial bank accounts, applying for business loans/financing, registering for state/local licenses and permits, and completing partnership/corporate organization procedures.

Beyond the federal EIN, register with your state taxation authority to comply with local sales tax regulations if selling retail goods. No universal cost exists – state sales tax registration fees range from $0 to $100. Failing to collect the required sales tax before the shelter’s opening exposes the business to financial penalties.

6. Setup Your Accounting

Robust recordkeeping provides the foundation for an animal shelter’s financial health and operational longevity. As transactions multiply with staff payroll, vendor payments, medical purchases, adoption deposits, and more, accounting becomes more important.

Accounting Software

accounting software streamlines balancing the books across banking, tax filings, planning, and compliance needs. QuickBooks seamlessly syncs income and expenses from linked business bank/credit card accounts, avoiding manual data entry. Reports and forecasting tools grant real-time performance visibility too.

Hire an Accountant

While extremely helpful, even user-friendly software cannot wholly replace professional guidance. Hiring an accountant well-versed in nonprofit compliance provides vital oversight around financial planning, spending policies, preparing tax documentation, and strategically utilizing donor funds. Expect costs between $800-$2,000 to only have an accountant compile fiscal year-end IRS Form 990 filings.

Open a Business Bank Account

Segregating animal shelter banking from personal finances is equally essential. Set up a dedicated shelter business checking account to transparently track all contributions, adoption fees, and vendor or operating expenses distinctly from your own. This simplifies reporting to nonprofit oversight bodies and prevents commingling assets should the shelter ever face dissolution or lawsuits.

Apply for a Business Credit Card

Applying for a separate business credit card also earns rewards towards future purchases without risking personal credit scores as card limits derive from business rather than consumer criteria. Have your EIN confirmation ready as this registers the card to the official shelter entity.

7. Obtain Licenses and Permits

Launching an animal shelter requires proper permitting and licensing at both state and local levels to legally house rescued animals and conduct adoptions. Find federal license information through the U.S. Small Business Administration. The SBA also offers a local search tool for state and city requirements.

Nearly all jurisdictions mandate a commercial kennel permit to operate beyond a personal boarding limit of 5 or fewer pets. These licenses require documenting details like shelter capacity, veterinary arrangements, safety protocols, and planned duration of animal housing. Fees range widely from $50 to the thousands based on facility size.

Charging sales tax when collecting adoption donations or selling retail merchandise means registering for a state seller’s permit. These authorize tax collection on the shelter’s behalf, simplifying remittance and compliance. Some areas even exempt adoption fee sales tax provided nonprofit documentation gets submitted during the application.

Confirm your proposed shelter address and layout meet animal care zoning requirements within the local municipality or county. Special use exemptions may apply for nonprofit shelters depending on neighborhood rules regarding noise limits, outdoor yards, square footage, and overnight boarding.

Submit to a health inspection assessing the shelter facility once fully built out. Inspectors will check for proper ventilation, commercial surfaces, temperature control, medical sanitization areas, and disease containment capabilities before approving to begin operations.

8. Get Business Insurance

Insuring an animal shelter safeguards the substantial investments made into saving and caring for homeless pets. Policies shield facilities, medical gear, administrative assets, and future earning potential from financially ruinous lawsuits, property damage, and other liabilities.

Consider if uninsured, a serious accident occurs like an elderly shelter volunteer breaking a hip after slipping on a wet floor. That personal injury lawsuit could absorb hundreds of thousands in settlement payments and legal fees, diverting years of adoption fee income and community donations.

Lacking insurance leaves covering catastrophic medication costs or operational losses during disinfection closure to the shelter alone. Alternately, picture a kitchen fire damaging the shelter with no coverage – rebuilding could exceed $500,000 using hard-won reserves rather than insured claim payouts.

