Euthanasia Discussion

A few weeks ago, Dave Perry wrote an opinion piece, “End the euphemism for killing unwanted dogs and cats; it’s not euthanasia.”  The point that Mr. Perry was trying to make is that the word euthanasia comes from the Greek meaning “good death.”  Many definitions go further to suggest that the word means to perform this good death to alleviate pain and suffering.  It connotates being a good thing that we administer.

There is nothing good about the fact that we must kill animals because they are born into a world that doesn’t want them.  I know, I know, the no-kill world claims that there is no pet surplus; but, they are idiots.  The surplus of animals differs from community to community.  It is an indicator as to a community’s sensitivity to responsible pet ownership that includes spaying and neutering their animals.

Mr. Perry focused on the usage of the word.  But the act of euthanasia or “killing” takes an emotional toll on the animals and on shelter staff.  Performing this act speaks to the failure that we, as humans, deal with a problem that is caused by us.

I have to agree with Mr. Perry that there is nothing good about the killing of adoptable animals in our shelters.  We can attempt to soften the blow by finding a fancy word to describe our actions, but in the end the animals is dead.  All we have done is to bring the least painful method to killing an animal that is stuck in a small cage.  Those of us who have worked in animal shelters know that the longer an animal sits in a small cage, the more inhumane the confinement becomes.  So the question is to the length of time that an animal must  be held in a cage so that you can justify claiming that you are relieving the animal’s pain and suffering to call its death euthanasia.  The question that is always asked is how long is too long to hold an animal while calling its confinement humane?  That differs from animal to animal and it depends on the enrichment programs that are offered to the animal during its confinement.  The fact that we keep an animal in a cage for two years before it begins to become cage crazy and the animal is “euthanized;” we have to ask if we should look back and claim if holding the animal for such a long period of time, only to be euthanized is humane?  Probably not, but we are always hopeful for a positive outcome.

The no-kill movement doesn’t want us to blame the people responsible for causing the pet overpopulation problem; but, they want to blame the ones who must clean up the mess.


The hardest part of our profession is administering euthanasia.  We do this mostly as a result of bad pet ownership.  Euthanasia is a two part process: determining which animals are placed on the euthanasia list and then administering the euthanasia.  This is an area of our profession where we are overwhelmed with arm chair quarterbacks.  It is a very volatile part of our business and as a result of the hostility that results in the decision process, I always made the final decision.

It is tough enough for the employees who have to kill the animals that they have cared for; it would be unfair that they have to suffer the consequences for having to decide which animals are selected.  Although people, including volunteers, think that the decision process is abritraty, it is really a thought out piece of engineering.

Euthanasia is the most contentious issue for animal shelters.  It frequently pits volunteers against staff.  At my last shelter, the volunteers went to war with staff over the decision to euthanize two dogs that had become aggressive over their lengthy stay with us.  The dogs would act friendly to a few volunteers, but show aggression to the staff caring for them.  Euthanizing the dogs angered the volunteers and they called into question our decision making process.  The went to board meetings to verbalize their anger.  The board put together a group to investigate our euthanasia process and issued a report.

Given the volatility of creating a euthanasia list and the tremendous number of things that can go wrong as a result of euthanasia, I have created a few rules that I followed in making the decision:

Always keep an animal two days beyond the date that the animal is “supposed” to be euthanize, especially if you are waiting for an owner to reclaim the animal.  I have encountered countless incidents in which an owner shows up to reclaim their pet after the stray hold time has expired.  Although they don’t care enough to timely reclaim their pet, they will blame you for not acting on their schedule.  So whatever arrangement that you make with an owner to reclaim their pet, keep the pet a few days longer because that is when they will likely show up.

Document the animal’s condition when the decision is based on medical or behavioral condition.  It is not uncommon for a pet owner to surrender their pet as a stray to you because of an animal’s medical condition and try to adopt the animal back after the animal has been treated.  Many times the animal may be beyond treatment and the owner will return claiming that he/she has been victimized by you failing to treat their pet.

Always make sure that you use competent and caring staff to perform euthanasia.  The last few moments of a pet’s life should be as stress free as possible.  Since you are using a controlled substance in performing euthanasia, you can save yourself a lot of grief by having employees who can perform simple mathematics.  You would be surprise as to the number of staff that I’ve had who could not subtract numbers with a decimals. 

Don’t ever get talked into adopting out an aggressive animal.  Many shelters have offered an animal a second (or third) chance, only to be sued and raked over the media for putting their community at risk for making a careless adoption decision.  The best community preventative for an aggressive dog is euthanasia. 

Do not allow anyone to bully the staff who preform euthanasia.  It is a tough task and no one has the right to bully them. 

Owner Requested Euthanasia

Many animal shelters provide euthanasia services for pet owners.  I have had some pet owners give horrible reasons for wanting their pet euthanized; such as, “He is my puppy and I do not want anyone else to own him.”  For that reason, when I have worked in an animal shelter, I allow the owner to surrender the pet to the shelter.  Once the shelter takes ownership of the pet, we decide if the euthanasia request is reasonable.

I have had owners wanting to argue with me.  I have explained that they have the option to take their business to their own veterinarian.  Although my shelter exists to service the community, I felt that I had an obligation to protect pets from outrageous owners.

I’ve always tried to maintain a holding period for pet owners to cool off or time for other family members to become aware of the surrender and be able to reclaim their pet that was surrendered in anger.

Minimizing the Effect of Euthanasia on Staff

Performing euthanasia is the most stressful aspect of being an animal shelter employee. I witnessed a couple of work burnouts as a result of euthanizing animals that I had become fond of. The problem is greatest for smaller operations.

When I started out in this profession, I handled every aspect of an animal’s cycle through my shelter:

  • I was the Animal Control Officer, responsible for responding to complaints and impounding animals in the field.
  • I was the Animal Attendant, responsible for the daily care of the animals.
  • I was the Vet Tech, responsible for maintaining the daily health of the animals.
  • I was the Shelter Manager, responsible for deciding which animals needed to by euthanized due to shelter overcrowding.
  • I was the Euthanasia Tech, responsible for the euthanizing and disposal of the animals.

Although euthanasia, at any level, is stressful, compartmentalizing each aspect can reduce the stress that is experienced by any one individual.  The greatest stress reliever is to insure that the euthanasia process is handled well; by competent, caring staff.  By relieving stress on the animal, helps relieve stress on those performing the task.

The last moments of an animal’s life should be performed with the greatest compassion.