I’m Going to Stop You Right There

As most pet owners know, end of life decisions are heartbreaking.  When a beloved family member has been diagnosed as medically hopeless by a veterinarian or even when suffering is evident, it is not uncommon to hold onto hope.  Maybe tomorrow will be better, maybe she could feel well enough to go for one last walk or play ball one more time.

In some cases, that hope is not realistic and as painful as it is, we must face the truth and make the decision to let the pet go.  In other cases, very rare ones in my experience, we do get that chance for one more moment in the sun together.  We might spend it at the pet’s favorite hang-out spot in the yard or at a park.  We might share a cupcake or some other special treat because hey, smoke ’em if ya got ’em.

But inevitably, we all face that final goodbye, where we hold our friend in our arms or stroke their fur and talk to them about good things while the vet gives the injection.  It’s the final kindness we can bestow upon our faithful companion.  One last act of love before we part ways in this life with all the hope of seeing each other again someday.

That is euthanasia.

This is killing:

From: “Rescue, MAS” <MAS.Rescue@memphistn.gov>
Date: November 3, 2016 at 9:26:33 AM CDT
Subject: Critical List 110316

Good morning everyone-


This morning I have had an amazing dog hanging out in my office, which technically is against the rules. You see, she has been here for an entire month. She is a generic, non descript, heartworm positive, quirky dog and despite me buying her extra time repeatedly, it isn’t fair to her to house her in a kennel any longer, nor is it fair to the other dogs whose spot she takes in the building. Tomorrow morning, I am putting her on the euthanasia list. I will take her outside for a final romp, give her some delicious treats and I will hold her when it is time. It is not something I want to do, she is my wiggly girl, we talk every day while I do rounds and she dances at me. I cannot take her home, my pack already includes too many quirky dogs. I have sent video of her in my lap to various people. She has been pinned to the top of a highly active rescue page. She has been on the critical list for far too long. I have done absolutely everything I can do to avoid this outcome for her. She is extremely quirky with other dogs, which I know played a large factor in why she hasn’t been pulled by a rescue. I hate it but I also understand it. So while it will break my heart, as well as the hearts of others she has charmed, I will move forward tomorrow with it, unless someone pulls her. She is hanging out, enjoying kongs of kibble and other treats, getting loved on by everyone who comes by my office and just enjoying her time in here.


Whitney Van Zandt, Shelter Supervisor

The above is a portion of a guilt-trip email sent to rescuers this week by Memphis Animal Services – a place that does almost no offsite adoptions, keeps “stray” dogs behind locked doors, leaves cages empty, and opens to the public begrudgingly and relatively rarely. A facility serving a community the size of Memphis should be holding several offsite adoption events daily, getting pets featured on TV and radio daily, unlocking all the doors in the facility so the public can see and fall in love with all the animals, using every available cage for lifesaving, and staying open for adoptions 7 days a week, including evenings. They don’t do the bare minimum to get pets adopted at MAS, never mind “absolutely everything” they can do.

Despite their many failings though, they don’t have to kill animals. That’s a choice they make. And if it’s the best they can offer, they should get out of the animal sheltering business because it’s unacceptable.

And as far as taking the dog out for a last romp, feeding her treats and holding her while she is killed – no. Fuck no. You don’t get to say that. You don’t get to lay the burden of that loaded image on weary rescuers who are kept in constant crisis mode via your “only you can stop us from killing by doing our jobs for us” emails.  We who are committed to lifesaving and to love for animals, we who believe where there’s life there’s hope, we who understand what a precious gift a healthy, happy pet represents – we own that. We own all that. You have no right.

Ebony’s Owner Requested Euthanasia at MAS, All Ebony Got was a Cage to Suffer In

End of life decisions for pets are painful and difficult.  None of us wants to take a pet in for euthanasia too soon and at the same time we don’t want to wait too long.  On the one hand, there is hope the pet could possibly rally once more and have a little bit more quality time in this life.  On the other hand, when the vet has told you there is no reasonable hope for recovery and you believe your beloved family member has no rallies left in her, you don’t want her to needlessly suffer through to the natural end of life.  Nature can be cruel.  Euthanasia is the final kindness we can offer to our pets.

Speaking for myself, once I’ve made the decision that it’s time, I don’t want to delay.  I want the suffering to end as soon as possible.  My vet has always been very good about moving us to the front of the line in these cases.

This is one of the reasons why, when reviewing the records for the many animals who die in their cages at the Memphis pound each month, I found Ebony’s story so heartbreaking.  Ebony was a 15 year old pitbull whose health was failing.  She had stopped eating, which is one of the ways dogs prepare themselves for death.  She had wasted away to a mere 20 pounds.  Her owner decided it was time.  He brought her to Memphis Animal Services on the afternoon of May 10 and requested euthanasia.  It was a Tuesday, when MAS was open for “all services” from 1pm to 7pm.

ebony cage card

Copy of Ebony’s cage card at MAS, obtained via FOIA request.

