Euthanasia - dogs and cats
Policy type: Policy
Date ratified: May 2018
This policy is based on the American Veterinary Medical Association Guidelines for the Euthanasia of Animals: 2013 Edition. We acknowledge the work that the members of the AVMA Panel on Euthanasia have contributed.
Veterinarians have a responsibility to ensure that when they perform euthanasia, it is done with respect and an emphasis on making the death as painless and distress free as possible. For the purposes of this policy, euthanasia will be taken to mean the act of ending a cat or dog’s life by a method that causes no pain or distress to the animal. These guidelines attempt to balance the ideal of minimal pain and distress with the reality of the many environments in which euthanasia is performed.
Legal requirements and ethical responsibilities
It is essential to ensure that the animal to be euthanased is correctly identified. This is particularly important in the clinic setting where a cat or dog may be dropped off to be euthanased when an owner is not present.
When an animal is owned, veterinarians must obtain informed consent before proceeding with euthanasia. The Veterinary Council of New Zealand (VCNZ) Code of Professional Conduct for Veterinarians, details the process of obtaining informed consent.
If the owner is under 18 years of age, has language difficulties or a limited mental capacity to provide consent, consideration should be given to identifying a support agent (such as a parent or interpreter) to assist.
While consent may be given verbally and the process recorded in the medical record, validating the process by obtaining the client’s signature on a euthanasia consent form provides additional protection.
Presentation of a cat or dog for euthanasia by an agent
When an animal is presented for euthanasia by an agent, rather than an owner, suitable enquiries should be made to establish the facts and ensure the agent has the authority to act on behalf of the owner.
Document all the steps taken to investigate the situation. Use microchip registration (e.g. National Dog Database, and the New Zealand Companion Animal Register) and local council records where available to both verify and contact the owner to satisfy yourself that the situation is genuine.
In these circumstances, having the agent sign a euthanasia consent form is essential.
Euthanasia of a cat or dog presented without an owner or agent
In the case of a “severely injured or sick animal” presented to a veterinarian without an owner, under section 138 of the Animal Welfare Act (1999), veterinarians have the authority and an obligation to euthanase the animal. This authority can only be used if the owner cannot be found in a reasonable timeframe and “reasonable treatment will not be sufficient to make the animal respond and the animal will suffer unreasonable or unnecessary pain or distress if it continues to live.” There is no other situation that allows for veterinarians to legally euthanase an animal without an owner’s consent.
The VCNZ Code of Professional Conduct for Veterinarians states, “that where veterinarians act independently in reliance on section 138, they must be very sure that they follow all the obligatory procedural steps to minimise the risk of associated legal liability and should document the same”.
Where any doubt exists, involve an animal welfare inspector. If the delay will not further compromise the severely sick or injured animal’s welfare, you can also request advice from the VCNZ or NZVA on the case prior to acting.
The NZVA position statement, Euthanasia or Destruction of Stray Cats, has further detail regarding legal and ethical issues concerning the euthanasia or destruction of unowned cats, and veterinarians should familiarise themselves on this complex issue.
Owners who disagree with a veterinarian’s recommendation to euthanase their pet are entitled to seek a second opinion as long as the animal’s welfare is not compromised.
Veterinarians must undertake reasonable due diligence in determining ownership of a presented animal.
Whilst the National Dog Database and the New Zealand Companion Animal Register can identify the person to whom an animal is registered, this is not proof of ownership per se.
The Animal Welfare Act 1999 and the Dog Control Act 1996 both define the owner as the person who “owns the dog/animal,“ and not the person to whom the animal is registered. The legislation allows for a change of ownership and new address to be recorded after the dog has been transported to a new home. In other words, the register simply records legal ownership, it does not determine it. For this reason, care must be taken in determining ownership (or provision of authority) prior to euthanasia.
Handling and restraint
The welfare aspects of all procedures that occur prior to irreversible loss of consciousness of the animal must be considered. Proper handling is vital to minimise pain and distress in animals and to ensure the safety of the personnel performing the euthanasia.
Some latitude is needed for animals that are not accustomed to humans or that are severely injured or otherwise compromised.
Personnel who perform euthanasia must demonstrate proficiency in the use of the technique, as well as in the humane restraint of the species of animal to be euthanased.
To minimize distress, veterinarians should strive to euthanase an animal within its physical and behavioural comfort zones and, where possible, prepare a calming environment.
Sedatives or anaesthetics should be administered prior to the lethal injection. This will provide anxiolysis, analgesia and somnolence to reduce animal distress, allow easier and safer intravenous access and reduce apnoeic gasping that could be distressing to observers.
Owners should be permitted to be present during euthanasia if they so wish. They should be fully informed about the process and their animal’s likely behaviour. When euthanasia is conducted with an owner present, pre-euthanasia sedation or anaesthesia should be provided whenever practicable, either before or after the owner has had the opportunity to spend some final moments with their pet.
Recommended methods of euthanasia
Intravenous injection of an overdose of barbiturate
This method involves direct intravenous administration of barbiturates by a veterinarian. Prior sedation should be strongly considered.
Intraperitoneal administration of barbiturate in an anaesthetised animals
As this method has the potential for peritoneal irritation and pain due to properties of the drug, there is a requirement for the animal to be anaesthetised or unconsciousness prior to intraperitoneal barbiturate administration. This method is recommended when intravenous access would cause distress, be dangerous or impractical (e.g. due to small patient size such as with puppies and kittens). The addition of lidocaine to the barbiturate injection may also ameliorate discomfort.
Intra-organ administration of barbiturate in anaesthetised animals
This method results in a swifter uptake of barbiturate over the intraperitoneal route, and is preferred for larger animals in which intravenous access is unachievable. As this method has the potential to cause pain, anaesthesia must first be induced, before the barbiturate is administered in either the spleen, liver, kidney, heart or into the medullary cavity.
