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8. Euthanasia of animals

Updated 24 April 2024


8.1  Euthanasia may be defined as ‘painless killing to relieve suffering’. Veterinary surgeons and veterinary nurses should be aware that these events are often highly emotionally charged. In these circumstances, small actions and/or omissions can take on a disproportionate level of importance. It is recommended that all practice staff involved in euthanasia are fully trained and a planned, rehearsed and coordinated approach is taken.

8.2  Euthanasia is not, in law, an act of veterinary surgery, and in most circumstances may be carried out by anyone provided that it is carried out humanely. No veterinary surgeon is obliged to kill a healthy animal unless required to do so under statutory powers as part of their conditions of employment. Veterinary surgeons do, however, have the privilege of being able to relieve an animal's suffering in this way in appropriate cases.

8.3  Animals which are kept under a licence granted under the Animal Welfare (Licensing of Activities Involving Animals) (England) Regulations 2018 or from March 2020 the Animal Welfare (Licensing of Animal Exhibits) (Wales) Regulations 2020 must either be euthanased by a veterinary surgeon, or by a person who has been authorised to do so by a veterinary surgeon. These animals may include animals sold as pets, boarded cats and dogs, and animals trained for exhibition. Horses held under a licence granted by the regulations may be euthanased by a person who is competent and holds a licence or certificate to do so. Veterinary surgeons are expected to use their clinical judgment when authorising a non-veterinary surgeon to euthanase an animal, however, the following factors may be considered:

a. the experience of the person

b. whether the method of euthanasia is humane and effective

8.4  Generally, only veterinary surgeons and veterinary nurses acting under their direction and in accordance with Schedule 3 of the Veterinary Surgeons Act, have access to the controlled drugs often used to carry out the euthanasia of animals. An exception to this is the use of pentobarbitone by RSPCA Inspectors in England and Wales for the euthanasia of wild animals.

Purpose of euthanasia

8.5  The primary purpose of euthanasia is to relieve suffering. The decision to follow this option will be based on an assessment of many factors. These may include the extent and nature of the disease or injuries, other treatment options, the prognosis and potential quality of life after treatment, the availability and likelihood of success of treatment, the animal’s age and/or other disease/health status and the ability of the owner to pay for private treatment.

Difficulties with the decision

8.6  Veterinary surgeons may face difficulties where a request is made by a client for the destruction of an animal, where in the clinical/professional judgement of the veterinary surgeon destruction of the animal is not necessary, for instance where there are no health or welfare reasons for the animal to be euthanised, or when an owner wishes to keep an animal alive in circumstances where euthanasia would be the kindest course of action.

8.7  The veterinary surgeon's primary obligation is to relieve the suffering of an animal, but account must be taken not only of the animal's condition, but also the owner's wishes and circumstances. To refuse an owner's request for euthanasia may add to the owner's distress and could be deleterious to the welfare of the animal. In these circumstances before carrying out the request for euthanasia the veterinary surgeon should scan the animal for a microchip and check the relevant database if a microchip is found.

8.8  Where, in all conscience, a veterinary surgeon cannot accede to a client's request for euthanasia, they should recognise the extreme sensitivity of the situation and make sympathetic efforts to direct the client to alternative sources of advice. Further information regarding conscientious objection can be found in Chapter 2 Veterinary Care

8.9  There may be circumstances where a request is made by a client for the destruction of a dog or cat, as above where in the clinical/professional judgement of the veterinary surgeon destruction of the animal is not necessary, for instance where there are no health or welfare reasons for the animal to be euthanised. In these circumstances, veterinary surgeons should scan the dog or cat for a microchip and check the relevant database if a microchip is found before carrying out the request for euthanasia. Further, veterinary surgeons should note that where the dog or cat in question has been rehomed from a shelter, clients may have a contract such that the dog or cat can be returned to that shelter and so it may be appropriate to discuss this with the client prior to euthanasia. Alternatively, there may be another individual willing to take responsibility for the dog or cat (who may be named on the microchip database), and this may also be discussed with the client. In relation to cats, clients may have brought in a healthy cat under the mistaken impression that the cat is a stray. It is therefore important to check whether there is another owner who has responsibility, or is willing to take responsibility, for the cat, who may be named on the microchip database. If no microchip is found, this should be recorded on the clinical record. 

