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Specialized ProfessionI work at a high volume animal shelter and for years was one of the main euthanasia techs at the facility. I've put down probably over 1000 animals for a wide array of reasons-AMA

Sep 29th 2017 by BellaBelly • 13 Questions • 70 Points

Yep, so Im the one that does the job most people can't fathom. I can also answer any questions anyone has about the inner workings of animal care and shelter life. We save animals and sometimes we have to put them down. It can be some of the most rewarding work and the toughest, most emotionally taxing. The PTSD is real. Ask away!

Q:

Hello! I've had to put down two part cats in my lifetime. Both lived to be quite old. Although one suddenly declined in health overnight and it was easy to tell it was her time to go, the other had a much steadier decline over time. We had a really difficult time deciding when to take him in. In these cases, how do you know when it's time? I'd like my cats to suffer as little as possible!

I do have another question as well, if you have time! In the comments you mention you foster a lot of cats! This is something I would love to do in the future if I work from home. Is there a proper way to go about this?

Thank you for your time! All my cats were either adopted or strays, so I really appreciate all the work you and your coworkers do in shelters.

A:

Hi! Yay! Thanks for adopting from shelters! So your first question is a really good one but a tricky one. I believe in a lot of cases you'll really just know that it's gotten too much for your kitty. Audible sounds of discomfort, overall lethargy and loss of interest in normal things the cat enjoys. The biggest indicator is when the animal stops drinking and eating. If that goes on for more than a couple days it's time. It's an incredibly personal decision and I know it's really hard to do but if you feel like the end is near, ending their suffering is absolutely the most humane, kind thing you can do for your companion. I hope that helps but for sure feel free to private message me anytime when the time comes closer. I've been able to help quite a few friends with the decision process at the end of their pets lives.

As far as as fostering goes, DO IT! Lol. Shelters are so packed and even one cat out to a good foster home relieves pressure and opens up a cage to another animal. I would look up shelters in your area and just ask if they have a foster program. I keep a revolving door of fosters in my house, one goes back, a new one comes in. The biggest comment I hear from my friends is, "I don't know how you do it, I would want to keep all of them". In shelter workers we have a comment back we always play in our heads in response to that. "I don't know why you don't do it". The need is high. And it's so, SO rewarding to nurture them up to spay/neuter weight, let them go, and see them go to a loving, forever home. I would prepare you though, there is death. Sometimes you lose them. Bottle babies are especially hard. They can crash in an instant. Try not to let that deter you. I've had entire litters go on me. It's nature and you cannot save them all. Don't take it personally like you're not doing a good job. The fact that you want to foster indicates you are doing a good job. Again, if you end up fostering, please don't ever hesitate to contact me. A support system is necessary. Thanks for your question and go foster some kitties!


Q:

That is heartwarming to hear! Can you tell us more about some of the scary things feral cats will do? I've seen friends try to pet feral/wild animals in the past and it concerns me.

It'd be really interesting to hear more about the rabies testing process. I worked in an animal lab when I was younger, so I guess my threshold for disturbing stuff is maybe higher than average.

A:

Sure! Body language alone is wicked intimidating. Ears flat, climbing the cage walls, spitting, screaming, thrashing, spinning. I have so many scars. I have photos of them hanging from ceilings. In fact one time a feral escaped on me, climbed the cabinets, and busted through the drop ceiling and got into that attic. That was a long walk to the CEO to tell her what I had let happen. They scratch, they hiss, they fly around like banshees knocking everything down in their wake, the most concerning is a bite. Cat mouths carry something like 27 or 32 different bacteria that can make your day or week a big bummer. You instantly have to go on antibiotics because they inevitably get infected. So for decap, we saw through the neck with a big old knife and then get a pair of tree loppers to cut through the spine. It is extremely hard to do with a big dog and if they were just put down the blood output is crazy. But I would always rather do one that just got put down compared to a few day old corpse. That is a smell that you don't ever forget. Edited because I posted my reply in the wrong place. Sorry! :)


Q:

My girlfriend and I fostered a kitten that our Humane Society decided needed to be euthanized. Financially we could not afford to adopt her (medical costs + apartment fees of "owning" an animal [much less cost if it was technically property of the Humane Society]).

Long story short, they couldn't find a vein and ended up injecting into her belly and the whole process from injection to expiration took 20-30minutes.

I wanted to be there with the kitten, but the process was so traumatic it almost seemed like it would have been better for all involved (including the doctors/nurses) if we weren't there.

Is that normal, or is this an exception to the general trend?

My only other experience with this is when my dog died when I was in undergrad, but I was away from home and death happened naturally, so it was much different.

I would love to foster again, I'm just trying to understand what happened. Any insight/suggestions you could provide woods be greatly appreciated.

Thanks, Mike

A:

Hi Mike! Thanks for fostering! I'm so, so sorry this was the outcome of your first experience. I would certainly implore you to give it another go.