It is acknowledged that other euthanasia methods exist which are appropriate for use by veterinarians in specific situations and can be acceptable when certain conditions are met.
Unacceptable methods of euthanasia
Subcutaneous, intramuscular, intrapulmonary and intrathecal routes of administration
These methods are unacceptable as the chosen route of administration of injectable euthanasia agents because of the limited information available regarding their effectiveness. In conscious cats and dogs there is also a high probability of pain associated with injection. This does not include the intramuscular delivery of select injectable anaesthetics.
Household chemicals, disinfectants, cleaning agents, and pesticides
These are not acceptable for administration as euthanasia agents.
Hypothermia, drowning, asphyxia, decapitation, thoracic compression, throat cut and sticking
These are not acceptable methods of euthanasia.
Dangerous or Fractious Animals
Animals that are unable to be safely and humanely restrained should be sedated by means of drugs delivered orally (e.g. gelatine capsules for delivery of drugs in food, liquid formulations squirted into mouths) or remotely (e.g. darts, pole syringes) before administration of euthanasia agents.
Euthanasia of pregnant dogs, cats, and other mammals in mid or late-term pregnancy should be conducted via an injection of a barbiturate as previously described. Foetuses should be left undisturbed in the uterus for 60 minutes after the bitch or queen has been confirmed dead and will die of hypoxaemia (Leis, 1974). Intraperitoneal injections of pentobarbital in pregnant animals should be avoided whenever possible during the later stages of pregnancy due to the likelihood of inadvertently entering the uterus, rendering the injection ineffective.
During ovariohysterectomy of pregnant dogs and cats, ligation of the uterine blood vessels with retention of the foetuses inside the uterus will result in death of the foetuses by hypoxaemia. The uterus should not be opened for at least an hour.
In the case of caesarean section in late-term pregnancy, intraperitoneal injection of pentobarbital is recommended for foetuses that have been removed from the uterus (creating the potential that successful breathing may have occurred), and that must be euthanased for congenital deformities or illness.
Animal Control, Quarantine, Research Institutions, Sheltering and Rescue Facilities
Euthanasia protocols in institutional settings (e.g. shelters, research facilities, and quarantine facilities) may differ from those applied in traditional companion animal clinical practices due to situation-specific requirements. These include variable access to pharmaceuticals and other equipment, diagnostic and research needs (e.g. post-mortem tissue sampling) and the number of animals to be euthanased.
While protocols may differ, the welfare of the animal must be given equal consideration whether the animal is individually owned or not.
When euthanasing animals that are well socialised, without pre-euthanasia sedation or anaesthesia, appropriate handling should involve two trained people. One individual restrains the animal and the other administers the euthanasia agent.
When euthanasing distressed, dangerous, or fractious animals, a sedative or anaesthetic should be administered prior to attempting euthanasia. After administration of the sedative or anaesthetic, the animal should be released so that it can return to a comfortable low-stress location (e.g. dimly lighted cage or area) while the drug takes effect.
Following administration of the lethal agent, death should be confirmed to ensure that the animal is not only in deep narcosis. This must include a combination of the following criteria:
- no palpable pulse
- no respiratory movements
- absent corneal reflex
- absent deep pain reflex
- auscultation with a stethoscope reveals no heart or respiratory sounds
- grey mucus membrane colour
- rigor mortis
None of these factors alone, except rigor mortis, confirms death (Members of the Panel of Euthanasia, 2013).
Disposal of the body
If the owner wishes to take their deceased pet home for burial, sensitivity should be shown regarding how the body is presented to them. This sensitivity should also extend to owners who are collecting their pet’s ashes following cremation.
Animal remains containing pentobarbital may be toxic to scavengers and the manner of disposal must ensure that secondary poisoning does not occur. Deep burying, away from waterways will avoid this problem.
Public landfills have safe and responsible burial processes in place that prevent scavenging and leaching.
If owners feel that their pet had a dignified, peaceful death, it assists with the natural grieving process that occurs when losing a pet.
Veterinarians should recognise that some owners will need professional assistance with their grief from losing a pet and refer them to a counsellor with experience in this area.
Managing compassion fatigue
Many owners require significant emotional support during the euthanasia process. This can place a large emotional burden on the veterinarian and clinic support staff.
It is vitally important to have mechanisms in place to proactively manage this unique veterinary professional stress and be able to recognise and address compassion fatigue in both ourselves and our colleagues.
Beausoleil, N., & Mellor, D. (2014). Introducing breathlessness as a significant animal welfare issue. New Zealand Veterinary Journal, 63(1), 44-51. doi:10.1080/00480169.2014.940410
Grier, R. S. (1990). Evaluation of intraperitoneal and intrahepatic administration of a euthanasia agent in animal shelter cats. Journal of American Veterinary Medical Association, 197(12), 1611-1615.
Leis, t. K. (1974). Fetal pathology in rats following uterine-vessel clamping on day 14 of gestation. Teratology, 10(1), 55-67. doi:10.1002/tera.1420100109
Mellor D.J. (2010). Galloping colts, fetal feelings, and reassuring regulations: putting animal welfare science into practice. Journal of veterinary medical education., 37(1), 94-100. doi:10.3138/jvme.37.1.94
Mellor D.J. (2010). Galloping colts, fetal feelings, and reassuring regulations: putting animal welfare science into practice. Journal of veterinary medical education.(37), 94-100.
Members of the Panel of Euthanasia. (2013). AVMA guidelines for the euthanasia of animals: 2013 edition.
Veterinary Council of New Zealand. (2011). Code of professional conduct. Retrieved from Veterinary Council of New Zealand: http://www.vetcouncil.org.nz/CPC/index.php