Convenience Euthanasia: Hot Topic du Jour

Patty Khuly, DVM
Updated: January 22, 2021
Published: January 11, 2010
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It should be an oxymoron but unfortunately it’s not. Not, at least, in the reality of today’s veterinary medicine. "Convenience euthanasia" is the term we use to describe the euthanasia of a healthy pet whose owner wishes to have him euthanized for personal reasons.

Convenience euthanasia applies primarily to those cases where an owner presents himself/herself at your practice and gives a flimsy excuse for wanting their pet euthanized. The most common lines?

  1. I'm moving and I can’t take her with me.
  2. He's too big so my wife no longer wants him.
  3. We have new furniture.
  4. I lost my job and I can’t afford to keep him.
  5. It's my pet and I have a right to have it euthanized, right?

While some of these reasons might be related to the pet’s behavior (such as furniture clawing), they’re all pretty weak excuses, especially should they meet the second criteria for qualifying as an obvious convenience euthanasia: no attempt made to place said pet in another home.

To be sure, there are times when the emotional state of the owner and the nature of the situation combine in such a way that it seems likely that euthanasia is anything but convenient for the person. Still, if I do not have a pre-existing relationship with the individual I will almost always deny the request.

This may seem cruel (especially when someone is crying in front of you), but how do I know this person is truly both owner and only responsible party? Even if it’s a credible story (my mom died and left them and it’s been four months and I haven’t been able to find them homes …) when it comes down to making a life or death decision for an apparently healthy animal I can’t take any chances. I need proof. Death certificate, anyone? It’s a very special circumstance that would compel me to euthanize a healthy animal.

The issue of convenience euthanasia has recently been raising hackles among vets across the U.S. (something we read about in trade publications’ editorials and letters to the editor). The issue pits those staunchly unwilling to perform convenience euthanasia under any circumstances against those who believe if it’s legal then it’s our duty and if we don’t then the next guy down the street will. Most of us fall squarely in between these two.

It seems obvious to me why this issue is only now making noise in our profession. Until recently (the past ten or twenty years or so), no term differentiated one type of euthanasia from another. Euthanasia always came down to one final thing and it was not considered our place to judge our clients or look into their motivations (If Mr. Smith wants to put down his old hound dog who am I to tell him otherwise?).

Because the role of pets in our lives has shifted from property to family (if not legally then at least in terms of how we care for them), coupled with the increasing influence of mainstream animal rights in our profession, more vets are taking a strong stand against what we perceive to be inhumane or unethical treatment.

Predictably, this dispute comes down to yet another battle between the conservative, old guard, practice-owning vets against the younger, less powerful, more idealistic types among us. The war is waged on many fronts, among which convenience euthanasia is merely the newest nexus for conflict.

I know what you’re thinking, my dear readers. What could possibly qualify as a defensible reason for euthanizing a healthy pet? How could anyone (least of all, a vet!) defend killing healthy animals for the sake of expediency?

The only answer I would accept (from another vet) is: 1)that the animal would be very difficult to place due to its age, need for special care, etc. and no one in the hospital (staff, techs, etc.) knows of a potential placement, along with 2)the owner is hell-bent on having this pet out of his hands today, even if it means going down the line to every vet in the city. If the vet thinks: better me than to have this pet sit in a crate or follow his owner from hospital to hospital for the whole day then, so be it. I will accept this vet’s attitude as long as it’s clear that some thought and feeling went into the decision.

Personally, I still (almost always) refuse. While I would prefer for these people to be forced to remand their pets to humane services so they could uncomfortably confront the reality of their decision, I would never wish this alternative on a pet. It’s always better to be euthanized by a private staff of caring people than en masse in a shelter environment. Aye — there’s the rub with the firm refusal. The pet’s ultimate fate is one I’m not willing to recognize as a proper alternative to my own, gentle version of euthanasia. So what is a vet to do?

When the underlying problem is one of ignorance, selfishness, and often sheer idiocy, what weapons, beyond denying your services, does a vet have at his disposal? How does one combat these ubiquitous foes? After all, it’s still legal to euthanize your pet at will — and it’ll never be illegal to be an idiot.

Having absorbed the traded barbs and occasional solid arguments in the recent flare-up of inter-vet tensions related to this topic, I think I have finally found a new solution to my dilemma. While I will still refuse the procedure, I will now take the opportunity to provide a little lecture. While, by nature, I’m not confrontational, I can be when pushed. I now consider each of these cases a great opportunity to practice control over my inner rage for a great cause. And while this may not help the pet in front of me, it might well improve things for the next pet this person takes on (or, hopefully, declines).

A year or two ago I received a phone call from a nearby vet warning me that one of these cases was on its way over. She had refused the client but wanted to make sure I understood the situation, in case the person adjusted tactics to meet his goals at the next hospital. I smiled to myself as I told her not to worry. I had the situation well under control.

Dr. Patty Khuly