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Crafting A Compassionate Euthanasia Policy For Your Animal Sanctuary

Photo by Kelly Sikkema on Unsplash

Animal sanctuaries committed to providing lifelong compassionate care to their residents must also consider what a dignified, peaceful end-of-life would look like for all of their residents as well. Although the ideal would be for all residents to peacefully pass in their sleep simply due to graceful aging, unfortunately for many animals, the end of their days does not often come without pain, struggle, and fear. At a certain point, a resident’s suffering may overwhelm their daily life to the point where it is no longer compassionate to continue managing their challenges if improvement to their condition is impossible.

For this reason, creating and consistently adhering to a compassionate euthanasia policy should be a critical component of your organization’s operations. Although this may be a difficult topic for your organization to think about, having this policy in place can help guide your sanctuary through painful decisions with greater confidence and gentleness. Ultimately, what specifically goes into your sanctuary’s euthanasia policy will be a reflection of your values, mission, and philosophy of care.

Writing Your Organization’s Euthanasia Policy

When writing your sanctuary’s euthanasia policy, you should think critically about each of the following considerations, where your organization stands on the issues, and how to most effectively and clearly communicate your positions so they are actionable and comprehensive in all relevant situations, no matter how stressful they may be.

Quality Of Life Concerns

What specific quality of life concerns would lead your organization to consider compassionate euthanasia as an option for a resident? Conditions for which some organizations might consider euthanasia include:

  • A resident has an incurable disease, condition, or injury that clearly causes significant pain or suffering that cannot be managed, or the treatment of which will cause unreasonable pain or suffering in itself, or the treatment will not bring back an acceptable quality of life
  • A resident has a significant impairment to their breathing that cannot be treated or managed
  • A resident is suffering from uncontrollable, unmanageable seizures that significantly reduces their quality of life
  • A resident is suffering from end-stage organ failure that significantly reduces their quality of life
Consider Making A Care Flowchart

Oftentimes, euthanasia is an emotionally-fraught, difficult decision to make for a beloved resident. Writing out a flowchart as part of your care treatment plans, where you have a well-defined, agreed-upon structure of how you determine a resident’s well-being, response to treatment, and future care options, can be an invaluable tool to help you decide whether you’ve truly done everything you can for a resident or if there are more options available in their care.

Who Decides Upon Euthanasia

Part of your organization’s euthanasia policy should clearly explain who is involved (and who isn’t) with the decision to euthanize an individual, and whether any one staff member or the organization’s board has a final say in the matter. Sometimes this decision involves the Executive Director, Shelter Manager, the board as a whole, or the individual caregiver who primarily works with a resident. Including multiple people in the decision promotes discussion and ensures that those involved are seeing the full scope of an animal’s quality of life.  Animals may behave differently around different people and at different times of day, so involving multiple people in the discussion will provide everyone with more information in order to make the most compassionate decision possible. By implementing a policy in which more than one person is involved in euthanasia decisions, you are more likely to protect against the decision being unintentionally influenced by unrelated factors.

Euthanasia is often a difficult, emotional decision, and it’s not surprising that those involved in the decision may be unknowingly influenced by things such as emotional trauma from a previous euthanasia decision, issues in their personal life, compassion fatigue, or even their relationship with the animal. We are all influenced by our past and our current situation, but having multiple people involved in these important decisions can help ensure that the individual’s needs and quality of life are thoroughly and thoughtfully assessed.  If euthanasia is frequently left up to a single individual, steps should be taken to ensure that their mental health is given extra consideration to help protect them from compassion fatigue. Even if euthanasia is the most compassionate choice for a suffering individual, the decision is still likely to be an emotionally devastating one.

Many organizations include a stipulation that a licensed veterinarian (or multiple veterinarians), preferably one who has worked with the individual before, evaluate and sign off on the decision that euthanasia is the most compassionate course of action for an ailing individual.