Rather than immediately get a vet to look at Ebony and then, assuming the vet agreed that she was medically hopeless and suffering, perform the euthanasia, MAS staff put her on a dolly, wheeled her to a cage in the kill-holding room and left her there.  A staff member entered a note in her records indicating she was a “high priority euthanasia”.  But it was after 4 pm and apparently high priority means something other than HIGH PRIORITY at MAS, at least after 4pm.  Ebony was left alone in a cage to suffer until she finally died at some point before someone on the next morning shift noted she was dead.

I have held my own elderly, frail, weak dogs in my arms at the end of their lives.  I have carried them, sometimes in blankets, as gently as possible, knowing every movement is painful for them.  It makes my stomach turn to think of MAS putting 20 pound Ebony on a dolly and wheeling her to a cage. Leaving her there alone, in pain, surrounded by the smells and sounds of fear from the other dogs awaiting death, makes my heart hurt.  She must have been confused and frightened on top of her physical torment.  I dread to think how long every minute of those dark hours must have seemed before death finally arose from the cold concrete to embrace her.

But as awful as all of that is to imagine, the thing that pissed me off was the solitary vet note entered in Ebony’s records:

ebony med note Passed while sleeping.  Excuse fucking me?  THIS is the vet note?  Not, “none of us here are doing our jobs so we just left this pet to rot” or “appears to have groaned in agony all night long, alone in the dark while we cashed our paychecks” but the ever so peaceful sounding “passed while sleeping”.  So tranquil.  Almost like a service at a spa.  A spa for death.

That is some first class enabling/criminal cover up there.  I guess practice makes perfect.

Fire these outrageous excuses for animal care professionals already.  Every one of them.  Then prosecute them using the same standards as would be used against any citizen who intentionally left a dog to suffer like this.  This is hardly the first time.  And until the citizens of Memphis take a stand, it won’t be the last.

I hope your 15 years on this earth were beautiful and happy, Ebony.  I’m sorry your death at MAS was so needlessly cruel.  There are such things as monsters and you should not have had to find that out at the hour of your greatest need.  How many more, Memphis?

(Thanks Lou Ann.)

Discussion: End of Life Decisions

As we rally against the needless killing of shelter pets for convenience, we sometimes tend to skip meaningful discussion on true euthanasia for our own pets.  This is such an important issue to explore as it is often complicated and always heartbreaking.  One way to lift the veil is by sharing our experiences, something I have tried to do on the blog each time one of my own pets dies.  I am inviting readers to share their experiences, questions and thoughts on the subject in the comments.

For myself, one of the questions I have struggled with regarding euthanasia is timing.  I know this is a common challenge for pet owners.  None of us wants to wait too long but of course we don’t want to make the decision too soon either.  With some pets, I have questioned myself on both accounts – that is, wondering if I waited too long and if I should have waited a little longer.  Hearing other people’s experiences has been very helpful to me and I hope this discussion will be helpful to others.  I will pose some questions to get the ball rolling but please feel welcome to share any related thoughts that are on your mind.

  • In euthanizing a pet, how much have you relied on input from your veterinarian?  Do you feel that ultimately, only you know when it’s time, due to the bond you have with your pet?
  • Have you ever made a decision to provide hospice care for a pet and allow the pet to die at home?  If yes, were you closely involved with a vet during the process and do you wish you had – or had not – been?
  • Have you ever scheduled a euthanasia appointment with your vet in advance and then spent a final special day with your pet or do you typically end up at the emergency clinic during the night?
  • What about when you die – do you have a plan in place to provide care for your pets once you are gone?  Is there any reliable way to protect them from being seized by animal control and killed for convenience after your death?

Funky Cold Medina Co

At the time public pressure brought by an animal advocate forced the Medina Co pound in Ohio to stop gassing cats, it was believed that the shelter staff did an admirable job caring for dogs.  After all, the facility boasts a 92% live release rate for dogs.  But records obtained via FOIA request appear to show that many of the dogs who were euthanized last year at Medina Co received less than the amount of Fatal Plus indicated on the label.  For example, a 50 pound dog being euthanized by IV injection with Fatal Plus should receive no less than 5 cc according to label instructions.  But many dogs whose weights were recorded as 50 pounds by Medina Co received only 4 cc of Fatal Plus with one 50 pound dog receiving just 3 cc.  Several dogs weighing 60 pounds also received the 4 cc dose.  This is a serious problem according to an animal euthanasia expert in Ohio:

The Medina County animal control officers “need to be relieved of duty pending a thorough investigation of their qualifications and ability to do their jobs,” David Balz, Ohio-certified euthanasia instructor and director of the Wyandot County Humane Society, wrote Thursday in an email to The Plain Dealer. “I would not trust them to work in my shelter, in any capacity, under any circumstances, let alone that of euthanasia technicians.”

