Euthanasia: Is it morally acceptable to destroy a physically healthy dog? When is the right time to end the life of a dog? Is it when he is too unwell to enjoy any quality of life? Is it when he is at death’s door? Or is it when you can’t get him to sit?

There are countless varying opinions on the subject of dog euthanasia and the vast majority contain very worthwhile points of view. However, in order to implement a universal code of ethics on the subject it is essential for certain animal welfare authorities to agree on certain things with regards to euthanasia. What is meant by ‘universal code of ethics’ in this context is a collection of many opinions on when it is right to put a dog down, in order to reduce the amount of unnecessary dog deaths and the amount of undue suffering to dogs.

Comparisons with human euthanasia can only be drawn to a certain extent as the denotation of euthanasia includes the words ‘merciful’ and ‘help’. This suggests that there has been some sort of request made on the part of the sufferer and this can not be true in the case of dogs.

The majority of dog lovers in the world would agree that it would be cruel to actively
keep a dog alive if he was in obvious pain and had no quality of life. Would it be cruel to continue feeding the dog if he was in obvious pain and had no quality of life but to offer it no medication or pain relief? Who decides whether a dog has no quality of life?

It’s certainly not the dog himself it is usually the family from which the dog comes upon the advice of the veterinary surgeon. This is a seemingly logical sequence of events, but isn’t every person’s definition of quality of life totally different? What if dogs that are perfectly happy are being euthanised because they are slower or less active? What if a dog that is in extreme pain is kept alive because it does not appear ill or in pain?

The most common way to humanely put a dog down is by lethal injection. The solution used is called sodium pentobarbital, this substance is administered intravenously and results in two of three things. Firstly, the recipient will experience rapid loss of consciousness followed by either cardiac or respiratory arrest. The animal will feel absolutely no pain as it drifts into unconsciousness. This method of euthanasia gave rise to the euphemism ‘ to put to sleep’.

Other methods used by vets include the injection of a substance called T-61. This is a type of neuro-muscular blocking agent. This method causes paralysis and pain and is generally not the favoured method of euthanasia with most vets.

Arguments frequently arise upon discussion of one particular method of euthanasia. Shooting is considered by many as a more humane way of euthanasia than sodium pentobarbital or T-61. However, one argument is that this method is barbaric and disrespectful to the dog.

To take a dog out into a field or yard and simply put a gun to his head and end his life is deemed to be inhumane. What if the gun misfires and the dog is accidentally shot in the stomach or back and is left in pain and shock with only death to bring an end? What are the social implications of validating the ownership of firearms for this reason, when there are other methods of euthanasia which pose no possible threat to parties not involved in the ownership of dogs? These are all very logical arguments, all though there are very valid arguments to the contrary. Why should a struggling farmer, for example, have to pay to have his own dog killed when he can do it for free in the privacy of his own home?

Many people argue that the environment of a veterinary surgery is stressful to a dog, and that a dog should not spend his last moments somewhere he doesn’t feel comfortable or happy. Some dog owners argue that to take a dog out into a field and put some food down for him is the only humane way to do it. The last thing he will know will be the smell of his food and the feeling of freedom and happiness he gets from being outside, then gun is put to his head before he even has time to look up. Why should any body pay for their dog to be killed by a stranger when they can end it peacefully in their own home?

There are many reasons for dog owners to consider euthanasia, some of which have clear benefits whilst others are considered unnecessary. The only person who really knows when the circumstances warrant euthanasia is the dog’s owner. A vet can perform a clinical examination to determine whether the dog is afflicted with an illness or condition, but only the dog’s owner knows whether the dog can cope with things or if he is not enjoying life anymore. It seems only right to put a suffering animal out of it’s misery, but what if a dog is to be euthanised not because of illness but for some other reason, lack of space at the rescue centre perhaps?

Dogs do stray, that is the unfortunate fact. Some breeds are more notorious for straying than others. The six most common stray breeds are, Labrador retriever, Golden retriever, German Shepard, Beagle, Siberian Husky and Rottweiler. Would it be reasonable to put a dog down because it escaped and the owner could not be traced?

