What Does it Mean to “Rescue” an Animal?

What does it mean to “rescue” an animal? I’ve pondered this question for quite a while.

Merriam Webster defines “rescue” as to save (someone or something) from danger or harm.

Pretty vague, huh?

I think it's reasonable to say I rescued Malachi.
I think it’s reasonable to say I rescued Malachi.

So if I buy a dog from a puppy mill breeder, am I rescuing it? After all, I might have freed the pup from a puppy mill, and that could be dangerous or harmful. But then again, if I don’t buy the dog, someone else most likely will, so it’s no more likely to suffer if I do or don’t.

Well some folks think that DOES equal rescue.

And many other folks believe that adopting from a shelter or rescue is “rescuing” the animal. But is it? True, they’re freeing it from the confines of the shelter, but is that rescuing the animal, or merely adopting it? Merriam Webster defines “adopting” as  to take by choice into a relationship.

If I don’t like how a dog or cat is being treated, and I take in the animal without first consulting the owner, am I “rescuing” the animal, or am I stealing it?

Personally, I’ve always felt that to rescue an animal means you’re the one that picks it up from the side of the road and tries to find its home, or takes it in when you find it looking so scrawny that it’s a wonder it’s still alive. But hey, that’s just me.

Bubba and Junior were found by a co-worker on the grounds of our employer.

Does it even matter how we define the term?

Yes, it does. As I’ve mentioned before, some puppy mill breeders are setting up websites where you can “rescue” a pup from a puppy mill. Pretty clever, eh?

If we’re going to combat these sorts of shenanigans, a good first step would be to come to an agreement on what it means to rescue an animal.

Then we need to educate the general public on why it’s so cool to “adopt” a true “rescued” pet.

So what does it mean to you to “rescue” an animal? 

65 thoughts on “What Does it Mean to “Rescue” an Animal?

  1. It is a vague word indeed..i rescued Pickles because she was trapped in a hoarders house behind a table and paralysed..she then became my girl to love and care for..i have rescued by picking up dogs by the roadside and holding them until the owners were found, rescuing chickens by getting them from the Animal Liberation groups after raids on cruel battery farms..these are my rescues as indeed they were in danger of death..hugs to you Fozziemum xx

  2. Well, until just now – when I read your post – I never really thought about the difference. But this is how I look at it: If you take an animal from a bad situation that could ultimately be fatal, then you are rescuing it. If you then decide to make that animal your own pet and give it the love and care it needs to survive and have a good life, then you have also adopted it. As I see it, whether you take an animal from the roadside, a hoarder’s home, a puppy mill, or a “shelter” that kills some of its current charges to make room for new ones, you are still rescuing that animal whether you choose to adopt it or not. If you choose to adopt the animal, that’s great! But if you turn it over to a reputable rescue group — or even a friend who wants to adopt it — you have still rescued it. I don’t believe it matters that if YOU hadn’t bought a dog from a puppy mill someone else would have when it comes down to defining “rescue”. To me that’s just getting too “technical” and narrowly focused on definitions. And the rescue of animals is a highly-charged emotional process for people who do it on a daily basis, and even for those of us who have only done it once in our lives.

  3. Well, we very much did rescue Tippy. As we were leaving the shelter, who – back in those days, did euthanize animals after a period of attempting to find homes – one of the workers told us it was her last day. Had we not come in when we did, a wonderful, 1 yr. old dog, would have been killed. As for Jack, I know enough of his back story to know that he was actually rescued, but not by us. I think, if you get your animal from a shelter, and that shelter got him from a rescue/foster organization, than you are – in a sense – rescuing the animal. You are at least, contributing to the his or her rescue.

      1. I’ve been happy with the convention that either operating an official rescue – taking animals out of harm’s way, and fostering or sheltering – or adopting from a foster or shelter, as a definition of rescue. Buying pets from pet stores or puppy mills may help those individual animals, but it supports an immoral – and in some cases illegal – industry. So, my 2 cents worth in this discussion would be, that if you adopt from a shelter or foster, you are at least contributing to the rescue of animals, but if you buy from a breeder or pet store, you are not. Just my opinion, flames – as always – are welcomed.

  4. Great post. Volunteering for an awesome, no-kill shelter, I definitely don’t see adopting a dog as rescuing her. Yes, it’s not ideal to be in a shelter instead of a home. But living in a private apartment with sniffer holes and volunteers doing training, enrichment activities, and walks every day is not exactly suffering on the streets.

