Euthanasia or destruction of stray cats
Policy type: Position statement
Date ratified: May 2018
Euthanasia = easy death
NZVA’s on policy on euthanasia of cats and dogs describes minimising distress, and informs us that “veterinarians should strive to euthanase an animal within its physical and behavioural comfort zones and, where possible, prepare a calming environment.”
Euthanasia is not a term therefore that applies to the killing of stray, unsocialised, frightened, and distressed cats.
It is generally accepted that the term “destruction” is used to describe this process.
Many veterinarians in New Zealand are presented with the scenario of a stray cat being brought to the veterinary clinic for euthanasia, often by a member of the public. The legalities around the decision making process are complex and require careful consideration and adequate due diligence before euthanasia or destruction* is undertaken.
It is important for veterinarians to familiarise themselves with the definitions of cats as this is fundamental to the decision-making process regarding treatment and euthanasia or destruction of stray cats.
Legal & Practical Definitions of Cats
The Animal Welfare (Companion Cats) Code of Welfare 2007 contains definition a of cat categories that is generally accepted in New Zealand today:
A common domestic cat (including a kitten unless otherwise stated) that lives with humans as a companion and is dependent on humans for its welfare.
A cat which is not a stray cat and which has none of its needs provided by humans. Feral cats generally do not live around centres of human habitation. Feral cat population size fluctuates largely independently of humans, is self-sustaining and is not dependant on input from the companion cat population.
A companion cat which is lost or abandoned, or born stray, and which is living as an individual or in a group (colony). Stray cats have many of their needs indirectly supplied by humans, and live around centres of human habitation. Stray cats will breed with the unneutered companion and stray cat population.
Most unowned cats presented to veterinary clinics will be ‘stray cats’ by definition, and as such, may potentially be owned or semi-owned, regardless of whether they are socialised or not.
Very few truly feral cats (by definition), will be presented to veterinary clinics by a member of the public. Even when a cat is believed to be feral according to the definition in the Code of Welfare, it is still imperative to ensure, as a veterinarian, that the cat is not identified by a microchip or any other form of identification before undertaking euthanasia or destruction.
Unowned cats with which veterinarians deal can be divided in to two meaningful categories:
- Socialised or tame stray cats – can be handled, may be semi-owned, or have a carer that considers that they have some relationship with, and responsibility to, the cat. These cats may appear unsocialised in the first instance, when caged, but settle to varying degrees, given time.
- Unsocialised stray cats – cannot be handled, BUT may be semi-owned, or have a carer that considers that they have some relationship with, and responsibility to, the cat. These cats will likely display fearful behaviour (i.e. hissing, spitting, batting) when caged, and will not settle given time.
In the absence of a specific Act regarding the management of cats, the Animal Welfare Act 1999 becomes the obvious piece of legislation to provide veterinarians with direction on their responsibilities. Unfortunately the Animal Welfare Act itself doesn’t specifically address this issue. The Act does not make any provision for a veterinarian to euthanase or destroy a stray cat, nor does it specifically say they cannot.
Section 138 of the Act makes provision for a veterinarian to destroy a ‘severely injured or sick animal’ ONLY if the animal is suffering ‘unreasonable or necessary pain or distress’, provided they have exhausted all reasonable efforts to locate an owner. There is also a facility within the Act, to euthanase or destroy and animal if permission is granted by a warranted animal welfare officer.
The Veterinary Council Code of Professional Conduct (COPC) states that where veterinarians act independently and in reliance on section 138, they must be sure that they follow all the obligatory procedural steps to minimise the risk of associated legal liability and should document the same.
The Act attempts to address the issue of healthy stray animals through Section 141 which makes the provision for an ‘approved organisation’ such as the Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (SPCA) to hold any stray animal for a statutory 7 days to allow reclamation. After this time, only the approved organisation has the legislated power to euthanase, destroy, foster or rehome that animal. It is important to understand that private veterinarians are not afforded this power under the Act.
The Act also allows a warranted animal welfare officer to destroy a stray cat immediately when the animal is, as a consequence of containment or severe injury, severely distressed (i.e. suffering unreasonable or unnecessary pain or distress). This includes psychological distress as likely to be seen when unsocialised stray cats are contained (i.e. displaying wild-type, extreme fear-aggressive behaviours). This can also occur with many socialised cats, immediately after containment - therefore, extreme care must be taken to ensure advice and subsequent destruction decisions are timely, and that destruction is limited to only those animals with genuinely compromised welfare.
An animal welfare officer would normally seek veterinary advice on the matter, before approving destruction. An animal welfare officer can choose to bring cats to a private veterinarian and authorise their euthanasia or destruction under section 141 of the Act.
Euthanasia or Destruction Decision-making
The NZVA and the Veterinary Council of New Zealand (VCNZ) have sought legal opinion regarding the interpretation of the Animal Welfare Act 1999 and its implications for veterinarians in practice and agree that two scenarios exist when stray cats are presented for euthanasia or destruction.
Foremost, veterinary clinics do not have to accept stray cats in to their care, nor agree to euthanase or destroy them if presented to the clinic by the public. An informed consent process, including documentation that clearly states the ownership, guardian or agent status of the person presenting the cat, is critical to identify the relationship of the presenting agent to the animal. This requires preparation and training of staff, so that they are clear about the law relating to stray cats, and how to manage incoming queries.
