How Animal Shelters Decide Which Pets to Euthanize

Sadly most animal shelters cannot keep every animal brought to them.  They simply lack the space.  Typically more animals are admitted to an open admission shelter than get adopted and as such some animals are euthanized to make room for more.   Note that an open admission shelter is one that never refuses to accept animals brought to them, unlike many “no-kill” shelters which will turn pets away when they are full.
Below is listed some of the criteria animal shelters use to determine if pets are kept or euthanized on a daily, or weekly, basis.  It ultimately often boils down to if a pet is considered adoptable or not…



When it comes to picking a pet to adopt very few people consider the older animals. Most want kittens or puppies. A few might take an adult animal, but not that many are willing to adopt senior pets. Some shelters try to encourage adoption of older pets by lowering the adoption cost or waving it altogether. At the end of the day, when a shelter is full, the older pets, often suffering from problems associated with age, are put on the list for euthanasia.


Time at the Shelter

Although members of the public often hear that shelters only keep pets for 72 hours, this is totally false information. 72 hours is the length of time shelters must keep stray pets until they are considered the legal owner of the pet. Once the decision has been made to put the pet up for adoption it is vet checked, vaccinated, and dewormed. At that point the shelter has invested money into the pet and euthanasia is never a desired option. Still sometimes pets sit waiting to be adopted for months. They are passed over again and again. Sometimes they become stressed or depressed. At a point the shelter staff must make a tough decision, to put down one of their friends to give another animal a chance at getting adopted.



A sick pet may put the health of other animals in jeopardy. Some diseases such as Parvo, in dogs, and distemper in cats, can rip through a shelter like wildfire. Euthanasia is often more cost effective in the long run than treating sick animals that could potentially spread disease. Some pets have ongoing health issues that may prevent them from getting adopted. Diabetic pets, for example, may require insulin shots twice daily, and few owners would choose to adopt such a pet over a healthy one.



Dangerous pets are often euthanized. Keeping such animals risks injury to staff and volunteers and not every shelter has the ability or time to work with and rehabilitate aggressive pets. Additionally pets with behavior problems for which the shelter cannot retrain and which would make them difficult to adopt, may be considered for euthanasia when other facts are considered.


Signs of Stress

Some animals simply cannot cope with living in a cage for a prolonged period of time. They may become depressed, and withdrawn. This hurts their chances of getting adopted. Some develop negative behaviors such as pacing in their kennel. Not all shelters have the luxury of allowing pets to live in foster homes and as such chose to euthanize animals who are not thriving in the shelter.


All Ready Have Many Similar Pets for Adoption

Sometimes a shelter will have several pets that are relatively similar, such as six black lab dogs or a dozen tabby cats. When shelters have unique pets, such as unusual breeds, those pets often get a preference in comparison to a pet type that the shelter already has many of.

Grey and white cat, photo by author

Grey and white cat, photo by author

Preference for Keeping

Animals who are already spayed or neutered, and who are fully vaccinated, and are surrendered to the shelter by their owners, have a better chance at being kept by a shelter (and going for adoption), than a stray with unknown history when all other factors are the same. This is because the pet only needs a behavioral assessment where as the shelter still has to pay for the stray pet to be brought up to date medically speaking. Shelters do not get veterinary care for free. When a pet is surrendered the owner can pass on information such as whether or not it is good with kids and other pets. Even if these answers are negative, having the answers is often better than having only questions.

In dogs preference is usually given to the ones with the best manners, and training. An unruly dog has a poor chance of getting adopted.



Again we must realize that if shelters had more funding, more space, more adoptions, and fewer animals being brought in all the time, there would be no need for animal shelters to put pets to sleep. If people took more time to train their animals rather than surrendering unruly pets to the shelter, if they took more time considering what pet was right for them before getting one on a whim, if they spayed or neutered their pet rather than allowing it to have a litter, shelters would not have to deal with excess, and unwanted, pets.  It must be noted that euthanasia of pets is not what anyone wants, but it is necessary due to limited funds and space.

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