    More commonly, I hear people describing the dog they’ve adopted as “a rescue.” I have my own mixed feelings about that. Sometimes it’s a way of saying “Look at me, I adopted a damaged dog.” And other times it’s shorthand for “this is why my dog isn’t perfect like if I had gotten him as a puppy.” And in neither case is it showing a respect or understanding of the unique life they share their homes with.

    And don’t get me started on puppy millers using the term rescue. That’s just spin.

    1. I never thought of it that way. I thought they were doing the “keeping up with the Joneses” thing and bragging because THEIR dog is from a shelter and YOURS is not.

  5. We’re on pretty much the same page regarding rescue v. adopt, in theory.
    In practice our human realizes that the female pup she paid to get out of a back-yard breeder’s hands and spay (because the pup was slated to become another breeder) she thinks of as a rescue, in part because it stopped a whole line of puppies from being born.

    We’re pretty horrified though, at the thought of puppy mills selling their pups as “rescues”.

  6. To me, “rescuing” means that humans help the animals who don’t have any places to live, any food for meals and always have to wander with no one who relies on….I don’t think that adopting dogs or cats from shelter doesn’t mean “rescuing….”

  7. I agree with you 100%. We need legislation and strict consequences. That’s when the issues surrounding animal welfare will all turn around. Relying on people to do the right thing, in my opinion, doesn’t work. But when you impact the actions of puppy mill breeders and abusers by enforced high dollar monetary fines and/or being arrested, I’m sad to say that’s when I believe true change will happen.

    Sent from my iPhone

    1. Legislation can be passed when a significant number of people support the legislation. Right now, since we can’t even agree on a definition, the odds of getting people to agree on legislation aren’t good.

  8. Where I live, dogs and cats from shelters are killed if they don’t get adopted quickly, even more so if they are old and/or sick. So I believe I ‘rescued’ a few animals. Giving pets a better life by adopting them is worthwhile in any case.

  9. I do not believe paying a person to breed animals is rescuing an animal. that is contributing to the problem. Yes, that ONE dog or cat might be rescued in the truest sense of the word, but it is creating an opening and providing financial support for more harm to occur.

    Supporting a rescue organization IS rescuing an animal. While that animal might not be in any danger – especially at a no-kill facility – by taking that animal out of that situation you are creating an opening and financially supporting someone else to pick another animal up out of harm and save it.

    While I might not be picking animals up off the side of the road, (or out of a hoarder etc) my time and support (financial and otherwise) goes to those people on the front lines who are.

    I only had one chance to ‘rescue’ a kitten by your definition of the word.. I picked it up and brought it into my house one freezing cold winter night.. poor thing was FELV+ and suffering from the disease and had to be put down a few weeks later. But I have also had a hand in ‘saving’ over 350 lives by fostering at my local open admission animal shelter. Prior to their having a fostering program, kittens and puppies that were too small or too sick to be adopted were immediately euthanized because there was not a way to save them… now there is thanks to a number of people who have stepped up and said “I will take care of them”

    This as in most things.. follow the money.. see where it goes, what it supports, and decide if that is something you think is where your money should go.

    1. That may be, Connie, but what’s the difference in an animal coming from a reputable rescue and a non-profit shell rescue set up by breeders to get rid of excess animals? Are we going to call them rescued animals too?

  10. I think that the word rescue refers to the person who removed the dog from the perilous situation. However, if then, someone like, say myself, who took a very sick dog on as a foster (for a rescue group), directly from the owner who was going to send her to a shelter but then decided to keep her, it is kind of unclear. I say that this dog was a rescue but I did not rescue her though I did nurse her back to a fat, sassy dog. Here are my other three “rescues” .. I often wonder if they are real rescues or just dogs I decided to take .

    Dog 1 : Bacci … Rat Terrier … originally bought from breeder in VA … I was admiring her on the street and I said, Oh I would love to take her home” and the owner, said, okay, you can. I have been trying to find a home for her but she is not well behaved and no one will take her:” I said I would and she brought her by retail shop the next day and that was it. She did have many behavioral issues but we worked most of them out.

    Dog 2 : Max, who they told me was 2 1/2 years old, was a Maltese who was found tied to a pole near our local housing project. He had never been groomed and had 8 inch dreadlocks and nails were almost imbedded in his paws. He was found by our local animal rescue and brought to my vet. After he was there for about two weeks, they asked me if I wanted him or they might have to send him to shelter because he was barking all the time. I said, ok, let ‘s see if he gets along with my dog. He was very shut down and it took about six months to realize he was not 2 1/2 but more like 12 and because he was not neutered they thought maybe he had been dumped by a local backyard breeder. Once I took him, I spent about a year trying to figure out what was wrong with him because come to fine out was blind in one eye, had pre-Kushings, crushed discs in neck and back, enlarged liver and spleen, etc. I love him to death but three years later he is still barking.

