Why Veterinarians Shouldn't “Euthanize” Shelter Pets

It’s graduation time again at veterinary schools across the US. It’s right about now that the newly minted among us pledge an oath to use our hard-earned scientific knowledge to advance animal welfare and alleviate animal suffering. But does that give us license to to “euthanize” healthy animals in shelter settings? 

The status quo says yes. Someone’s got to do it, right? But, increasingly, some among us are saying “No we don’t. In fact, we shouldn’t.” Because if it explicitly contradicts a veterinarian’s oath … it shouldn’t be a veterinarian’s job. 

Here's the oath:

Being admitted to the profession of veterinary medicine, I solemnly swear to use my scientific knowledge and skills for the benefit of society through the protection of animal health and welfare, the prevention and relief of animal suffering, the conservation of animal resources, the promotion of public health, and the advancement of medical knowledge.

I will practice my profession conscientiously, with dignity, and in keeping with the principles of veterinary medical ethics.

I accept as a lifelong obligation the continual improvement of my professional knowledge and competence.

So do these statements we solemnly swear on graduation dat preclude direct veterinary involvement in shelter euthanasia? 

Some say it all depends on how you define euthanasia. But if by euthanasia we mean “beautiful death” (as translated from its Greek root) or humanely hastening our beloved pets’ death by way of softening its blow, it can't possibly describe what we do when we put to death millions of healthy pets in US shelters every year.

I strongly agree. In fact, I’d go so far as to say that use of this terminology to kill healthy animals in shelter settings denigrates what most veterinarians do when we alleviate our patients’ suffering. Moreover, it’s my belief that to employ this brand of verbal mollification euphemizes the acts we as a society too blithely undertake in the name of public health. 

Yet others contend that veterinarians are ideal arbiters of death in this ethically fraught milieu. Without veterinary vigilance, they assert, pets will not receive the benefits of science and compassion these desperate conditions call for. 

Which makes some sense, of course. But it’s a questionable brand of moral maths we engage in when we try to make a case for utilitarian killing.

On that note, you’ll have to forgive me for raising the obvious, if flawed, comparison: Veterinarians are to the shelter execution of healthy animals what physicians are to capital punishment. Discuss …

But before we do, here’s what the American Medical Association (AMA) has to say. In a July 17, 2006 press release titled “AMA: Physician Participation in Lethal Injection Violates Medical Ethics, it offered this terse statement:

The AMA’s policy is clear and unambiguous — requiring physicians to participate in executions violates their oath to protect lives and erodes public confidence in the medical profession. A physician is a member of a profession dedicated to preserving life when there is hope of doing so. The use of a physician’s clinical skill and judgment for purposes other than promoting an individual’s health and welfare undermines a basic ethical foundation of medicine — first, do no harm.

Explicit, right? To my way of seeing things, it’s no less ambiguous for veterinarians. Killing healthy animals violates our oath. Therefore, we shouldn’t do it. In fact, I’d go so far as to say that veterinarians who are directly involved in the shelter death of healthy animals should do so at the risk of losing their license to practice veterinary medicine.

There, I said it. Yes, I believe all veterinarians should insulate themselves with respect to this kind of practice. While it’s undeniable that we all, by virtue of our status as members of this society,  to some extent participate in the indirect killing of animals in shelter settings, I believe veterinarians should remain as far removed from this day-to-day reality as possible. 

As a member of the Association of Shelter Veterinarians this statement probably won’t earn me a lot of collegial goodwill. Nonetheless, I happen to know I am not alone in my thinking on this one –– not even within this association. 

Doing so would not only protect the integrity of our oath, it would send a strong message: Veterinarians protect animal life. We do not end it to serve the professed needs of a culture that has not yet become sufficiently enlightened with respect to the welfare of its animals. Until it does, we will not participate in this practice, regardless of what our larger society deems acceptable.

OK now … discuss …