When it comes to the legality of euthanasia in veterinary medicine, there can be some confusion.
This is because laws vary from State to State and from country to country.
The rules and regulations around putting a dog to sleep is dependent on where in the world that dog is.
While I definitely would not advise doing it, it is perfectly legal to euthanize a healthy dog within the United States.
Sadly, this is something that is done regularly.
For example, in places like shelters and rehoming centers, animals are put to sleep with frequency as there is neither the money nor space to prevent this.
This is a sad reality that many activists and organizations are working to change.
However, a top-down approach is just not in sight since the government does not push any laws to prevent this and bottom-up apparently doesn’t work as evident by the influx of pets who are given up to shelters or puppy mills landing in the rescue cycle.
Here are the AVMA guidelines on euthanasia (may be updated). Let’s dive into the specifics.
Reasons to Euthanize a Dog
Euthanizing a dog should never be a decision that is taken lightly.
It’s an irreversible decision that takes away the right of an animal to live.
Many reasons for putting an animal to sleep are fair and legitimate.
We have the animal’s best interest at heart and simply do not want them to suffer any longer.
Valid reasons include:
- An animal has an untreatable disease such as advanced cancer or heart disease that can no longer be managed medically
- A dog is in extreme pain that cannot be controlled
- While old age is not a reason to put a dog to sleep, if a dog has come to the end of their natural life, it should be considered. Quality of life can be unbelievably poor (no eating, drinking, difficulty getting up, etc.) in those with advanced age and euthanasia can prevent further suffering. Take a read of this article to learn more about your dog and the end of their life.
Some also consider euthanasia for less valid reasons:
- A dog’s medical bills cannot be paid (perhaps if they have sustained a serious injury in an accident or have a chronic and expensive health condition). Obviously, that’s why it’s important to do your research about ownership costs upfront and maybe even have pet insurance, depending on health and age.
- An animal has attacked and injured a person, especially if unprovoked. Very few types of aggression would warrant euthanasia but it’s sadly often advised if the dog “poses a threat to society”.
Other reasons for having a dog put to sleep generally fall under the heading of “animal control”.
This means that the animal is unowned or the owner can no longer take care of them.
Of course, this should only be considered if a loving home cannot be found for the dog.
Some owners will want to have their pets put to sleep for ‘convenience’.
If a person is moving into a smaller home or their dog no longer fits with their lifestyle, they may consider euthanasia.
In these situations, it’s important that they do what is best for their dog and put in the time and effort to finding them a suitable home and do not just cop out through the easy way.
Will a Vet Euthanize an Aggressive Dog?
In general, yes, vets will euthanize dogs that pose a danger to society.
However, most vets would see this as a last resort.
In some cases, a dog is acting aggressive due to poor training because their needs are not being properly met.
If it’s the case that a dog may enjoy a normal life and the aggression can be controlled, the vet may discuss how this could be achieved.
Your vet should discuss your concerns with you.
They may advise you on medicine that could help, local veterinary behaviorists and other helpful resources.
They may also discuss the option of handing your dog over if they feel they know a person or center that could help them.
Can I Put My Dog Down for Old Age?
One of the most common reasons a dog is put down is because they are elderly.
This does not mean, however, that a dog reaches a certain age and they should be brought in to be put to sleep. Each patient must be looked at as an individual.
Even some teenage dogs can be sprightly and healthy, with plenty of years left in them.
Owners and vets should assess a dog and their quality of life on a case-by-case basis.
It’s important that all dogs are able to enjoy a good quality of life.
They should be free from pain. It is also important that dogs can move about and enjoy their food.
The older a dog gets, the more likely they are to develop certain medical issues such as periodontal disease, osteoarthritis, incontinence, and cancer.
Many conditions can be well managed with interventions and medicine, so it is important your dog sees your vet regularly and that their advice is followed.
It can be useful to objectively assess an older dog’s quality of life by regularly filling in ‘Quality of Life’ questionnaires.
Can a Vet Refuse to Euthanize a Dog?
Yes, a vet can refuse to euthanize a dog.
If a vet feels that euthanizing a dog is not the right thing to do, they can refuse.
However, vets are aware that this could add to an owner’s distress.
Indeed, refusing a euthanasia request is not something a vet does lightly.
If a vet declines to put a pet to sleep, there will be a good reason for this.
If, for example, they feel that a dog has a treatable medical condition, they would discuss with the owner what treatment may entail.
They will also refer the owner to any helpful resources or organizations that can assist.
This article published in JSAP discusses the many reasons a vet may decline euthanasia.
Interestingly, some vets in the study reported that they had felt pressured into putting a dog to sleep by an owner or another vet when they may not have felt it was the right decision.
Personally, I think it’s a good thing that vets can refuse.
While owners can always seek out another vet, it makes it harder for unwarranted euthanasia and may even halt the process because the owner thinks about alternatives.
Do animal shelters need to follow certain rules?
The killing of animals in shelters is an area that, rightfully, garners a lot of attention.
As a society, we need to ensure these animals are being given the best chance at life.
If the ultimate decision is that they are to be euthanized, we need to ascertain that this is done ethically and as peacefully as possible.
All animal shelters must follow guidelines and regulations set out by the state in which they reside.
Some will have to wait a certain amount of time before putting a newly arrived animal to sleep.
Others will have to give written notice to the dog’s registered owner or make a public notice if the owner cannot be contacted.
Animal Euthanasia Laws By State
As discussed, laws vary depending on which state you are in.
There are different regulations for who can perform euthanasia as well as how it can be performed.
It’s California State policy that no animal should be put to sleep if they can be rehomed or treated.
Conversely, in Indiana, if an impounded dog is not retrieved in 7 days, they can be legally euthanized, regardless of their age and health status.
Louisiana law states that dogs cannot be killed by an injection in the heart unless they have been placed under anesthetic.
This is not the case in many other States.
In the State of New York, it is illegal to kill a dog by gunshot unless they are a dangerous dog or they are severely injured and cannot be helped.
In South Dakota, only licensed veterinarians are allowed to carry out euthanasia on a dog.
However, the same cannot be said for most other States.
More commonly, other people such as certified euthanasia technicians and animal control officers are often permitted to put a dog to sleep under certain circumstances.
You can view all the states and their respective laws here.
The data may not be updated regularly so make sure to contact your local authority.
Is it Legal to Euthanize Your Dog At Home?
In the USA, it is technically legal to put an animal to sleep at home.
The only way this should be achieved is with the help of a licensed professional.
Your own vet, or a veterinary professional who operates an at-home euthanasia service, should be able to assist you.
This allows your pet to pass peacefully in familiar surroundings.
Attempting to put your own dog to sleep without professional help is simply not recommended.
There is too much room for something to go wrong and it’s important that a veterinary professional is on board.
Depending on how a person would try to put their own dog to sleep, they could face animal cruelty charges or other penalties.
Ultimately, a sick or dying animal should be seen by a vet.
If euthanasia is the right decision, the vet is best placed to carry this out.