Dog rescues are a growing business worth an estimated $2.5 billion. The animal rescue shelter industry saw a 7.2% increase from 2014 to 2019, but it’s more than just that. As it stands, about 34% of dogs are obtained from animal shelters, and that adds up to a lot.
An estimated 7 million cats and dogs are rescued in the United States every year. If you start a dog rescue business, you’re not just making a paycheck, you’re making a difference. You’re helping furry friends find their forever home, saving lives, and completing families in the process.
Whether you’re an animal lover or just want to do some good, this honorable career path has some intricacies. After all, you’re dealing with the lives of real, living beings, so opening a rescue must be done with the utmost care. This guide will teach you the basics about how to start a dog rescue and make a major difference.
Benefits of Opening a Dog Rescue
The benefits of opening a dog rescue or animal shelter extend far beyond a paycheck. Not only is it an opportunity to spend your days surrounded by dogs, but you’re actually making a difference and helping vulnerable animals in need.
The rescue shelter industry is growing year-over-year and has made a huge impact, particularly when it comes to rehabbing difficult animals and neutering and spaying strays. In fact, the number of animals killed in shelters has shrunk by 19.2 million since the 1970s.
How to Start a Dog Rescue Checklist
Starting a dog rescue — or any animal rescue — does involve a bit of red tape. Rescues are typically non-profits, which have strict financial reporting standards. Nonetheless, this is still a $3 billion industry and getting started involves some of the same steps as any other business.
Just be prepared for a job that’s rewarding, but also emotionally draining. You can’t help every dog, as much as you may want to, but you can absolutely try. This dog rescue checklist can give a good place to start.
Checklist for How to Start a Dog Rescue Business:
- Create a Business Plan
- Choose a Business Structure
- Determine Your Business Costs
- Name Your Business
- Register Your Business and Open Financial Accounts
- Purchase Equipment and Supplies
- Market Your Dog Rescue
1. Create a Business Plan
A business plan isn’t just important to keep your dog rescue financially on track, it can help you score a grant or sway investors and donors. When people are giving money to a dog rescue, they want to know exactly how it’s helping and where the money is being spent.
Donors also care if the rescue is fiscally healthy. A business plan explains all of this. When you’re in the business plan writing phase, you may want to:
- Learn about dogs and the rehoming process, particularly by speaking with other animal rescuers and veterinary professionals
- Explain your overall business idea: How exactly are you helping dogs? What services — like vaccinations, rehabilitation, and sterilization — are you providing?
- Set out your overall goals: How many dogs a year do you want to house? How many adoptions per year is your ultimate goal? Will you foster dogs if your shelter becomes full?
- List potential problems and solutions
- Understand what potential adopters look for in a rescue
- Determine your expenses and create a plan to get funding
- Search for grants
There are numerous grant opportunities, but a lot of them hinge on your status as a 501(c)(3) nonprofit. You can check out a comprehensive list on AnimalSheltering.org. If you want more advice on creating a detailed business plan, check out our business plan guide.
2. Choose a Business Structure
All businesses have to choose a business structure. While limited liability companies (LLCs) are generally the most popular for small business owners, animal shelters can qualify to become a 501(c)(3) organization. Though the name comes from the IRS tax code, 501(c)(3)s are what we traditionally think of as nonprofit organizations with a tax-exempt status.
The main draw is that nonprofits are exempt from federal income taxes and can sometimes qualify for government assistance or grants, but there’s a whole lot of stipulations. This includes mass amounts of paperwork, public scrutiny, and high costs.
Record-Keeping and Profits
You need to keep pristine records and run a tight ship when it comes to how you’re making money and what you’re using it on or you could lose your status. You’ll also need a solid mission statement and a dedicated board of directors.
For-profit animal shelters do exist, but they’re far less common. In this case, owners can opt for an LLC, which provides some form of protection for business debts, but you don’t have the fuss of a board of directors or additional paperwork. Overall, LLCs are far easier and speedier to establish than nonprofits, but you’ll still need the same permits as if you were starting any other type of animal rescue. This is also a good option for rescue groups formed out of more than one already-existing nonprofit.
3. Determine Your Business Costs
Opening your own animal shelter can cost an arm and a leg — or a paw and tail. It can also be a low-cost venture. While veterinary care and vaccinations add up, this type of business is completely scalable. You can start with a small handful of animals and expand later on to help more and more. Caring for a single dog can cost $4,300 a year, and that’s without any major health problems.
To successfully launch your animal shelter, you need to determine costs, and you can do so by adding up your estimated fixed, one-time costs (like equipment and supplies) with ongoing expenses (like rent or mortgage, employee salaries or volunteer stipends, pet food, vet care, dog toys, animals, cleaning products, and more).
