What is It Like to Work at an Animal Shelter: Dealing with Death

Have you ever wondered what it is like to work at an animal shelter? I will attempt to answer the most common questions through my experience of five years working at a shelter in Canada. Here we talk about dealing with the euthanasia of pets.


This is a three Part Series, Getting the Job, Dealing with Death, and General Information about Animal Shelters. In this interview, my husband, Mark Gordon Brown, asks me questions regarding working at a shelter and “putting pets to sleep”.

Did the Shelter you Worked at Kill Pets?

Yes. Once a week, every Wednesday, a vet came and euthanized some animals.


Why Did They Do This?

Unfortunately as a shelter that never refused animals we did not have the room to accommodate all the animals that were brought in. More pets were brought to the shelter every week than got adopted. Also some pets that were in the adoption area for too long would be put down so that other pets could be given a chance.


How Did They Decide which pets would be saved and which would be euthanized?

Pets that were more adoptable were put for adoption, while those that were less adoptable would be put down. In our area small dogs were very adoptable, larger dogs were less adoptable, unless young. Uniqueness also counted. If we had four black labs (for example) it was unlikely all would be put for adoption.

Well mannered pets were considered more adoptable (trained dog versus untrained dog). Pets with known histories were more adoptable than strays, but strays were given opportunity for adoption (some shelters never allowed strays to be put up for adoption because they had so many owner relinquished pets). Really… there were lots of factors. Space always dictated how many could be put into adoption. Animals that were in adoption for several months, and who had been passed over time and time again, would be put down. Also animals with health or behavioral issues were put down. The shelter did not have the time or finances to deal with either.

http://www.flickr.com/photos/basykes/251345180/sizes/m/in/photostream/  This dog is trying to get adopted.

What Did they Do with the Dead Animals?

Some shelters have cremation abilities, we did not, the animals were put in special garbage bags and taken to a special area of the landfill. If pets were brought in dead (hit by car), or died at the shelter, we put them in garbage bags and they went into a deep freezer, if unidentified we keep them for a week to allow an owner to claim the body, otherwise they also went to the landfill.


Kittens and Puppies too?

Kittens more so than puppies, just because there were far more of them. It was rare when puppies were euthanized. Mostly it was mature animals, or very young kittens, since we did not have space to keep them when they were too young to be vaccinated and wait for them to get old enough for adoption, when there were already oodles of kittens who were “ready to go”.  Mostly it was adult animals, those over 6 months were often over looked by the public.

http://www.flickr.com/photos/aawlspca/3224756636/sizes/m/in/photostream/  Adult cats were the hardest to adopt.


How Did the Vets Do it and Did You Have to Watch?

There are several methods of euthanizing animals, the vets we dealt with used injections (again there are different methods of this), sometimes the pets (aggressive dogs) were sedated first with pills in their food. One staff member did have to help the vet, I often did this, nobody else wanted to, and it was an important job, even though very sad.


As an Animal Lover, How Did You Deal With Pets Being Killed?

Whether I was there or not, they pets were going to be killed, I suppose I did it for myself as much as them, because I was aware how callous (and rough) some people could be at this time. I often said “Go in Peace” to the animals, and as much as the public was mad at us for “killing” the pets, it was the fault of the public for not spaying or neutering their pets in the first place, so I held no blame to myself or the veterinarian.


Is it True that Shelters Killed Pets After 72 Hours?

The 72 hour law is important for people to know about. Basically it says that legally after 72 hours a pet without identification (tattoo, microchip, tags) is property of the shelter to do with as they want. Pets with identification required 10 days hold. Anyhow… our shelter only had the vet come once a week, and even if the pet had been there 72 hours as a stray we gave it until the following week in hopes an owner would claim it. Only if the pet was very ill would it be taken to the vet sooner for euthanasia.

If the pet is adoptable it is vet checked, vaccinated and dewormed. Once these expenses are occurred no way does the shelter want to have to euthanize the pet, still if it is passed over for long, (our shelter typically gave pets that were up for adoption 2 months) it would be euthanized to make room for other animals.


The dogs in the above photo were killed due to BSL in Denver.

Some Animal Shelters are “No-Kill” Why Wasn’t Yours, or Why Didn’t You Work at a No-Kill Shelter?

When I started there were no ‘no-kill’ shelters in the area. Even then it must be noted that no-kill shelters are forced to turn pets away when they are full. With limited space and a mandate not to turn any pets away, we could not save them all. Even when a no-kill shelter did open in the area, they hand picked which animals they would save, and the rest came to us, forcing us to still deal with the surplus of animals – lack of space, and adoption rates.

Should People Try to Give Their Unwanted Pets Away Instead of Taking them to a Shelter?

A lot of “Free to Good Home” pets do notget good homes, most don’t get dewormed, vaccinated, or spayed or neutered – as such they are the reason problems such as excess animals continue today.  Even worse, in some areas it is legal to take “free pets” and resell them to research labs.  If a person has a pet that is spayed or neutered andthey have screened the potential new owner (done a home check), then it is sometimes better for them to rehome privately.

What would you Like to Say to the Public?

Shelters are just dealing with the mess people make by not spaying or neutering their pets, or not being able to provide the pets with a lifetime home.  Do not blame the shelter for euthanizing pets, blame the people who let their pets outside before having them spayed or neutered.  If you cannot afford to spay or neuter your pet, adopt one that is already fixed instead.

Related Links

The Difference Between No-Kill and Other Shelters

Why Don’t Shelters Give Away Pets for Free?

About the 72 Hour Law

Low Cost Spay and Neuter Programs

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User Comments
  1. Minister Marlene

    On August 20, 2010 at 11:57 am

    It is the direct fault of the public,callous and just plain lazy. This article should get into the hands of every pet owner in America.Or anyone considering a pet. A tough read, a very tough read but a wake up call. America really thinks their are big fuzzy wuzzy pet lovers. But that is a bold face lie. I guess it’s not just America either.

  2. papaleng

    On August 20, 2010 at 12:17 pm

    A very detailed description of your life in an animal shelter. And your final observation must be forwarded to authorities concern. A very good read.

  3. GodsGrace

    On August 20, 2010 at 12:45 pm

    This is awesome


    On August 20, 2010 at 8:44 pm

    a really informative article. i must admit in all honesty, i felt a crack in my heart as i viewed the photos of my best friends all lying dead in a heap. what fault did they commit? it’s all the publics fault and they should be euthanised instead.an eye-opening article. thanks for sharing.

  5. Jimmy Shilaho

    On August 21, 2010 at 7:45 am

    A very good post. Working at an animal shelter brings a host of challenges.

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