There are significant health and safety risks associated with managing unsocialised strays, and legally, a veterinarian is not required to receive or accept a stray cat in a cage. Veterinarians and allied para-professional staff should educate their clients about stray cats, encourage use of a paper collar system, and if truly a socialised stray is presented, direct the public to contact the SPCA so the cat can be re-homed.
Socialised or tame stray cats – there is a significant risk that these cats may be owned or semi-owned and as such, immediate euthanasia is ill-advised. NZVA’s recommendation is that these cats are best managed by SPCA (as the “approved organisation”) that can exercise its duty under section 141 of the Animal Welfare Act.
Potentially another agency (e.g. cat management charity or veterinary clinic) can assist, if delegated authority by SPCA to hold animals under s141. Animals can then be held on behalf of SPCA, at any location – the SPCA must be notified to activate s141, and begin the 7day hold period. No other agency has this authority, and it cannot be done retrospectively.
There is no legal provision for a veterinarian to euthanase a healthy, stray cat, unless it is unequivocally clear there is NO potential ownership claim to the cat – this is extremely unlikely unless the cat is truly feral. This doesn’t preclude a veterinarian electing to euthanase or destroy an animal but there may be implications in choosing to do so, and these should be considered at a practice policy level.
Unsocialised, stray cats – veterinarians will need to exercise significant due diligence and take all steps to minimise their legal liability before electing to destroy an unsocialised, stray cat. The distressed behaviour of a stray cat in response to being caged is easily misinterpreted (i.e. socialised, and even owned cats may behave similarly) and accordingly, assumptions should not be made that there is no person in charge of the animal.
There is no requirement for a veterinarian to take such an animal in to their care. See section in bold above.
The decision to destroy an unsocialised stray should not be made lightly – colony carers may consider that they have relationships with these cats, even though they are not social.
A warranted SPCA inspector can only exercise his/her powers to euthanase under the s141(2)(aa) Act if the cat is in custody of the approved organisation – i.e. they have accepted custody (there are other provisions for euthanasia under the Act that don’t relate to this scenario).
If the cat is unsocial, and not able to be re-homed, there is no reason, nor mandate why SPCA would accept the cat – they are not a “pest destruction company” for unwanted, unsocial stray cats. There is no law that relates to the management of these cats, unless there is severe injury, severely distressed (i.e. suffering unreasonable or unnecessary pain or distress).
Euthanasia and Destruction Procedure
Prior to electing to euthanase a stray cat veterinarians should in all cases:
- At all times, have a consent form signed for prior to euthanasia/destruction that includes identification of the relationship of the person to the cat e.g.
c. Person in charge
d. Presenting agent
- A clear history for the cat should be established
a. Where the cat was caught
b. Who caught the cat
c. Identifying features
d. Any history,
e. How long it had been present for, how often is it seen.
- Document any attempts (by the person presenting the cat) to find its owner
- A computerised history of the euthanasia/destruction should be generated and all information recorded on it.
- Attempt to identify a potential owner
a. Door knocking
b. Paper collar system (see link below)
- ALWAYS scan for a microchip, irrespective of whether the cat appears to be unsocialised or not.
- Check for a collar, or collar marks
- Look for other possible forms of identification (ear tattoos, de-sexing scars etc.)
- Check/feel for a spey wound
- Ask the person presenting the cat if they are aware of anyone who may believe they are the owner.
- Check with the local SPCA.
- Check (and list, if the cat is to be held) on lost pet registries for candidates
- Exhaust all possibilities to attempt to identify an owner before electing to euthanase/destroy. Consider returning the cat with a paper collar and contact number requesting that the owner contact the clinic or SPCA immediately.
Local SPCAs have some excellent resources and knowledge, and a lot of practice at managing stray cats. A paper collar template can be found online at the following address - https://www.animalregister.co.nz/images/downloads/170720_pet_collar_template.pdf
Unless the SPCA accepts the cat into their custody (it may be held at another location, whilst in their custody), they have no powers to make decisions about cat. They may, however, be able to provide advice on how to proceed. If social, and re-homeable, SPCA may accept custody of the animal.
If in doubt, and the psychological welfare of the cat will not be unduly compromised, consider sedating (including anxiolysis) and holding the cat for several days to allow time for an owner to come forward.
If presented with a stray, it is prudent to immediately contact SPCA, and initiate the processes under the Act (i.e. 7-day hold). This cannot be done retrospectively – i.e. the veterinary clinic cannot hold for 7 days and then seek SPCA mandate to re-home or euthanase.
If the scenarios and criteria outlined in this position statement are satisfied and all obligations under both the Animal Welfare Act and the VCNZ COPC have been fully understood and considered, then sufficient ‘due diligence’ has been performed. In this case, veterinarians should feel comfortable making decisions about euthanasia/destruction.
It should be emphasised again however, that caution is advised in these situations, and where any doubt exists, veterinarians should consider carefully their alternatives. Making an error may result in an aggrieved owner, reputational damage or potentially a claim against the practice or veterinarian.