What to do When Owners Want to Euthanize a Healthy Pet

Silk Terrier

By Elaine Waldorf Gewirtz

On Christmas Eve, a client asked Donna Allen, DVM, at the Animal Medical Center of Middletown in Louisville, Kentucky, to euthanize Peter, her healthy 10-year-old Silky Terrier.

Here is how Dr. Allen responded to this request along with some Fear Free tips on how to handle this unfortunate situation.

A Painful Decision

“Immediately I recognized this was a nice, well-cared-for dog,” says Dr. Allen, a Fear Free certified veterinarian. “The Silky’s teeth appeared in good condition, his vaccinations were up to date, and the dog had dry eyes and only needed over-the-counter eye drops. Obviously, it wasn’t the dog’s fault he was in this position.”

Dr. Allen received the impression the owner didn’t want to end Peter’s life but didn’t know what else to do with the dog. Feeling a family obligation to take in and care for her ill, elderly sister who suffered from hearing issues, the owner didn’t anticipate the sister wouldn’t like dogs and couldn’t deal with the terrier’s barking.

“It did no good for me to refuse to euthanize the dog because the owner would only take him elsewhere,” says Dr. Allen.

Reflecting on her Fear Free training, Dr. Allen listened to the owner’s dilemma, understood her situation, and knew ethically there was no reason to euthanize Peter. She observed the dog’s behavior and level of stress and tried to relax him.

Another Solution

“I could tell Peter was anxious, so I wanted to give the owner some trazodone for him, but she didn’t want to take the dog home,” says Dr. Allen. “As an alternative to euthanizing Peter, I asked if I could keep him and try to place him with a foster organization. Luckily, she agreed and left Peter with me.”

When the owner returned home she called Sandy Mesmer, the Silky Terrier breeder from whom she had bought Peter, and explained she had taken the dog to the veterinarian to be euthanized.

“My contract specifies that if for any reason, the owner can no longer keep the dog, I will take him back,” says Mesmer, of Clearwater, Florida. “When the owner gave me the doctor’s name I immediately called Dr. Allen and posted messages on social media about a Silky Terrier needing a new home.”

Within three hours, Peter found himself in a new, permanent home.

Tips for Dealing with an Owner Surrender

Not all cases of owner surrenders end well, but Dr. Allen and Mesmer offer suggestions on how to find the dog a new home.

  1. Listen to the owner’s request for euthanization and show empathy for the situation. Avoid passing judgment.
  2. Before examining the dog, move at a pace that’s comfortable for him. Approach the dog quietly, offer treats, and allow him time to relax. Greet the dog on the floor, talk to the owner, and make the experience less clinical. Avoid rushing at the dog and immediately putting him on the table.
  3. Offer rehoming options by contacting the breeder, breed rescue, local rescue groups, or family members. “Today people always step up to take in a dog who needs a home,” says Mesmer.
  4. If the dog will remain at the clinic until someone picks him up, use anti-anxiety medication and treatments to help the dog adapt to staying in the clinic.

Utilizing Fear Free practices helps alleviate stress and tension for a dog in a tenuous situation. When he goes to a new home he’ll fit right in.

This article was reviewed/edited by board-certified veterinary behaviorist Dr. Kenneth Martin and/or veterinary technician specialist in behavior Debbie Martin, LVT.