Euthanasia in Shelters: Data and Decisionmaking

Written by Amy Schindler

Euthanasia in shelters is a frequently discussed topic among staff, volunteers, and increasingly on social media by people with little experience of the realities of the situation being discussed. Looking at these often highly emotional discussions, it would seem that the only two options at a shelter are to adopt or house all animals regardless of temperament, or to euthanize large numbers of animals without just cause. The reality on the ground is actually between the two. Where does your shelter fall, and what changes could help staff, volunteers, and community have a better understanding of the difficult decisions that have been made?

Not everyone may agree on euthanasia decisions, but having a clear process and sharing that process can prevent resentment or confusion that can lower staff and volunteer morale and even contribute to negative comments on social media, which is a bad outcome for any shelter that relies on public awareness and donations. Transparency and consistency are crucial, as are specific operating procedures.

Better data, better detail

Many shelters post statistics on their websites to be viewed by interested members of the public. Collecting this data is important because it allows us to better understand what is going well and what could be improved. Animals are not just numbers, and of course they should not be viewed as such, but information like the number of animals taken in, adopted, fostered, and euthanized, and other statistics like average length of stay and patterns in zip codes surrendering animals help give the public an understanding of the shelter and its needs.

The data collected provides goals to save more lives in future times—we all want to increase the percentage of animals that successfully find forever homes after coming through the shelter’s doors,  but it’s important to meet these goals in a way that puts welfare first, rather than encouraging organizations to retain animals that are not able to be safely adopted in order to decrease the euthanasia percentages. To truly do right by pets and people, public safety and quality of life should be factored into future goals. This is why shelters that collect data focus not just on adoption and intake numbers but also on various items such as shelter length of stay and pet retention in the community served. Length of stay, for example, is a good indicator of whether a shelter might be “warehousing” animals that are unable to be safely placed elsewhere. Retention rates in the community are an indicator of whether the adoption process is successfully matching adopters with animals that they are able to care for.

Data is also important in making euthanasia decisions at the shelter. As shelters move away from a complete reliance on behavior evaluation protocols done on intake, they become more reliant on daily interactions and notes regarding the animal’s behavior outside of the shelter environment. It would never be in anyone’s best interest to scale back or completely cease the use of evaluations but not replace them with something that provides more useful information. Data entry regarding daily interactions should be done as often as possible and as soon as possible—it may be beneficial to include data entry time in planning staff and volunteers’ activity. Whether entered in shelter software or another place where the information can be stored and obtained, these interactions can give insight on whether an animal in the shelter’s care has changes in behavior that could indicate a decline in their welfare. Information entered should not only be feedback about challenges, it should include progress. Make it a priority to appropriately train those people reporting such interactions, particularly how to report objectively. Using facts and specific details while avoiding “feeling-based” language when reporting leaves little need for interpretation or guesses between individuals. When entering information, include initials of those involved as well as the date. Having this information easily accessible also allows facilities to share needed information with staff, volunteers, and the public.  It prevents feelings of surprise if an animal that one had positive interactions with is determined not to be safe or stable enough to leave the shelter.

For shelters that have a training and behavior team, documenting the work done to change the behaviors in the shelter is also important, not only to see how the animal is progressing but also to determine whether the action plan is helping and worth pursuing. It also allows staff to see the length of time that the behavior plan has been in place as well as how many people have been working with the animal.

Information about the pet’s behavior outside of the shelter—in foster care, at “weekend getaways,” on day trips, or during walks—is extremely useful. Shelter staff should pay close attention to this information as it can often give a completely different picture of the animal’s behavior compared to their life at the shelter. Foster programs often are used to prevent shelter-related behavioral deterioration, and can be a lifesaving intervention for those dogs that are developing challenging behaviors as a direct result of living in a shelter environment.

Involving stakeholders in decision making

When someone has noticed that an animal is displaying concerning behavior that may indicate that they are not safe to adopt into a home, a discussion between supervisors is often the first step in deciding what to do with that animal. Before meeting, supervisors may seek input from the team that reports to them. Often, interactions with both people and animals greatly vary depending on department—what behavior staff see might be different from how animal care technicians or volunteers experience interactions. Taking these conversations into account when creating policies can give perspectives that otherwise would be missed. Having multiple supervisors of multiple backgrounds—like animal care, medical, adoptions, or behavior and training—involved in decisions about possible euthanasia allows for the clearest possible picture of the situation and makes the decision a collective one. When more than one person is involved with discussions about an animal’s fate, it prevents these difficult decisions from being one individual’s cross to bear.

After gathering all the relevant information about the animal, determining if there are any other fair or realistic outcomes to the animal and the community, and deciding to euthanize, shelters may elect to tell the individuals that interacted with the animal. Staff may also elect to inform volunteers of the decision and give those who may have felt a special bond with the animal a chance to say goodbye. While it may not necessarily be in the animal’s best interest to have multiple people (or even a single person) saying goodbye, it can provide closure to those involved and foster openness within the organization. Shelter protocols differ on the level of involvement volunteers have with euthanasia decisions—some opt not to communicate the reasons behind a decision at all, others let groups of experienced volunteers know but often do not allow volunteers to question the decision staff have made, in order to lessen the emotional burden on the staff responsible for the decision.

The individuals surrendering an animal are also stakeholders here and may have strong opinions about euthanasia. When individuals are surrendering animals, it is important to answer any questions they have about the possibility of euthanasia, and to do so with honesty and compassion. It is not beneficial to anyone involved to provide false promises about what will happen to an animal. It is important to communicate that shelters can be stressful environments and that staff will only be able to get a clear picture of how the animal will react and their chances of successful adoption after at least a few days of settling in (and possibly a full behavioral evaluation). People surrendering an animal should be told that euthanasia may be the best decision for the animal’s welfare in some cases.

A clear and transparent process

Staff may want to develop a matrix for making euthanasia decisions specific to their shelter, which can include medical issues, behavior issues like aggression or anxiety, and indications that suggest an animal’s issues are treatable or not treatable. A matrix will not always generate a clear answer to the question of whether an individual animal’s issues make euthanasia the best choice, but it does serve as a consistent and useful guideline shelters can use to determine if the animal and their potential owner would have a good quality of life. The matrix at the end of this article is an example used at the shelter where I am currently employed. Our shelter’s matrix is based on the staff and resources that we have. Another shelter may have a much different idea of what pet can be placed into the community or can be handled in a shelter setting based on the staff and set up.

Animal Welfare League Matrix

Download a copy of the Animal Welfare League of Arlington Behavior Matrix.

Putting a matrix in place where previously there were no written policies on when to consider euthanizing an animal can cause some confusion for stakeholders. If new policies are created or changes to current policies are made, inform staff and any individuals affected. Having conversations and answering questions about the changes allows everyone to have clear parameters. Every shelter is different, and the circumstances under which an animal ought to be sheltered or euthanized are different too. Time, labor, and financial resources can be scarce, meaning that not all shelters are able to give intensive behavioral treatment to animals they may need for best possible chance at finding a permanent adopted home. Collecting data is important, but this data needs to include more than live release rates to accurately communicate how shelters are choosing to use the limited resources they have, and also the potential welfare implications of sheltering animals over an extended period of time. Size, organizational structure, budget, staff, and resources vary a lot between different organizations. Being both optimistic and realistic about what these differences mean for what can be done for animals, and communicating effectively within and outside the shelter, impacts the decision-making process.

Amy Schindler, CPDT-KA, is the Chief Operating Officer at The Animal Welfare League of Arlington in Arlington, Virginia and an Affiliate member of the Shelter Division of IAABC.