Methods Of Compassionate Euthanasia

Part of your policy should include a section on how euthanasia is to be carried out and by whom. Euthanasia should always be carried out by a licensed veterinarian or certified euthanasia technician using methods that adhere to the guidelines outlined by the American Veterinary Medical Association (AVMA) and are as comfortable for residents and those around them as possible. Unfortunately, the AVMA considers certain unacceptable methods of euthanasia, such as captive bolt pistols, to be appropriate for farmed animals. Do not allow a veterinarian or other professional to perform euthanasia using a method that is unacceptable, regardless of whether it is approved by the AVMA. 

Sadly, there are many non-compassionate practices that are viewed by some individuals in the veterinary community as acceptable for farmed animals (which would not be considered acceptable for species commonly viewed as companion animals such as dogs or cats).  For all species of farmed animals, there exist methods of humane euthanasia (similar to those used for companion animals) that are AVMA approved. It is unacceptable to perform euthanasia using a method that is not approved by the AVMA.

Whenever possible, it is always advised to have a licensed veterinarian perform euthanasia because it provides one more opportunity for the individual’s condition to be assessed and discussed.  If you decide to have a certified euthanasia technician perform euthanasia, make sure a licensed veterinarian has assessed and diagnosed the individual and has been involved in their treatment plan.  It may also be appropriate to have them involved in the euthanasia discussion, even if they will not be the person performing the euthanasia, in order to ensure that all treatment options have been considered and that euthanasia is the most compassionate choice.

To Separate Or Not To Separate

There are many factors to consider when deciding whether or not an individual should be separated from their herd or flock during the euthanasia process. The individual’s personality and current health status, as well as the dynamics of the group and any safety concerns should all be considered. If it will be stressful for the individual to be separated, and it is safe to perform the euthanasia around other residents, you may decide that is best not to separate them. However, some sanctuaries choose not to perform euthanasia in front of other residents to prevent any possible stress or trauma that may result from witnessing the euthanasia process. There will also be times when it is simply not safe to perform a euthanasia around other residents, especially with a group of large animals who are concerned about a family member. These are not always straightforward decisions, so you will need to consider all factors and make what you feel is the right decision for your residents.

Talking To Veterinarians About Euthanasia

When finding qualified veterinarians for different species under your care, it’s important that you talk to potential candidates about your euthanasia policies, and ask them upfront about whether they’d be comfortable and qualified to euthanize residents using gentle methods. Many large farmed animal veterinarians, such as those who have experience with pigs, have never had to conduct compassionate euthanasia, and may face significant challenges doing so as there is little literature out there on the subject matter. It’s far better to have these discussions before a difficult, time-sensitive decision must be made, because witnessing an unnecessarily painful euthanasia experience is both traumatizing to human caregivers and a tragic end for the resident.

Emergency Euthanasia

Although it hopefully never transpires at your sanctuary, what would your organization do in the event where a resident is suffering from extreme, untreatable pain, injury, or distress, such as after a catastrophic accident or violence against them? It’s better to discuss and create policies for scenarios such as these and hopefully never have to put them into action, rather than hoping it never happens and be faced with an impossible decision without a plan.

Post-Euthanasia Considerations

There are a lot of decisions to make and regulations to consider at the conclusion of a resident’s life. Check out our resource about other end-of-life considerations here.

Unacceptable Euthanasia Conditions

Considering how serious it is, and the implications it holds for your residents and community, there are a number of things that your euthanasia policy should prohibit. We believe that all of the following scenarios should be considered unacceptable for animal sanctuaries:

Euthanasia On The Basis Of Capacity: An animal sanctuary should never euthanize any residents due to a lack of any variable of capacity, be it a lack of space, a lack of funding, or a lack of staff bandwidth. When a sanctuary takes in a resident, they’ve made a lifelong commitment to that individual, and it is the sanctuary’s responsibility to find a way to increase their capacity in a way that does not harm those they’ve already taken in.

