The Final Gift: Ensuring a Peaceful Behavioural Euthanasia

Written by Blaze Fulbrook

As a shelter behaviour consultant, I’ve become intimately familiar with the difficult task of euthanizing animals that are unsafe to live with humans or that suffer from poor quality of life due to extreme behaviour. These decisions are never taken lightly, whether they are made by shelter staff or pet guardians. We often want to save every animal we meet, but unfortunately that isn’t always safe to do or fair to the animal.

I often think back to a German Shepherd named Goofy who I had the joy of training for the year he spent in the shelter system. Goofy was left in a crate for the first year of his life and never let out. He missed out on his socialization period with humans and other animals. After a year he ended up in a shelter that couldn’t handle him and was transferred twice to another shelter until we met. When I met Goofy he was a young Shepherd who loved to mouth, hump, jump up, and pull. More concerning, though, he showed significant aggression toward strangers (he only knew 10 people) and other animals, as well as leaves in the wind, cars, bikes, and all other moving objects. When he saw one of his triggers he would lunge while snarling and barking. Over the next year I would muzzle train Goofy, train him in agility and tricks, and reduce his humping, jumping, and mouthing behaviours. However I was never able to resolve his aggression despite countless hours of desensitization training, counter conditioning, BAT, LAT, and various other training exercises. After spending a year loving and training Goofy, I faced a challenging decision. Goofy could not be adopted. Even if I found someone who wanted him, they would have to own their own home, have a yard, no pets, no plans to have children, no significant other, and no visitors to the house, and they would need to have him muzzled anytime he was outside their house. So even if I could have found that once-in-a-lifetime home for Goofy, would it have been fair of me to ask that person to take him on? He was a dog that required rigorous training and daily medications to manage his behaviour, would without a doubt cost more than the average dog, and would require regular sessions with a certified trainer. And if the management techniques ever failed, he could seriously hurt someone. My final decision was made after Goofy attempted to land a significant bite on a person but was foiled by his muzzle. I realized that even if I could have found the perfect person for Goofy, he wouldn’t let me introduce them. He didn’t want any more people in his life. Our team would have to make the decision to let him go; however painful, we knew it was the safest decision for our community and it would prevent Goofy from further suffering. He wouldn’t have to live in a shelter for the rest of his life, he wouldn’t have to meet anymore scary new people, and he would no longer struggle with a hypervigilant mind that was always looking for the next trigger. Goofy died peacefully on a rainy September afternoon surrounded by his favourite people, in his favourite place, loaded up on treats, and oblivious to the vet staff. He fell asleep surrounded by his shelter family and never woke up again.

Goofy soaks up the affection prior to his appointment.

I think about Goofy often and all the things he taught me. He showed me that behavioural euthanasia can be a gift, to those that have proved unsafe to live a normal life and to those that have poor quality of life due to their behaviours. He also showed me that euthanasia doesn’t have to be frightening and difficult. Through the many animals I have helped pass on, I have learned some strategies that have made the process easier for both the animal and their handler.

Behavioural euthanasia is extremely taxing, and doing it frequently will burn out your shelter team, but unfortunately it is a necessary part of ethical shelter work. I found the smoother the process, the less trauma it causes to the handler, the animal, and the veterinary staff. My hope is that this list of strategies will help both shelter teams and struggling pet guardians to make the transition easier.

Before the appointment

Don’t wait. In the shelter system we often abide by the rule of euthanizing shortly after the decision to euthanize is made. The reason is that the longer you put off the euthanasia, the higher the likelihood of an incident occurring during this waiting period. My shelter used a 24-hour rule, meaning you had 24 hours after making the decision before the vet appointment. Additionally, many people will be hesitant to work with or interact with an animal that we know is dangerous, and this means the animal will experience a decrease in human interaction, a decrease in enrichment, and a decrease in general care, which can negatively impact quality of life.

Theo gets ready to go to his appointment

Review the animal’s history. What are they normally like at the vet? What were they like for their intake exam? Did they tolerate vaccines well? This can help you predict how difficult the appointment will be based on their previous history. This can help you as their handler emotionally prepare for how the appointment will go.

Make a plan with your vet first. I always talk with the vet performing the procedure first, to ensure we are on the same page and that I have a clear understanding of their policies and procedures. This way I know what to expect and I can chat with the vet about what I think will work best for the animal I am advocating for. Discuss where the procedure will take place, what restraint methods will be utilized, and any other questions you may have about the procedure.

Use drugs. Pre-procedure sedation drugs are a blessing that we should take advantage of. Many animals that are going to experience behavioural euthanasia have already experienced some form of behavioural medications. Talk with your vet about what pre-sedation options are available for this animal. This will take the edge off for the pet as well as help them be more relaxed and less anxious when they arrive at the vet clinic.