Yes, this does happen for very small kittens to inject into the belly. You have to know where exactly so you don't hit the kidney, liver, or bladder. And yes, sadly it does take about 20 minutes for death to take place. The phenobarbital is absorbed into the system rather than being carried through the veins. This is absolutely considered humane, when they're so small veins can be impossible to hit.

So I'm so happy you decided to foster!! The world needs more foster parents. You guys play such a HUGE part in saving lives. Kittens don't thrive in a shelter environment, for a ton of reasons.

So I would totally encourage you to do it again...and again, and again, and again. I know your first experience was incredibly traumatic. The first foster kittens I ever took in ended up having to be euthanized as well. Keep in mind that this happens all the time and is in no way a reflection of the job you did. Sometimes they just don't make it. Whether there was a sickness we didn't know about, fading kitten syndrome, any number of things. I've had whole litters crash on me before. One kitten after another just fade and die. But on the flip side I have fostered and save literally hundreds of kittens. Hundreds of lives! Still here, because I helped out! That's such a good feeling and I would encourage you to keep trying. So I would say give it another go. And like I've told several people, please feel free to message me with any questions about the minutia of fostering.

Their body temps run much higher than ours so you need to always have a heating pad. Up to two weeks old they need to be fed every two hours and then two to four weeks they need to be fed every 4 hours. Around the clock baby, just like human babies. You have to stimulate them to urinate and deficate, replicating the mother licking their butts. Having multiple helps too. Even though it's more work. Cats who are fostered from a very young age don't learn the social cat cues that the momma would teach them so having siblings helps. Go online, watch YouTube videos, read as much as you can about creating an environment where they have the best chance to survive. It's hard but well worth it. Thanks again and good luck to you!


Q:

How often (percentage?) did you put down animals whose owners waited too long? I've had to convince friends a few different times that it was time, but they just weren't ready to let them go.

A:

It happened. I'm not sure about percentage exactly. Clearly the animal was suffering, extreme dehydration, not eating, painful tumors or sicknesses. That being said I always had so much empathy for them. It's sort of easy to judge from the outside that they may have waited too long but it's really such a tough decision to make and I truly understand that. It's so heavy that they, the owner, have to make the call to end their beloved pet's life. I don't think waiting too long was ever done maliciously. We get so attached, they become a huge part of our families. I do have a lot of distain for vets who give false hope with options, most likely expensive treatments, that don't enhance quality of life, just extend it. All about that buck.

So I get it, why people wait too long. And ultimately they eventually came to the decision to put them down. I really appreciated when the owner would be in the room, as painful as it is. You would be shocked at the amount of people who don't want to be there. They would just drop them off, animals who had spent their whole lives with these people and at the end they're left with strangers in the last moments. That I never really understood.


Q:

I picked up a stray kitty that was clearly hurting. We bonded over the day or so before I got her to the vet, where I was told she was terminal and should probably be put down right away.

I was appalled when they tried to take her away from me to put her down, in a back room somewhere in the company of strangers. Even though we had only known each other a day or so she trusted me, and the doctor euthanized her in my arms. Obviously I cried (after, I put on a brave face for her), though she purred in my lap as she drifted off to sleep, and didn't seem distressed.

I can't imagine walking away from one's own pet at a moment like that. I wonder if people largely lack the biological mechanisms for real compassion or if we're just socialized that way. Sad in any case, and makes me think less of my fellow man.

A:

Wow. I wonder what was going on with your little found lover kitten. So the vet didn't tell you what was going on? Did they test it for FIV/FeLV I wonder? "Terminal" seems like a pretty big judgement call after one visit. I really want to know more. That doesn't seem right to me that they would euthanize before giving you an actual medical diagnosis. Doctors as well as Vets can forget about patient rights. God complex and all. Thanks for showing her love in her final days. Sometimes that can mean more than an entire life of struggle. You're so sweet for doing this.


Q:

Considering that your line of work is, as you put it, "emotionally taxing," what made you decide to pursue this career?

A:

I had been actively trying to break into animal care for years. I had been a foster for my local animal shelter for a couple years and a position opened up. I jumped at the opportunity and was hired very quickly since I already had a relationship with the shelter. I had no idea at the time that I would become a full time euthanasia tech.

Once I started I moved somewhat quickly up the ladder. I began working in the intake clinic. We snap test all cats that come in the door, this requires taking blood. I found I was very skilled at being able to draw blood from even very small veins from kittens or geriatric cats whose veins can be incredibly fragile and tough to get blood from.

So they started using me more and more for putting cats down. Then I learned how to do the process with dogs. Later on, a class opened for EBI (euthanasia by injection) and my shelter paid for me to go.

The burn out rate for shelter workers is among the highest out of all professions in the states. Self care is extremely important. I have to say, just making this AMA is really cathartic. Being able to talk about what I do is a healthy release. So many of my friends and family can't handle hearing some of the horror stories I have so I do tend to internalize a lot of it. So thanks Reddit and everyone who's been asking me great questions and supporting me without judgement!!


Q:

I don't know if you'd be comfortable with it, but you can find a vet to do a house call. I know that my mom had our old dog put to sleep in our living room on his bed. I think it was nice for him.

