USA: Animal Shelter Opt-out Clause To Euthanise

Law about euhanising cats at shelters

Two useful tags. Click either to see the articles: Toxic to cats | Dangers to cats

In general, across the United States, animal shelters have an obligation to hold, for a certain period of time, animals that are brought to them before considering euthanising the animal. This obligation comes from the law and it varies slightly from state to state. During this holding period the shelter must try and find the owner of the animal and take care of the animal properly.

The holding period allows the animal’s owner to repossess her companion animal. This is obviously better than putting the animal down or having the animal wandering around homeless.

During this holding period the shelter does not own the animal. The shelter possesses the animal. The cat (I’ll refer to cats from now on) is still owned by the cat’s caretaker and owner whoever she or he might be1.

There is an opt-out clause to this general way of proceeding. Under restricted or limited circumstances a shelter is allowed under the law to euthanise animals before the regulation holding period is up.

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The animal has to be assessed as:

  • very sick,
  • in extreme pain,
  • suffering extremely or
  • having a contagious disease

..before they shelter can euthanise early. The decision has to be made by a veterinarian or the shelter supervisor. If the shelter is able to identify and contact the cat’s owner they should do it before euthanising. Even if the cat is very ill etc., if the owner is known the shelter should allow 24 hours before¬† euthanising and they have an obligation to try very hard to contact the owner.

This is the opt-out clause and the weakness in this clause is that the shelter supervisor can make the decision to override the general law on his own assessment. How good is he? How skilled is he about assessing animal illnesses? How fair is he? How animal sensitive is he? These all affect the decision. I tend to believe that not every shelter supervisor has the required skills and attitude to make a good decision.


I’d like to make a quick comparison with the UK, specifically the Cats Protection organisation, a large cat rehoming organisation across the UK.

Importantly, under their rules and guided by the Animal Welfare Act 2006, which applies to everyone, they state that only a veterinarian can make the decision to euthanise a cat in their care.

Also, the actual act of euthanising a cat is carried out by a veterinarian and not staff employed by a shelter as appears to be the usual case in the United States. The method will be by injection only. There are no gas chambers.

As mentioned, while the cat is in the care of Cats Protection they are governed by the rules of the Animal Welfare Act like anyone else. This is a first class Act that protects animals and guides caretakers.

After euthanasia, post mortem examinations are sometimes carried out in the interests of the other cats and also all euthanised cats are cremated as organised by the veterinary clinic.

That seems to be a very high standard of care and dare I ask, is it a higher standard than is found in some shelters in the USA? That is just a question not a statement.

What happens to euthanised animals in the USA? Are they dumped into a bin or whatever? Or used for pet food2?

There is only one decent way to handle the body of a euthanised cat or dog: dignified cremation. To recycle dead animals creates a conflict of interest that leads to bad decision making on the matter of when to euthanise a cat or dog in possession of a shelter. This is because there is an outside commercial reason for euthanising the animal.

Associated: Articles found on PoC when searching for “euthanise”


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Michael Broad

Hi, I'm a 74-year-old retired solicitor (attorney in the US). Before qualifying I worked in many jobs including professional photography. I love nature, cats and all animals. I am concerned about their welfare. If you want to read more click here.

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8 Responses

  1. Cats and dogs are food in some Country’s like Vietnam, Philippines,China and Korea which is condemned in Western Country’s and most of the Developed World including India.What about the 2 to 3 million cats and dogs that are euthanized every year in U.S.A pet shelters ? IS THIS LESS CRUEL THAT EATING CATS AND DOGS? What happens to the euthanized animals at “PET SHELTERS” ? Are they re-cycled as “PET FOOD”,an indirect form of cannibalism in pet food ? I find it bizarre that more cats and dogs are killed in “PET SHELTERS” around the World than consumed as food by certain cultures.What about poultry,cattle and pigs which are factory farmed for human food ?Don’t some people keep odd pets like pigs, chickens goats and cattle ?The best alternative to euthanazia is sterilization as done in India.As for certain cultures eating dogs and cats as food is akin to a majority of the human race being non-vegetarians and the Vegetarian population hating the same.”ONE HUMANS FOOD IS ANOTHER HUMANS POISON”.