    Dog 3 : Timmy : My friend sent me a text one night. A friend of hers had come from Florida with a Yorkie who she had kidnapped from her daughter due to neglect. The daughter and her boyfriend had a baby, moved back in with Mom and shoved the dog in the closet. She said she tried to keep him but he was not behaving and she just couldn’t do it. I said, Okay, I would try and find him a home. He showed up matted with urine and feces (not terrible but not good) and was impossible to touch for about six weeks. Then he turned into the best dog, so of course, I ended up keeping him .. and glad I did because he is truly my shadow dog now.

    So, I am not sure if those are really rescues .. I would be interested in the your feedback.

    1. I brought up the discussion because it’s one of those things I think we as a community of animal lovers are never quite clear about, and, as a result, exploiters are taking advantage. What do you think?

      1. I agree. I think the word “rescue” is very trendy right now. Celebrities are getting in on it and everyone wants a rescue dog. But they want a rescue dog that is trained, house broken and temperance tested. That will only come through a rescue so a person who gets a dog from a rescue is adopting a “rescue” dog but they did not “rescue” that dog.

        A rescue can tell a person they are rescuing a dog but in reality they are just unloading a dog that cannot be sold. I know a rescue in Long Island that pull 30 – 40 dogs a month from shelters in Florida and then “adopts/sell” them in New York at for $350 – 500. They never take sick dogs or dogs they cannot flip. When I looked up their business ID, they were are actually listed as dog dealers.

        Same with that woman in Missouri at Camp Happy Sunshine camp. She tags herself as a rescue and then buys dogs from auctions and sells her breeders friends rejects but people probably don’t question a 72 year old woman with a disability. I did finally track down her business ID and it was to service and take care of disabled people!

        There is a website starting that might help cut through some of the clutter .. http://www.rescuecheck.info. It is supposed to go live in two months.

  11. Great post! This is a topic that is dear to my heart. Every time I see an animal being mistreated or alone on the streets it tugs at my heartstrings. All my animals in my pack have been rescued. Xena rescued from doggie death row. Charlie rescued from a poor environment. Lily found in an alley with her membrane still around her. Cinnamon and Georgie found in an abandoned house. And Bogie, I guess you can say he was adopted because no one wanted him at the cat shelter and I gave him a home.

      1. Yup. There was no sign of any more kittens or the mother. Do not know how she got there, but I know she has a good home now.

  12. Good question! Our youngest cat was rescued from the side of a busy street. My husband found another that had been run over. Riley was tiny and now two years old. What a delightful cat she is. The other three needed help in similar but different situations. All four are are happy cats…Well most of the time..

      1. Well we have a bully in the mix and she targets Riley.It is often a problem..Rumpydog please keep on my youngest daughter in your thoughts as she will be driving her with her dogs from Ca. to Co, next week. They have not been on a long road trip before. You would like Max and Molly! Thank you!

  13. My definition of rescue may be broader than some. If you take a dog or cat from a situation where the animal is endanger, either because of abuse or the risk of being euthanized, and you give or get a safe home for it, then, for me, that is a rescue. It includes puppy mills because the animals are missed treated. It’s adopted when someone takes responsibility for it and gives it a home.

    BJ – was a stray dog and found on the streets of NYC. Someone brought him to the Humane Society where he was in a kennel. I rescued / adopted him and gave him a safe loving home. Really what’s the difference. I rescued him from a shelter and adopted him making it permanent. BJ has been with me for almost 14 years and going strong.

    Tristan – my brand new foster / rescue / adopted dog was found as a stray, was brought to a kill-shelter, and a recuse organization rescued him and brought him to an adoption event. I fostered him for two weeks and then adopted him. Did I too rescue him from being in a shelter for the rest of his life. He’s 2 1/2. I also then adopted him giving him a permanent home.

    I understand your point Rumpy, but I really think it’s semantics. It boils down to the same thing. The animal was taken from an unfavorable situation and given a favorable, permanent place with people who love him. I know that that “with people who love him” is not always the case.

  14. Bang on. It irks me to no end when someone says they ‘rescued’ their pet from the shelter/breeder/puppy mill/whatever. No, you adopted or bought that animal.

    If it comes from a an actual rescue legue, than THEY rescued the animal; you adopted it. If it’s from a breeder, or mill, or online, than you bought it.

    I just feel that when someone goes on about rescuing their pet when they obviously did no such thing it trivializes those that actually go out and properly rescue animals.