Safeguard against scenarios jeopardizing the shelter’s animal welfare mission through comprehensive insurance. Common policies include:

  • Property insurance reimburses repairs/replacement from theft, fire, wind, and electrical issues, and appliance/system breakdowns across structural real estate, contents, and mechanical equipment.
  • General liability insurance covers legal defense and settlements if customers get injured on the premises and sue.
  • Animal bailee insurance protects all pet residents if lost, stolen, injured, or killed under shelter custody and care.

Obtain quotes from nonprofit insurers using the shelter’s planned square footage, location, species housed, and policy customizations. Expect annual premiums between $2,000-$7,000+ for robust nonprofit shelter coverage.

9. Create an Office Space

An administrative office enables centralizing vital shelter management like payroll, veterinary records, licensing paperwork, and adoption file retention in a dedicated, professional workspace. When meeting with community partners about fundraising events an office creates the space to do what needs to get done.

Home Office

Converting bedroom or garage square footage into a basic home office costs little upfront thanks to readily available furnishings and tax write-off eligibility. Blending personnel, animal residents, and assets across business/personal spheres risks exposing more to potential lawsuits or dissolution disputes. Distractions like household noise and traffic also hamper productivity.

Coworking Office

Nearby WeWork locations offer convenient office rentals for as low as $300 monthly. While not hosting visiting animals, the collaborative community, turnkey workspaces, and flexible terms suit fledgling organization needs. Most provide mail handling, free coffee, and networking opportunities to boot. These spaces work best for satellite admin teams outside the main shelter grounds.

Commercial Office

Leasing a dedicated office space enables fully customizing layouts to shelter preferences across one or more floors if needed. Soundproofing kennel barking, specialized cleaning accommodations, and segmented department/conference room dividers all spec more feasibly than attempting similar custom office builds from raw land or within another existing business.

10. Source Your Equipment

Launching an animal shelter demands extensive supplies for housing pets, administering medical care, handling adoptions, and keeping the facility sanitized. While buying brand new enables full customization, significant cost savings arise when buying quality used goods or lease-to-own options.

Buy New

Ordering fresh kennels, veterinary tools, cleaning machines, etc. from retailers like Home Depot and Uline ensures flawless condition with modern amenities. Manufacturers also typically include product warranties. However, the expense can be prohibitive when outfitting entire buildings with cats, dogs, and small critters in mind.

Buy Used

Shelter closures and private breeder downsizing routinely list quality stainless steel kennels, commercial washers, microscopes, and more for 50%+ off retail prices on secondary markets like Craigslist, Facebook Marketplace, and eBay. As these items primarily require sanitization and minor repairs to restore function, thousands get recouped in savings.


Some specialized gear like X-ray and ultrasound machines may only operate occasionally for injury screening. Renting via national equipment companies when required versus excessive outright purchases or leases enables paying only for true usage. Avoiding outdated technology investments also helps stretch available shelter capital further.


For fundamental needs in continual operation like steel kennel runs or folding exam tables, leasing new equipment through 120% financing plans simplifies upgrading later without major replacement hassles. This helps keep daily equipment like syringes, microchips, and record printers in reliable order through sustainable plans.

11. Establish Your Brand Assets

Building a distinct brand identity and assets is essential for animal shelters as funding, volunteers, adopters, and community support fuel operating capacity.

Get a Business Phone Number

Procuring a customized business phone line like RingCentral enhances credibility with professional recording options, extensions for key staff, and automatic linking between office/shelter locations. Never miss opportunities to discuss events, new rescues, or donation matching by publishing an easy-to-recall shelter number across websites, signs, and print materials.

Design a Logo

Use Looka to craft an emotive yet professional logo that resonates across website banners, shirts, brochures, and more. Most pets get rescued after having endured neglect or hazards like automobile accidents. Choose compassion-driven logo shapes and colors emphasizing the security and comfort animals find in your care.