  2. Dee (Florida) says:

    The AVMA (AMERICAN VETERINARIAN ASSOCIATION) has specific guidelines for the acceptable methods of euthanasia as well as body disposal. You can go to their site and view – It’s long and cumbersome to sort through.
    This is what I believe to be true:
    1. lethal injection – now the preferred method
    2. electrocution – this is not specifically addressed in the guidelines but known to be in use at some shelters.
    gas chambers and compression chambers are no longer approved
    1. cremation – not typically done as not cost effective
    2. rendering plants – self explanatory and sickening
    3. land-fills – most common. animals are placed in large black garbage bags and stored in freezers until dumped in the land-fill LIKE RUBBISH!

    • Michael says:

      Thanks Dee for that information. Appreciated. The rendering plants method really has to stop. Sorry. It perpetuates the problem because dead cats are a commercial asset. How can that help resolve the so called cat overpopulation problem? It does the opposite. What is the point of working out how to save cats if big business wants dead cats?

      As far as I am aware gas chambers are still used although not approved. Less so perhaps but still used.

      • Dee (Florida) says:

        I’m sure you’re right about gas chambers as well as compression chambers. Just because AVMA no longer approves doesn’t mean they aren’t still used. Disapproval doesn’t constitute law.
        It all makes me sick!

        • Dee (Florida) says:

          It’s so frustrating to feel powerless to make an impact that may impart change. American attitudes toward animals are so different from the Brits. It makes me sad.

        • Ruth aka Kattaddorra says:

          It doesn’t seem like the AVMA have any influence at all over the welfare of animals, their guidelines about declawing being a last resort are totally ignored too.
          The AVMA are just a joke!

  3. Marc says:

    Those gas chambers are truly horrific. I would completely collapse into tears if I had to see what happens when they get killed that way. A real life living hell invented by humans of course and to save money. I think there should be legal requirements to have the job of making the decision to kill. I think the UK is good saying only a vet can decide. I also think a vet should not get anything out of deciding to kill. There should be prohibitive paperwork and checkups and oversight when it comes to killing so that it cannot be an easier or cheaper option. It should be more complicated and more difficult and more expensive.

    When I picture one of my cats ending up in a gas chamber I can’t believe it – I can’t believe its even possible. I can’t believe that it is worse than the WW2 genocide. If I lived in the US and my cat ended getting gassed I don’t think I would be able to carry on. Even if my cat just got euthanized in less than a day. Imagine having a crappy neighbour who traps your cat and gets it killed in a shelter. I would be a walking disaster if that happened. I think I would generally be too scared to have a cat in many places in the US – only if it was somewhere that I was 100% sure no bad people could come along and touch my cat. I wouldn’t want to have to keep my cat inside all day. I’d have to meet all of my neighbours and be 100% sure they weren’t going to shoot or have my cat killed. It’s just too scary to even think about it. Maybe out in the countryside where you have no neighbours – but out there is risk of predatory animals I guess. These shelters are the source of nightmares and a real living hell. A complete betrayal of animal kind – true fear and desperation and horror. A nightmare no book or film could conceive.

    If a person has the power to make a choice like this, to say my cat is in pain and to kill it because he can then I think this person must love animals by default. A person with this power has to have oversight or have to answer to random checks or something. There should always be CCTV in these places or something.

    • Michael says:

      Well said. I think the biggest problem of all is the fact that dead cats killed at shelters are sometimes (don’t know how much) shipped to pet food manufacturers. As I stated in my response to Dee, that turns dead cats into raw material for big business, which must encourage killing cats which in turn is a barrier to stopping the production of unwanted cats. It is madness. That aspect of the process must stop if progress is to be made in slowing up the creation of unwanted cats. Big business wants unwanted cats because it gets their dead bodies.

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