  15. If a puppy mill is taken over by animal care officials (SPCA/police) and an animal is then adopted out – that’s a rescue.

    My Dad had a kennel and he did sell dogs, but he was a responsible breeder AND he loved those dogs! In fact, I think his small collection of dogs saved him in many ways.He had a state of the art kennel for the time and probably for today as well with wintertime heating and summertime cooling and indoor/outdoor options. They got state of the art (at the time) medical care and someone was always around – they were obedience trained and happy, happy pups.

    He ended up rescuing many adult breeders from puppy mills which were neutered and never bred again. They were not terribly socialized but they learned to love him. They were given the best accommodations and as much human contact as they desired for the rest of their lives. He rescued them. And as a man who didn’t deal all that well with humans in the up close and personal each of them rescued him.

    When people came to him to buy a pup he always asked them why they thought he would want to sell them a dog. I think he was one of the early people asking for bona fides from adopters. He did not always sell a pup if he thought the person wasn’t good enough – which was a surprise to someone with cash in hand. On the other hand, he might give a pup to a loving home for little or nothing. It was never about money for him – he just loved the dogs.

      1. Funny, because the neighbors hated him (he was a judge) and he had to relocate the kennel out of town. I moved out there and was the on-site person with the dogs for years. Dad was always there for hours each day. His only problem was letting go of a dog who had reached the end of life. We had to prod him at times to ease his beloved dogs out of this world.

  16. I don’t know about the word. But being saving from bad circumstances and never agin being hungry, afraid, hurt and forever safe and sound is being really home. Molly is currently copying the Rumpy side bar pose. Life can be good

  17. I rescued Corky in 1992 when she was found wondering the street in a nearby neighborhood.She was full of parasites and had heartworm. I treated all of her ailments and kept her in a loving home for14+ years. She never wanted for anything.
    Shelby was dumped by her dad because she ate the girl friend’s bra. She was in foster home with several other dogs. Now she is here with her adopted Scottie brother being treated to the best of everything.

  18. It is a very vague word and not only with “fake rescues” but with individuals like me who’ve gotten the cats out of bad situations.

    I’m not even certain with some of the cats I’ve taken in–most were clearly abandoned or feral and homeless and in some danger where they were found, but if a cat is on the euthanasia list at a shelter and will be killed within 24 hours, is that a rescue? If a neighbor asks you to take the cat they don’t want and they are clearly a neglectful or abusive owner, is that a rescue? If you ask a neighbor for all the kittens their unaltered cats are producing so they won’t be dumped on some back road or in the creek? If you ask them for the unspayed female cat who keeps producing?

    I think if the animal is in imminent danger of harm or death from any means and they are taken from there, that’s a rescue. Adopting from unscrupulous breeders could be too depending on the conditions. Stealing a pet from someone who simply doesn’t take care of an animal the way you’d like is likely not.

  19. ‘Rescue’ would be taking a pet in from harm such as off a road, from an abusive owner, from neglect. I rescued a black cat we named max. He was outside and skinny. He got neutered, tested and a home. I adopted my other cats, who were safe in shelters.

  20. I read most of these and agree to some….but I say…if you adopt from a kill shelter..you have rescued…I didnt adopt snoopy from a shelter but I rescued him from my neighbor….he was being abused, starved and trained to fight dogs out of his territory he was only 10 lbs at the time….how ? I had been feeding snoopy and his owners knew it….being their female pitbull took all the food away from him…and they didnt bother to feed him separate….anyway…..the shelter was called about the dogs ( 5 of them) and they came out and told the owners,… they were taking all the dogs who had not got a rabies shot….the owner of snoopy told me this…I told them…if I take him and get his shots the dog is MINE…..so I did…..I rescued snoopy…he would had starved to death as it was he was skin and bones…and fighting other bigger dogs…I suprized he had survived all that before I rescued him.. thats snoopy’s story 🙂

  21. I’m also bothered when people think they’ve ‘rescued’ a dog from a pet store window. Ummm. No. You didn’t. You may have felt sad for it, but that does not constitute a rescue or an adoption. But it’s an interesting way to whitewash the reality, isn’t it?