Print Business Cards

Print highly visible, logo-stamped metal and acrylic signs for the shelter exterior via Vistaprint driving awareness from road traffic and nearby footpaths. Core details like contact info, hours, website, and social pages attract community engagement. Staff/volunteer business cards enable the spreading of shelter information at local veterinary clinics, and pet supply shops.

Purchase a Domain

Secure official website naming real estate through Namecheap. Keep it simple like ‘[YourCounty]AnimalShelter’ for easy retention. Make sure domain registrars lock contact details to the shelter business address versus any individual staff accounts for future transfer flexibility.

Design a Website

Contract web developers on Fiverr for affordable one-time site construction costs or utilize free Wix templates enabling staff to self-publish rescue updates. Provide engaging photography, adoptable pet profiles, donation tools, and upcoming event calendars to spark online visitor support.

12. Join Associations and Groups

Tapping into industry groups and locals with complimentary animal welfare experience simplifies shelter growth through shared knowledge.

Local Associations

In most metro areas, nonprofit alliances like the National Animal Care and Control Association unite area shelters, veterinary clinics, and pet nutrition brands for networking events, adoption spotlights, and launching community education initiatives together. Attend quarterly meetings to trade operational tactics, and connect patrons to resources.

Local Meetups

Keep tabs on animal rescue and sheltering meetups in your region via sites like Meetup. These facilitate open discussions for troubleshooting recurring cage side issues, transportation logistics, fundraising approaches, and enhancement suggestions for regional intake processes across rural pounds and metro shelters.

Facebook Groups

For 24/7 real-time advice between conferences and meetups, groups like USA Pets and Animals and USA Pet Adoption Group are great places to start connecting. Review archived discussions, ask questions, get tips, and build relationships with other shelters.

13. How to Market an Animal Shelter Business

Implementing consistent outreach and marketing enables sustaining and expanding shelter capacity over time by boosting donor support, volunteerism, and pet adoptions.


Personal Networking

Appeal to past acquaintances from school, jobs, or community groups to consider either volunteering for a few weekday hours or maybe fostering one animal for short-term pre-opening. Then incentivize thankful new supporters with a special ‘Founders’ discount on adoption fees or exclusive behind-the-scenes photos after hosting their first animal residents. T

Digital Marketing

  • Run Google Ad grants for sponsored shelter website clicks
  • Craft Facebook/Instagram videos spotlighting individual pet stories
  • Claim Google Business and Yelp pages for public reviews
  • Start a TikTok channel showcasing cute pet moments to engage next-gen adopters
  • Email monthly shelter newsletters covering recent animal arrivals, upcoming adoption fairs, and volunteer needs

Traditional Marketing

  • Print full-color brochures for local veterinary office racks describing available services
  • Purchase cost-efficient radio spots on local pet-focused talk shows announcing needs
  • Partner with pet supply and grocery stores onsite for meet-and-greet animal adoption days
  • Explore fielding a shelter mascot ‘team’ for select 5/10K running events raising awareness through sponsorship potential

Providing supporters clear ways to get involved from his social media followings via posting an Amazon Wishlist for food/toys to the shelter’s website volunteer application simplifies turning interest into direct contributions over time.

14. Focus on the Customer

Providing exceptional service keeps the shelter top of mind for recurring local needs long after initial adoptions, enabling stable operations through reliable community support.

Each pet adoption shapes an emotional family experience. Facilitate this by having front desk staff take the time to thoughtfully answer prospective adopter questions about particular dog activity levels, cat personalities, and proper animal introductions to resident children or other family pets.

Then nurture these new pet owner relationships post-placement by scheduling obedience training consultations, and handling vaccine appointment reminders. Keep communication open to refine care insights. Having a go-to shelter lifeline builds client trust and appreciation.

Use feedback to continuously improve areas like community yard accessibility, weekend appointment flexibility, or areas for enrichment class expansion. Voicing a genuine commitment to elevate the shelter’s level of care based directly on adopter input earns enduring patron loyalty.

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