How do you fund your startup costs?
Before you apply for a business loan with the Small Business Administration (SBA), you may want to set your sights on a grant or another form of government assistance. Because animal shelters are typically nonprofits, there are a lot of available grants, and all it takes is a quick Google search to find a handful you may qualify for.
You can even get a loan through the SBA, who can point you towards a number of additional funding options via their website. Beyond that, most business owners turn towards small business loans, low or no-interest business credit cards, or family and friends.
These all have their drawbacks because you’re typically paying interest (though with family and friends, the interest may just be an emotional toll). Since you’re providing a crucial service, you may be able to avoid that entirely through fundraisers and crowdfunding campaigns. Consider using a platform like GoFundMe, Kickstarter, or IndieGogo to get instant startup capital.
4. Name Your Business
Finding the perfect name for your dog rescue can feel like a huge task. It has to be snappy and easily recognizable across social media, but it also has to be unique enough to stand out and not already be taken by another business.
Avoid the legal repercussions of accidentally taking another dog rescue business’s name by searching local business registrations. Whatever you choose should look awesome on a website and roll off the tongue to help with some crucial word-of-mouth marketing.
5. Register Your Business and Open Financial Accounts
States actually track the movement of animals, so animal shelters have additional legal requirements. All businesses need a general business license, but you’ll likely also have to obtain a special permit from the Department of Health and Mental Hygiene. How to do this varies from city to city and state to state. For example, New York City puts their application online.
In addition to permits, dog rescues need insurance. This can include a vast array of insurances like general liability insurance and worker’s compensation insurance. You may even want a commercial auto policy if your volunteers are bringing dogs to adoption/foster events and fundraisers, but you should consult an insurance agent to see what’s best.
During this phase, you can open a business bank account and associated cards, register your business structure, and apply for an EIN (employer identification number) if going with an LLC. Check out the business section of the IRS website to learn more about these needs.
6. Purchase Equipment and Supplies
Animal rescues need a lot of equipment, but it stems a bit further than the typical supplies you need to raise dogs. You’ll need animal care items and things like kennels, lifts and slings for injured animals, and personal and animal protection if you’re picking up strays off the street. To get the best idea of exactly what you need, you can consult with fellow rescuers, local shelters, and animal control agents. Providers like Direct Animal can help, too.
7. Market Your Dog Rescue
A great marketing plan can do wonders for fundraising and adoptions, especially if you’re focused on social media. Animal lovers absolutely adore looking at cute pictures of pups, so consider a comprehensive strategy on Facebook, Twitter, YouTube, Instagram, TikTok, and Pinterest. An adorable video can go a long way if it’s shared enough. So can a solid SEO strategy on your website.
Beyond registering in local listings, on Yelp, and with Google My Business, you can team up with local nonprofits like the ASPCA or social media influencers to help spread the word. If your shelter gets too full, you can offer special deals like waiving adoption fees. This helps dogs get rehomed and works as marketing.
Types of Dog Rescue Businesses
There are a few types of dog rescue businesses. Some rehabilitate injured animals, others just house homeless pets and offer them up for adoption. Most do a little bit of both, but there is one major distinction you’ve probably read in your research: Kill vs no-kill shelters.
Kill shelters have long been scrutinized as inhumane because they euthanize pets when their kennels are full or animals have had too lengthy of a stay. The more humane method would be to run an animal care shelter that doesn’t include euthanasia, but gives dogs to foster homes when there’s no vacancy.
When you’re running an animal shelter, it’s less of a question of how to open a dog rescue business and more of a question of why? This career is extremely rewarding, but it’s emotionally taxing and must be done for the right reasons. In other words: don’t launch a shelter to get rich. Launch a shelter because you want to make a difference in the world, you care about the welfare of vulnerable animals, and you want to leverage these characteristics with what you do for a living.
Dog Rescue FAQs
Do I need a lawyer to start a dog rescue?
You may find it useful to enlist a lawyer that specializes in nonprofits to help you navigate the intricacies of reporting and paperwork.
Where do I find dogs that need rescuing?
The better your marketing strategy, the bigger your reach. You can find dogs through word of mouth or you can consult with other local shelters. They may be running out of space at times when you have an abundance. Some rescues do buy dogs from breeders at auction, but this process is wildly frowned upon. There are plenty of dogs in need that aren’t bred to be sold.
Where can I get money for my business?
Consider a fundraising event or crowdfunding your business. You may also want to check for grants, as many grants exist for nonprofits.
Where can I find out more?
Check out the Humane Society’s website to learn more about animal rescues and how they work.