Coping with Animal Euthanasia: Strategies for Shelter Workers

It’s the “American dream:” a nice house, white picket fence, two-car garage—and, of course—the family dog. Pets are an almost ubiquitous aspect of American culture. But pet overpopulation in the United States makes the euthanasia of more than 3 million dogs and cats every year a tragic necessity. And conducting animal euthanasia takes its toll on those charged with this gruesome responsibility.

In a special report published July 1 in the Journal of the American Veterinary Medical Association, my coauthors and I tackled one part of the animal euthanasia issue. Specifically, we analyzed ways in which experienced animal-shelter workers advocate coping with the stress related to the euthanasia task. We focused on 242 workers’ responses to the following question, which we included in a survey of 62 animal shelters across the country: “What recommendations would you give to someone who is just starting out in this career field? That is, what would you tell them to do, or not to do, to deal with the euthanasia-related aspects of this job?”

Through systematic, rigorous qualitative data analysis procedures, we found that these experienced workers suggested eight general types of coping strategies, as listed below.

  • Competence or skills strategies. These types of strategies included gaining appropriate education and training and practicing proper techniques when conducting euthanasia.
  • Euthanasia behavioral strategies. This category of advice centered on specific practices to follow when conducting euthanasia, such as allowing enough time for the procedure, having someone else euthanize special pets, and keeping the euthanasia room neat.
  • Cognitive or self-talk strategies. These pieces of advice were primarily ways in which workers could manage stress through their own patterns of thinking. For examples, workers should realize that euthanasia is sometimes the best option for certain animals, avoid blaming themselves, learn about the reality of sheltered animals and overpopulation, and focus on successful aspects of animal welfare.
  • Emotional regulation strategies. These types of strategies involved ways in which workers should deal with the emotional aspects of their work. For example, acknowledging their feelings and venting when appropriate. Another strategy within this category involved workers altering their levels of emotional attachment to animals, striving to maintain a healthy balance between becoming completely detached from the animals and becoming too dependent upon them for their emotional well-being.
  • Separation strategies. Respondents suggested that sometimes it’s helpful to find ways to distance themselves from their work. For example, they advocated keeping work separate from non-work activities and seeking diversions through hobbies and reflection.
  • Get-help strategies. This category of advice focused on ways to cope with euthanasia-related strain that involve assistance from others, including communicating with management about concerns and seeking counseling from professionals.
  • Seek long-term solution strategies. These types of advice involved those aimed toward focusing on ways to reduce the frequency of euthanasia overall. For example, respondents advocated that workers should learn about and promote responsible pet ownership. One way in which this could take place is through participating in various types of community outreach programs.
  • Withdrawal strategies. According to respondents, euthanasia is such a tough part of their jobs that sometimes workers should know that the job is not for everyone and, as a last resort, seek a different type of job.

The full report includes more information, including examples of survey respondents’ actual comments in each category of coping strategies. Overall, this study provides valuable insight that could help animal shelter workers, especially newcomers to the job, to deal with the strain caused by having to conduct euthanasia.

With increased public outreach and education—in areas such as spay and neuter programs, animal adoption, and responsible pet ownership—euthanasia should become less necessary as an over-population control measure in the United States. But in the meantime, shelter workers and their managers may find the strategies advocated by respondents in our study to be helpful ways to maintain their psychological well-being despite the threats posed by animal euthanasia.

Reference: Baran, B. E., Allen, J. A., Rogelberg, S. G., Spitzmüller, C., DiGiacomo, N. A., Webb, J. B., et al. (2009). Euthanasia-related strain and coping strategies in animal shelter employees. Journal of the American Veterinary Medical Association, 235, 83-88.