Thinking About Life-and-Death Decisions
This past week I had to make the decision to euthanize my horse Luna. Her chronic issues with her hoofs had become so painful that even though she was only nine years of age, it was simply the most humane choice to make. The thought that there is no more Luna rips my gut, but I feel that I made the right decision for her.
Some of us need to make life-and-death decisions daily. Sometimes the decision is easy – a dog or cat comes into your facility with a non-operable, painful, chronic medical issue, and the mercy we can so humanely provide is a gift. More often, however, we are making euthanasia decisions that are not so black and white.
Those working in brick-and-mortar shelters have to focus not just on each individual animal, but the health of the entire group of animals in the shelter – and at risk of coming into the shelter – when making decisions around euthanasia. A dog with aggression or a singleton neonate kitten may be at risk of euthanasia because the shelter has limited housing and limited opportunities for treatment, and another set of dogs and cats is already coming through the door. Making a decision to save this one life vs. saving the ten who can be saved with the same amount of resources is the logical decision – but not a decision any of us wants to have to make… we all want to save them all. The idea that animals may be euthanized for a health or behavior issue that could be managed outside of a shelter troubles all of us.
As many of you know, the animosity that can build between shelters and animal advocates within a community often revolves around those not so black-and-white cases. Last October I wrote a blog about a visit I made to a small, very under-resourced southern shelter where I watched as sick puppies infected other puppies. I had suggested that the euthanasia of the sick would help ensure more got out alive. Another blogger picked up and shared my blog and not terribly politely voiced her opinion. She rightly thought that the puppies could go to foster and get healthy. But in this shelter, there was no place to hold the puppies while awaiting foster. The days waiting would mean infecting more and more of the population.
When the solution seems so simple – if I could only find a foster, if I could only wait a few more days to see if a transfer can occur so this dog or cat can live… – we can sometimes lose sight of the rest of the picture … one of crates stacked up with live animals in them, with kennels doubled up, where the risk of shelter disease and ultimately death rises.
We all feel a sense of urgency – an urgency to find humane live outcomes, and we all want to find the “if onlys.” It is important to have the different perspectives – both those focused on the individual and those focused on saving them all – as the humane solution for shelters lies in the focus on both of these.
One way to do this is to conduct a daily walk-through of the shelter. The UC Davis Koret Shelter Medicine Program has some good resources on these daily checks. This daily monitoring can help to best identify and quickly provide for the “if onlys” so that they become reality instead of ifs…. By being prepared with on-deck foster homes, SOPs for a variety of disease and behavior issues, and responsible and reliable rescue groups, dogs and cats need not wait for help. This practice allows for a focus on the all and the one.