  22. I don’t usually think about having rescued most of my pets, but I’ve never outright bought one, although I came close. Here’s the list, I dunno how many are “rescues”, but there’s no doubt about it, all wound up happier. Kitten Moonrise, climbed on my shoulder when I myself was roaming the streets unemployed and miserable: a week later, I had a job, she lived with me 16 years. Tiny kitten Boo, barely weaned, someone put her in a protected public place, we picked her up took her home. Older tomcat Orange, not very good shape, caught by neighbor and given to us ‘coz we had 2 cats and loved ’em, they couldn’t keep him: with injunction to keep him; we did. Cat Snuggles, another neighbor threw him out on the street, although occasionally feeding him like a stray, because they had baby: we took him in. Dog Pliny, Light of My Life, gorgeous Dalmatian puppy 4 months old found roaming loose at noon at busy intersection: grabbed him, waited for posters; there never were any, and found out a year or two later thru street talk that (Dalmatians are difficult, which I can vouch for!) that he’d been passed around from “owner” to “owner” and dumped by the last. Adult cat Bonely — nomen est omen — appeared at my door, meowed imperiously to be let in, so we did: later we discovered from police reports that woman running kitten mill was dumping animals in our neighborhood. Chicken Dinner, found as defenseless squawking chick with only one huge black feather, under a car in front of of my house: I named her Dinner because she would have been, to some roving cat; she lived the life of Riley with us for 8 years, eating oats and grapes and sunflower seeds and the occasional fly we caught for her — they had to be still living, though, else she wouldn’t touch ’em. Young cat Shadow — he’s the only one I think of as a real rescue: saw a woman heading into a police station carrying the cat, cut her off before she got there: an unexceptional-looking plain black cat, Shadow would have been killed by City Pound after 5 days. Puppy White Sox — Light of My Life 2 — black Labrador 4 months old, being passed around from “owner” to “owner” busboys in a nearby kitchen restaurant, one of whom was using him as bait in a fight ring; sweet Dog wouldn’t fight, so bait he was, came to us via friend who knew we’d take him in; had bite marks on him and was terrified of basements, leaving the house, and other things: all that gone now, and I hope not even a memory. Pair of bonded kittens Doucette and AJ, roaming wild on streets, caught by woman we know who does this kind of thing, she got them neutered, vaccinated, and we paid her expenses, and further vet bills almost immediately, although they’re now healthy and happy. Latest addition, old cat Dovşan, clearly tame, found roaming my block, no chip, no posters then or later: people down the street assumed she was mine: she weighed 5 lbs, just ribs & fur — horrible to touch and feel — kidney condition, now medicated and not quite plump, but at least I can’t feel her ribs any more: I suspect either that she was dumped when her partner discovered expensive care needed, or else possibly her partner died and out went the cat. Rescues? Technically only Shadow, I think. Net result, though, all of them lived long natural lives, almost all happy (Bonely had problems, poor thing), and not one was put to death: who cares what one calls this.

  23. We have a volunteer at our company who visits/feeds stray dogs in East Saint Louis and surrounding rough neighborhoods (we just published a blog post about her experiences – very moving! http://dogblog.unityhospice.com/). In the years that she’s been active in doing this, she has taken two strays home with her who were clearly in need of a warm, safe home – this is what we would consider “rescuing.”

    Many of our pet therapy volunteers work with local animal shelters, and some of our employees and friends have “adopted” animals from these shelters. In this scenario, the shelter did the rescuing and the individuals did the adopting.

    What a though-provoking post. Thank you for initiating this conversation!

  24. My daughter knows of a situation where a scumbag (just bred his dog so he could sell the pups for drug money) had 3 pups that are obviously not being well cared for. One has recently died but he continues to try and sell the other two and refuses to turn them over. She fears for the other pup’s lives so she is buying them from him so that she can turn them over to a rescue when she finds one that will accept them. Every rescue she has contacted said they are too full, won’t take potentially ill puppies or just never replied to her. The ASPCA has also told her they have no room for them and as long as they have shelter and food and water, they can’t do anything. She does not have alot of money to buy these puppies but she feels so strongly about trying to do what’s right for them. I offered her supplies and medicine but I won’t risk bringing them to my house because I have dogs and dont want to take a chance not knowing what the puppies could be carrying. I applaud my daughter for RESCUING these puppies. There doesn’t seem to be any other choice in this situation, sadly

  25. I dont understand why the topic of concept is in others opinions on what a “rescue” dog means. Ive walked down the aisles of either soon to be saved or soon to be sentenced kennels. Looking back and forth to see what might be a promising life long com padre. Like lighting crashing through your bones when you finally lock eyes and see a possible connection. She became my best friend the second I saw her. Weve been through everything together. The good, the bad and the ugly. I cant tell the difference at this point. Did I save her? Or did she save me? Best impulsive decision I feel ive ever made. 50 pounds of beef and snorts, waddling a hundred mph down the hallway at you to meet you in your bed.

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