8.10  Where the reason for a request for euthanasia is the inability of the client to pay for private treatment, it may be appropriate to make known the options and eligibility for charitable assistance or referral for charitable treatment.

8.11  Where a veterinary surgeon is concerned about an owner's refusal to consent to euthanasia, veterinary surgeons can only advise their clients and act in accordance with their professional judgement. Where a veterinary surgeon is concerned that an animal's welfare is compromised because of an owner's refusal to allow euthanasia, a veterinary surgeon may take steps to resolve the situation, for example, an initial step could be to seek another veterinary opinion for the client, potentially by telephone.

Euthanasia without the owner's consent

8.12 The Animal Welfare Act 2006 (which applies in England and Wales), the Animal Health and Welfare (Scotland) Act 2006 and the Welfare of Animals (Northern Ireland) Act 2011 contain provisions to safeguard the welfare of animals. For animals in distress, there are no provisions in these Acts that specifically authorise a veterinary surgeon to destroy an animal. Powers to destroy an animal, or arrange for its destruction, are conferred on an inspector (who may be appointed by the local authority) or a police constable. A veterinary surgeon may be asked to certify the condition of the animal is such that it should in its own interests be destroyed. An inspector or constable may act without a veterinary certificate if there is no reasonable alternative to destruction, and the need for action is such that it is not reasonably practical to wait for a veterinary surgeon.

8.13 A person with responsibility for an animal may commit an offence if an act, or failure to act, causes an animal to suffer unnecessarily. An owner is always responsible for their animal but a veterinary surgeon is likely to be responsible for the animal when it is an inpatient at the practice. If, in the opinion of the veterinary surgeon, the animal’s condition is such that it should, in its own interests, be destroyed without delay, the veterinary surgeon may need to act without the owner’s consent and should make a full record of all the circumstances supporting the decision in case of subsequent challenge. Generally, there should be discussions with the owner of the animal before such a decision, which should be endorsed by a veterinary surgeon not directly involved in the case until that time.

Sporting events

8.14  Where the veterinary surgeon is asked to destroy an animal injured in a sporting event, the opinion of a professional colleague, if available, should be sought before doing so. Veterinary surgeons officiating at sporting events should consider:

a. whether the owner will be present and able to consent to euthanasia if necessary

b. whether the owner has delegated authority to another to make that decision in their absence and

c. whether if damages were sought for alleged wrongful destruction they would have adequate professional indemnity insurance cover.

(Ref: the British Horseracing Authority (BHA) Rules of Racing, Race Manual Rule 81 and FEI Veterinary Regulations Article 1009.17)

Destruction of injured horses

8.15  The BHA’s Rules of Racing, which apply to BHA-regulated events, state:

‘81. Where a horse is, in the opinion of a racecourse Veterinary Surgeon, so severely injured that it ought to be humanely destroyed in order to prevent undue suffering

81.1  the racecourse Veterinary Surgeon will seek to inform the Owner or Trainer of the horse and obtain a second opinion before proceeding with the humane destruction, but

81.2  if it is not practicable to do so, he may proceed with humane destruction without reference to the owner or Trainer.'

(Ref: the British Horseracing Authority Rules of Racing, Race Manual Rule 81 and FEI Veterinary Regulations Article 1009.17)

Destruction of 'dangerous' dogs

8.16  Under the Dogs Acts of 1871 and 1906, the Dog Control Act 1966, the Dangerous Dogs Acts of 1989 and 1991, the Dangerous Dogs (Amendment) Act 1997 and the Dangerous Dogs Order (Northern Ireland) 1991, a destruction order may be made by the Court, Justice of the Peace or Sheriff, and the destruction of a healthy animal is normally involved. In these circumstances, a veterinary surgeon asked to destroy a dog should, unless there is a genuine threat to human safety, request a written and signed order from one of the appropriate statutory authorities.