A:

Well, first off I would ask how you're going to do it. I know around my area there are veterinarians who will come to your home and perform the service right in your living room. Maybe contact some local vets in your area and see if they can meet you there?

Other than that, spoil your puppers rotten. Any and all food or treats they love, lots of belly rubs and attention. Of course, I'm sure you're going to do that anyway. I guess I would need a little more information as to what exactly your thinking of doing. That way I have more information and could recommend meds or tranqs that would help.


Q:

Assuming you interact with the animals besides euthanizing, do you have an instinct that tells you which animals will be adopted quick or which will likely never get adopted? If so, does that change how you treat the animal?

A:

Yes, but sometimes I'm completely surprised by how they can turn around. I try to keep in mind that they come into the shelter, usually from their home, or off the street, and they're scared. Completely understandably so. We give them 5 days to adjust and calm down. Also certain animals react to different people differently. So one that loves me could not like another person and vice versa. As far as how I treat an animal I always try to do what I do with compassion. One of the reasons I became a euthanasia tech was so they could have someone kind and gentle with them at the end. So they don't have to die alone. There is no good or bad animal. Just how they were raised dictates a lot of their personality. I love animals. Occasionally I'm scared of the wild ones but I try to do what I do with as gentle of a hand as possible.


Q:

How did you get into being a euthanasia tech? Do you feel like it's gotten easier and how do you relax after a day like that?

A:

It was part of my job when I started and then I took classes to become certified and learn more about it. I used to drink a lot. Now I talk to my bestie. Talk to other techs. Shelter folk are a peculiar breed. If we go out we inevitably talk about work all day. I also love on my fur babies when I get home. I also have an incredibly dark sense of humor. Sometimes things that happen in the room can strike me as ridiculously funny. It probably sounds awful but it's a way my mind processes and deals.


Q:

what are the smallest and largest animals eligible for euthanasia?

A:

Largest we did were probably horses. Smallest were maybe rabbits or lizards. Rabbit veins are super hard to hit. Oh! Wait, I did a bat once. They're tiny.


Q:

Have you grown numb to putting down the animals? If so at approx what number animal would you say it became "easier"? And if it is still as difficult as the first time then what drives you to continue?

A:

I'm not sure if numb is exactly the right word. I'm definitely more jaded when it comes to people. Not spaying and neutering, dropping off their animal because (shocker) a puppy is a lot of work, or their moving. For awhile my mantra at work was literally, "I hate people". I've tried to tamp that down though and be compassionate. We don't want to berate someone for bringing an animal to the shelter. Hey, at least their not throwing it out of the car window on the highway. Yes, literally, people fucking do that.

So I always love on the animal I'm euthanizing, if they let me. I talk to them. I'm gentle. I have probably become more desensitized just for the sake of my own psyche. Probably what gets to me the most is picking for space. Looking at a room of perfectly healthy, adoptable cats and having to chose who lives and who dies. And then coming in the next day and seeing how it could've been the one I'm looking at. It's a fucked up role to play and it weighs super heavy. I hate that. So much. Killing a normal, healthy cat. But I do have to remind myself it's not my fault. People need to spay and neuter. Try to rehome their cat instead of dropping it off to us. The community knows we euthanize. And they hate us for it, yet still bring their lifelong pet to us when it becomes an inconvenience.

So I wouldn't say it gets easier. It's always the same feeling. Some days are worse than others. If a sickness like panleukapenia spreads through the cat population we have to euthanize everyone. That's hands down the most awful. It's heartbreaking. That kind of assembly line euthanasia will never, ever leave me. One, after another, after another. Piles of dead cats. It's a stressed like no other. I'm not sure if I'll ever shake those days completely. I remember each one. Heartbreaking. Too much.

What drives me to continue? Animals! Adoptions! People coming in and giving an older dog or cat a chance! Also I'm really good at it. I'm fast, I'm humane, I can hit a vein with my eyes closed. There's something about doing a job no one else wants to do. I feel kind of like it's my duty. I'm one of those people that could be part of a crime scene clean up crew. The nasty biological shit does not bother me. Thanks for such a good question!


Q:

What's the rarest animal seen at the shelter? Similarly, what's the rarest animal you've put down? By rare, I mean animals that you'd never see outside their natural habitats, like groundhogs or bats. You mentioned a bat earlier, so I was wondering if you've seen anything stranger, like an anaconda or macaw.

A:

Great question! We had a bald eagle come in a long time ago. That was pretty amazing to see up close. It was sent to a rehab facility. I believe it was struck by a car. Other than that I've seen deer, squirrels, lizards, snakes, owls. Nothing too spectacular, just run of the mill local wildlife. I've never put down anything too crazy. Farm animals we usually referred to a vet.


Q:

Why do people collect feral cats? They seem to do as well as many wild animals, and it's not like we're going to eliminate the feral cat population

A:

The best thing to do with a feral population is trap neuter and release them back. That way the feral colony can naturally die out. Feral colonies can rapidly overpopulate, carry diseases, and overall health can be poor causing unneeded suffering for the animals.