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Owners Requesting Euthanasia Usually Have History of Commitment

Study finds reasons for requests most often related to age and illness

Study finds reasons for requests most often related to age and illness

Numbers are often used as a measure of progress in the battle against pet homelessness, with shelters frequently separating animals into categories such as “adoptable,” “sick/injured,” “aggressive,” and “treatable.”

Touted by some as a good tool for gauging the success of programs and services, systems that rely on numbers and categorization also have their share of skeptics. From critics come the inevitable questions: Who’s to say what’s “adoptable”? How can we be objective about that? Doesn’t adoptability of animals depend heavily on the resources of the shelter? And how will numbers help us assess the homelessness situation during a time when a large hoarder case lands dozens more unadoptable dogs in our kennels or new cat leash laws bring in hundreds of free-roamers for the first time?

While all those questions are open to endless debate, the authors of a recent study in the Journal of Applied Animal Welfare Science say that at least one group of cats and dogs should clearly be separated from the rest when shelters report ultimate dispositions of incoming animals: those euthanized upon the owner’s request. Including these usually beloved pets in overall euthanasia statistics presents an inaccurate picture of the pet surplus problem, the researchers argue, because a significant portion of them are euthanized at the shelter for the same reasons they would be euthanized at a veterinary hospital: disease, old age, or serious behavior problems.

“[I]t appears from our findings that many individuals use shelters as an alternative to veterinary medical hospitals,” write the researchers, whose work was conducted under the auspices of the National Council on Pet Population Study and Policy. “This underscores the importance of the role that local shelters play in the complex dynamic of pet ownership (including retention and relinquishment) and pet health care and decision making as well as community policy.”

Using data from a 12-shelter survey conducted in 1996, researchers compared owner-requested euthanasia cases to general relinquishment cases and found what they believed to be a “long-standing commitment to pet care.” In cases of requested euthanasia, median ages were 10.4 years for dogs and 10 years for cats—much higher than the median ages (1.2 years for dogs and 2 years for cats) of animals relinquished for adoption.

Of the 615 dogs relinquished for euthanasia, 82% had been euthanized because of illness or old age or both; the median age for the sick and elderly was 12 years. For cats, it was a similar story: out of 282 relinquished for euthanasia, 82% were euthanized because of illness, old age, or both; the median age for cats in this category was almost 12 years as well.

A much smaller but still substantial number of animals were brought in by owners for euthanasia because of serious behavior issues; 16% of owner-requested dog euthanasia cases and 18% of owner-requested cat euthanasia cases fell into this category. The most common behavior reasons for dogs revolved around a threat to safety: aggression toward people, biting people or other animals, or aggressive behavior toward other animals that included chasing or killing them.

Again, the story was similar for cats in owner-requested euthanasia cases; 18% were specifically relinquished for behavior reasons. Not surprisingly, house-soiling was the most frequently cited behavior problem for cats in these cases, followed first by aggression toward people and then by biting.

“Although some of the behavioral problems potentially could be reversed through intervention and behavioral modification,” researchers write, “the majority of the behaviors reported as reasons for requesting euthanasia rather than adoption were serious enough to question whether such pets could successfully co-inhabit a home environment with humans or other animals.”

Of the total number of animals relinquished to shelters in the study, about 24% of dogs and 17% of cats relinquished by their owners were euthanized primarily because of serious illness, old age, and, to a lesser extent, behavior issues. While the study’s authors are careful to note that the findings in no way minimize the magnitude of the pet surplus problem (and actually only serve to confirm that most relinquished pets are thought by their owners to be adoptable), they also believe that overall euthanasia statistics present an inaccurate picture. “Such animals [relinquished for euthanasia] should be excluded from consideration as contributing to the definition and epidemiology of pet surplus in the United States,” they write.

The results, say the researchers, “have profound implications for the way that society views animal shelters.”

“ ... [T]he findings ... point out that shelters fulfill a critically important role in our society as alternatives to animal hospitals for euthanasia for humane reasons and, therefore, that the crude numbers of dogs and cats euthanized at shelters are not equivalent to the number of adoptable dogs and cats unnecessarily killed for lack of an available home.”


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