Increasing Demand for Owner-requested Euthanasia in US Animal Shelters; Should veterinarians help?

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Recently, it was brought to my attention the number of owner-requested euthanasias in animal shelters may be increasing.  This is when humane euthanasia is provided for pets owned by members of the community. Pet owners may not be able to afford euthanasia services at the local veterinary hospital or cannot be seen by a local vet due to time or scheduling constraints. The local animal shelter is available to assist with euthanasia usually at a reduced cost, and in my opinion is a vital way to support animal welfare, especially when suffering is present.  

Shelters typically have their own non-veterinary personnel to carry out the procedure, however, like so many industries, they are having a difficult time remaining fully staffed and meeting the demand.  Many shelters have veterinarians on staff, and their responsibilities often fall with health inspections, surgery, and medical care to increase the likelihood of pet adoption. Shelter euthanasia technicians are specially trained by the state and national governing agencies to perform the procedure, and are asked to euthanize animals already taken into the shelter for a variety of reasons. An additional load is placed on them when owners request euthanasia too.  Again, an important service to provide but one that may be tipping the scales from sustainable to overwhelming for these euthanasia technicians, especially if veterinary hospitals who may normally be able to help cannot due to their own demands.

A shelter reached out to ask if I thought veterinarians may be able to assist with owner-requested euthanasias a few days a month; a reasonable ask knowing it can make a huge difference for their euthanasia technicians.  Euthanasia-related fatigue is a significant issue in the shelter system.  While veterinarians can also experience this kind of fatigue, spreading the workload out among more people can reduce the demand on a few, contributing to greater satisfaction in one’s career.  It got me thinking about my own ability to serve local shelters and perhaps what other veterinarians around the country could do as well.

Reasons to Help

  1. Veterinarians are licensed to perform euthanasia.
  2. We are familiar with the drugs and techniques used in most animal shelters.
  3. It is a community service that promotes good animal welfare; to end the suffering of sick and dying pets.
  4. Shelters may be able to transition into owner-present euthanasia (where owners are allowed to remain for the euthanasia of their pet).
  5. Perfect for retired veterinarians or those looking to add more community service hours.

Reasons to Think Twice

  1. Practicing veterinarians may be stretched thin by work commitments already.
  2. If factoring in what it pays, shelters cannot afford much. Better suited to volunteer time?
  3. Veterinarians must reflect on what brings them joy in their work, and more euthanasia may not be it.
  4. If the arrangement goes well, pet owners may end up bringing more dying pets to the shelters for euthanasia, increasing demand on an already fragile system.

An important thing to consider is what is driving any rise in euthanasia demand at US animal shelters. If it is because veterinary hospitals are unable to assist due to fully booked schedules or a change in non-client euthanasia policies, this should be explored more. The consequence might be pet owners gravitating to the only open door in town…the shelters. If it’s due to a rising cost of euthanasia services in vet hospitals, that should be looked at too. I see important conversations ahead for leading veterinary associations and shelter groups.

Shelters who consider this option have likely deliberated countless hours to get to the point of reaching out to veterinarians. Their motivation is honest and pure; reduce the workload and emotional burden on their staff to keep the shelter moving full speed ahead to meet the ever growing demands of the community.  Veterinarians with the time and resources may be the missing link (and perhaps licensed veterinary technicians or the developing mid-level practitioner in states where they are allowed to perform euthanasia).

The Companion Animal Euthanasia Training Academy (CAETA) has training modules specific to owner-requested and owner-present pet euthanasia in the shelter setting.  Learn more here.

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Dr. Kathleen Cooney

DVM, CHPV, CPEV, DACAW resident Founder, Senior Director of Education for the Companion Animal Euthanasia Training Academy