A view shared by many is that an ‘adoptable’ dog should never be put down. But the term ‘adoptable’ has different connotations depending on people’s views on what they want in a dog. This is why, to avoid unnecessary killings of stray or abandoned dogs, it is essential that a ‘universal code of ethics’ be formed. If there were guidelines which indicated that a dog be at risk of being euthanised because of his situation rather than his health or temperament, perhaps dog owners would go to more effort to see that their dog does not end up in that situation. Perhaps the money saved from reducing dog euthanisations could be put into building more, or extending existing rescue centres.

There is a simpler way of reducing unnecessary dog euthanisations. Spaying and neutering are frighteningly under valued practices. A responsible dog owner who does not wish to, or cannot afford to breed from their dog will always have their dog spayed or neutered, but some dog owners are not responsible ones. All too often rescue centres become inundated with litters of dogs which cannot be cared for by the owner. This merely adds to the problem of over-crowded rescue centres, and it puts pressure on staff. For every dog that is submitted to a rescue centre, one dog has to leave. The dog that leaves is not necessarily a dog that has been adopted, it may just be that the least likely dog to be adopted or it may the dog that has been in the rescue centre for the longest period of time. Imagine a young, healthy and well-adjusted dog who’s owner died and has to be taken to a rescue centre.

This dog could be the dog which has spent the most time at the rescue centre and one day an irresponsible dog owner brings in his litter of ‘accidental’ puppies. Which dog will be required to make room? The simple fact is, that irresponsible dog owners who allow their dogs to breed uncontrollably are adding to an already huge problem.

Fortunately there are members of society who take it upon themselves to highlight this problem, and sometimes extreme measures are taken to really hammer the point home. In fact, a sheriff in Greensboro, north California, managed to triple the adoption rate of dogs and cats in his town.

He had his own cable access show which he usually used to address the issues of the week in Greensboro. The problem with over-crowded rescue centres in the town was so rife that Sheriff televised the euthanisation of a dog, after explaining the reason behind it. The reason was that the dog had been at the rescue centre for too long and it looked as if he was never going to be rescued.

Behavioural problems in dogs often necessitate euthanasia. This is an issue that has very blurred boundaries. The boundaries in question are the ones between serious behavioural problems that can pose a risk to people and other animals, and slight behavioural querks which can be misconstrued as problematic behavioural deficiencies. Some cases are clear for all to see, if a dog is dangerously aggressive and has attacked somebody then sadly, the right option is to have the dog destroyed.

Unfortunately this is the case even if the behavioural problems are due to the owner’s ignorance or negligence, even so it would be unacceptable to keep such a dog within a society of children and other vulnerable parties. But what if the dog is not a danger to society, perhaps a dog is being attacked by a person with behavioural problems and the dog bites, should the dog then be destroyed? Perhaps money saved from reduced euthanisations could go towards a fund aimed at treating dogs with behavioural problems, or is the risk of a dangerous dog in society too great to be lenient on border-line cases?

If there were some sort of guidelines in place to determine what criteria demand a dog be put down then perhaps there would be more care taken to control dogs and their activities. If a dog owner were forewarned that by allowing his dog to breed uncontrollably, it could lead to the unnecessary deaths of many other dogs then perhaps he may take measures to prevent such an outcome. Maybe it wouldn’t bother him in the slightest and only a hefty fine would deter him, but how does one going about creating a whole new law? Would creating a whole new law be taking the issue far too far? After all they’re just dogs aren’t they?

Whatever opinions people hold, the fact still remains that far too many dogs are killed for no good reason. Of course to euthanise a suffering animal seems humane and it is beneficial that this be allowed, but does the entire practice lead to questionable moral values? Does the fact that it is socially acceptable to kill our pets if they are sick lead us to believe that we can kill them if they are not attractive or badly behaved? Do the benefits of such a practice outweigh the drawbacks?

Perhaps we will never know which dogs would be better off dead, perhaps the system in place is the best system we will ever have for looking after man’s best friend. After all, it is rare that a dog lover will see a dog suffering and take no action, and with such marvellous advances in veterinary medicine maybe there will be less need to destroy sick or injured dogs. Whatever happens to the practice of euthanasia, dog owners can be happy in the fact that the intended purpose of it is to prevent any undue suffering to any animal.

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