The state of Ohio does not specifically require that those qualified to euthanize animals do so only using the dosage on the drug’s label.  (The state of Virginia for example, requires exactly that.)  But Ohio code does include this:

Any agent or employee of an animal shelter performing euthanasia by means of lethal injection shall do so only in a humane and proficient manner that is in conformity with the methods described in division (A) of this section and not in violation of Chapter 959. of the Revised Code.

A humane and proficient manner.  In order to get a qualified opinion, I contacted David Balz myself. I asked him his view on whether using less than the label dosage, such as is evident in the Medina Co shelter’s drug logs, would qualify as performing euthanasia “in a humane and proficient manner”? He replied, in part:

I would say that it is certainly questionable. There is also the issue of using a drug “off label” in other words not following the directions or usage on the bottle. Only a licensed professional can do that. The rest of us have to use things as they are labeled. I may “know” that a particular drug will do something or that a different dosage would do a particular thing, but, not being a MD, DDS, DVM etc, I would not be allowed to do it any way except what is labeled on the bottle.

I also asked Mr. Balz to explain the concerns associated with using too little of a euthanasia drug. His reply, in part:

There are a number of problems associated with “underdosing” when using the drug for euthanasia. The most obvious is that, while the animal may literally go to sleep, it may also wake up. The problems with that are obvious. My worry about the workers in Medina is that if they previously had confusion regarding Intraperitoneal injections on cats and are now having problems with IV dosage calculations, then perhaps they also are not capable of establishing that the animal is dead before disposing of the body.

The other issue with “underdosing” is that at the doses we recommend you are basically “anesthetizing” the animal to the point where the base of the brain shuts down and the animal’s heart and lungs simply stop working – long after total unconsciousness which is the first effect. Picture the human operating room and the doctor asks the patient to start counting backwards from 100 – the doctor injects the drug and the patient says 99………and is unconscious. From that point on the level keeps deepening. Obviously in anesthesia we support the patient, but in the case of euthanasia they rapidly go into coma and then stop completely (at recommended doses they are unconscious in seconds and dead in 1 to 5 minutes). During this process there is an “excitement” phase where the patient/animal may flail about injuring themselves and others. When the animal is underdosed it becomes more likely that this excitement phase will occur or be extended. Thereby potentially being dangerous for the workers.

Public records obtained via FOIA request show that Medina Co shelter director Del Saffle, whose initials appear on all of the underdosed dogs, received training and certification in euthanasia practices in 1995. Although many shelters require their euthanasia technicians to continually update their training and certification, Medina Co apparently does not. Even without recent training, anyone performing euthanasia in an animal shelter should be reading and following the label instructions for the drug being used. No animal shelter employee should be underdosing animals with euthanasia drug under any circumstances.  If there is to be any deviation from the label instructions, it is always recommended to overdose and never to underdose animals being euthanized.

From the HSUS euthanasia reference manual:

Technicians can help minimize the chances of record-keeping errors by rounding up (never down!) to the nearest milliliter[.]
[R]ounding up and administering slightly more drug than technically needed is perfectly acceptable (it is never acceptable to use less than the label dose).

Medina Co reportedly places euthanized animals into an onsite incinerator.  The implications of the shelter’s practice of routine underdosing of dogs with euthanasia drug are obvious and disturbing.  Why was this practice ever allowed at Medina Co and when will the county put a stop to it?

What Options Exist for Pet Euthanasia in Your Area?

Please consider participating in this informal survey about euthanasia options and costs in your area:

  • What does your vet charge to euthanize a pet?  If that fee does not include disposal of remains, what is the fee for that?
  • Does your local shelter offer euthanasia of owned pets who are medically hopeless and suffering?  If so, what fee do they charge for that service?
  • When answering, please include the following specifics:  type of pet (e.g. “dog under 50 pounds”), city or county and state.

I am in Kershaw Co, SC.  My vet charges $35 to euthanize a small dog.  I don’t know what the fees are for disposal of remains as we bury our pets at home.  This includes a sedative injection which she administers first.  It also includes the vet remaining with the owner and the dog for as long as necessary to make absolutely certain the dog is deceased.  My vet is very caring and never wants any of her clients to have their euthanized pet “come back to life” after leaving the clinic.  With Graham, she only felt the need to stay a few minutes after verifying death but with Emily, because she was running primarily on adrenaline, she stayed probably half an hour after verifying death.  The emergency clinic charges about $125 to euthanize a large dog (again euthanasia only, not disposal of remains).  They place a catheter and administer a sedative before the euth injection.  My local shelter does not offer euthanasia services to the public.  I don’t know what options might be available to someone locally who has a medically hopeless and suffering pet and can not afford a private vet visit.