Euthanasia On The Basis Of Personality Alone: An animal sanctuary should never decide to euthanize a resident based on a resident’s personality alone, even if they’re more confrontational than other residents. A sanctuary commits to taking in residents as they are and providing a comfortable home for everyone, even those who may have a less easy-to-manage personality. Rather than euthanasia, the organization should find a way of providing a home that is safe for all residents, such as configuring a separate pasture or habitat for residents with bigger personalities.

By contrast, a resident’s personality could change significantly as a result of a disease, injury, or condition that is clearly causing them pain or suffering. In cases like these, personality should be a secondary concern to whether the disease, injury, or condition can be managed or treated.

Euthanasia On The Basis Of Age Alone: By virtue of receiving lifelong care, hopefully a sanctuary’s residents will grow old and continue to enjoy their lives through the years. Older residents will likely begin to have unique needs in order to continue being comfortable at a sanctuary that can be met with thoughtful adjustments, but that does not mean that their quality of life is inherently poor! Euthanasia should not be considered due to a resident’s age, but rather the basis of whether they are suffering due to a condition that cannot be managed.

Euthanasia And The Public: Animals who are suffering grievously, especially prey animals like farmed animal species, may very likely be afraid and wish to get away from humans without the ability to do so, and the end of a sanctuary resident’s life should never be a public event. For these reasons, a resident’s end-of-life should be a quiet, private affair with as few in attendance as possible. Other residents should be kept away if at all possible, as it would likely be an upsetting experience for them.

It’s Not About The Humans

Some sanctuaries in the past have held events for the public at the end of an individual’s life, with humans crowding around an ailing resident who cannot escape. It is highly unlikely that a scenario such as this would benefit a suffering animal and will only likely add significant stress to the occasion. Memorials can always be held at a later time.

Mass Euthanasia At An Animal Sanctuary: There should never, ever be any instances of mass euthanasia at an animal sanctuary, where a herd or flock is euthanized without individual consideration. To do so would strip all individuals involved of the dignity and individual care promised to them when they were brought into a sanctuary environment.

There may be tragic occasions of dangerous disease outbreaks at sanctuaries where entire flocks or herds may be afflicted. In cases such as these, each individual resident should be evaluated, treated, and their quality of life observed, rather than ever making the blanket decision to euthanize an entire flock or herd of animals on the basis of disease risk alone.

Deciding Upon Euthanasia Without A Relationship With The Resident: A sanctuary must think very carefully about who is involved in the decision-making process with respects to euthanasia. Those who have the most experience with a resident should have a significant role in the conversation, not just those in charge of the organization as a whole. Without the voice of an advocate who knows a resident’s general demeanor, personality, and preferences, a sanctuary risks making decisions without a full picture of the individual in question, potentially missing subtle variables in a complex and final decision; and if someone in a management position decides upon euthanasia without input from those who work often with the resident, they risk losing the support of their staff and community.

Unacceptable Methods Of Euthanasia: A sanctuary should never employ agricultural or other non-compassionate implements for euthanasia, such as firearms, captive bolt pistols, blades, or blunt objects, and should not use medications or other solutions not intended for euthanasia. To do so demonstrates little respect for the individual resident or a commitment to a gentle, comfortable end-of-life.

What Does 'Unacceptable' Mean?

At The Open Sanctuary Project, unacceptable means that we cannot condone (or condone through omission) a certain practice, standard, or policy. See a more detailed explanation here.

To Publicize Or Not To Publicize

Few animal sanctuaries make their euthanasia policy public; although it is commendable to provide such high transparency to the community, the difficult decision to end a resident’s life can cause significant controversy amongst a public that may not have as full a picture as your organization does, and releasing your euthanasia policy to the public might not send the message of thoughtful care in the way you had hoped it would. Ultimately, although having a euthanasia policy on hand is crucial, it is up to a sanctuary to decide whether this is something they want the public to have detailed knowledge about.

Keeping Record Of End Of Life Events

In order to help sanctuaries track End Of Life care at their organizations, we’ve developed a free downloadable form just for this purpose. We encourage all sanctuaries to either use our free form or develop one that suits their specific needs!

Updated on August 28, 2019

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