Train for it. I know it’s hard, but we should train our animals for these experiences. Whenever I have a behavioural euthanasia candidate I always start muzzle training (it’s a great skill to have, whether they end up needing it or not!) for dogs. Once the decision is made, I double down on the training to ensure that the dog is comfortable wearing the muzzle to the best of my ability in the time frame that we have. I also try to get them comfortable and used to being in positions that may be used for the procedure. For example, some clinics will ask the dog to stand against a wall while on leash, and you will stand by their head feeding treats while the technician gives them an injection in their hind end. Practicing this and other common restraint methods paired with high-value treats can help the dog be less suspicious of handling at the appointment. I would prioritize muzzle training first if you are limited on time.

Rex practices relaxing on a mat while the sedation takes effect.

Decide who will go with them. When deciding who will take the animal for euthanasia I try to always send the person who has worked with the animal the most. The person who did the majority of their training is a good option as they will have a stronger relationship built. We want to provide the animal with emotional support from a trusted, known person whenever possible. I do try to remind shelters to avoid having one designated person responsible for euthanasia, because it burns that person out incredibly quickly and is unfair to them as well as the animal who may or may not have any relationship with the designated individual.

Preparing for the appointment is critical. Make sure you have all the materials you may need such as two leashes, a secure harness, a fitted basket muzzle, way more treats then you think you’ll use (high-value treats particularly such as roast chicken, roast beef, ham, hot dogs, cheese, goat cheese, cheese whiz, cat food, tuna, sardines, etc.), and familiar items such as favourite toys, bedding from their kennel, and anything else important to the animal. I try to have a designated blanket from their kennel to bring. I will often practice mat work with the dogs using their designated blanket so that they get excited when I set the blanket out. Practicing mat work in a variety of locations will also reduce stress when they arrive at the vet clinic as you can bring out the mat and do some mat work before entering or while waiting for clinic staff.

At the appointment

When I head to the clinic I always seatbelt the dogs into the car to secure them for the ride, this ensures my safety as well as theirs. I also roll down the windows allowing them to stick their head out without being able to escape. It’s a nice way to make the car ride less stressful.

When we arrive I tend to take a few moments in the car to gauge the dog’s arousal level, are they excited to be here? Do they recognize the clinic? Are they stressed? I also typically bring a special high value treat that I’ll offer at this time. Usually some human food (pizza, doughnuts, whatever I have on hand at the shelter) to get them distracted from what’s going on.

When I get them out of the car I sometimes muzzle them (depending on their comfort level with the muzzle) to get it out of the way for dogs who are comfortable walking around with the muzzle on. I then allow them to sniff around the property. It helps decrease stress and lets them get their bearings on their new surroundings.

Slouch gets tummy rubs to help him calm down before his procedure.

For dogs who appear particularly stressed I will then pull out their special blanket and do some mat work. I find this really reduces stress and gets them into their training mindset. I will bring the mat in with us when it’s time so we can keep practicing mat work while we wait for their technicians and vet staff to be ready.

Going in the clinic can be optional depending on your vet. Sometimes, for dogs who get really stressed in the clinic, I ask if we can sedate at the car or in the outside area. I’ll set up their blanket, and get them comfy laying on it and eating high value treats before we administer the sedation which is typically given via intramuscular injection in the hind end. Once the dog is sedated, we can then carry them into the clinic on their blanket and place an IV catheter there. For dogs with stranger danger or who are highly suspicious, the vet staff will leave the room/area after the intramuscular sedation is given allowing the dog to settle with just their handler present. Once the dog has settled the staff come back to continue the procedure.

Once the animal has been given sedation I spend some time with them telling them how loved they are and how cared for they are. I let them eat as many snacks as they want until they are too sleepy. I encourage them to lay down and get comfortable with me as much as I can, though some dogs will choose to stand until they can’t.

When the animal is sedated, the vet staff will return to finish the procedure. At this point they will place an IV catheter, be aware that sometimes the sound of the clippers/people will cause the dog to wake up slightly. Ensure that safety precautions are still being taken at this point and the dog is still being safely restrained. The vet will confirm that you are ready and at this point they will administer more medications before administering the euthanasia drug. The vet will confirm when the animal’s heart has stopped and the procedure is over.

After the appointment

Take the time you need. Sometimes after a euthanasia I have sat in the parking lot or in the exam room with the animal for quite a while. It’s okay to need time to process. This is also a good time to grab any momentos you may want such as their collar, clippings of their fur, or ink paw prints. I also remove all their gear (harness, collar, muzzle, etc.) At this point, I find if you remove it before they pass that it can confuse and worry the animal so I try to wait until the procedure is over.

Talk about it. You have to talk about it or you will keep all that pain bottled up. Letting an animal go because they are not safe to live with people or other animals, or because they have poor quality of life due to things outside your control, is never easy. Particularly if you do it more than once as is the case for shelter workers. I highly recommend joining the facebook group ‘Losing Lulu’ which is a support group for people (shelter workers, pet guardians, trainers, etc.) who have gone through behavioural euthanasia. The support group has a great team of moderators and a ‘keep it kind’ culture so you won’t struggle with judgmental opinions.

TO CITE: Fulbrook, B. (2024). The final gift: ensuring a peaceful behavioural euthanasia. The IAABC Foundation Journal 29, doi: 10.55736/iaabcfj29.10