Ending Suffering, or Saving Money, Time, and Space?


Animal Shelter Euthanasia in America

Georgia Milani

Every year around 800,000 pets are killed in America’s animal shelters.

Why This Topic?

Last summer, my family and I went to the Best Friends Animal Sanctuary in Kanab, Utah. Best Friends not only has a sanctuary where they provide forever homes to animals regardless of their health or history, but they also have a mission of making every animal shelter in the United States a no- kill shelter. Seeing how much amazing work they are doing for animals in shelters inspired me to research the animal shelter system in the U.S and its historical background. For as long as I can remember, I have had a passion for animals, and I strongly believe that animals are extremely intelligent and deserve just as much, if not more, respect as humans. When we were tasked with choosing a problem in American History, I knew right away that I wanted to do something that focused on animals, because I think people sometimes overlook the role of animals in history.

How the Flawed System Came To Be: The History of Animal Euthanasia in America’s Shelters

The Very Beginning of Animal Euthanasia

Animal euthanasia dates back as far as ancient Egypt. When people would die, their pets would sometimes be killed as well so that the owner and the animal could still be together in the afterlife. (Kleinfieldt) However, that is a very different from the type of animal euthanasia than what takes places in animal shelters in the United States, which includes killing because of overpopulation, sickness, aggressiveness, or just not being desired by anyone to adopt.

How Animal Shelters Started in America

Animal shelters first took shape in the United States in the colonial era. They were called “pounds” and they served as a way to collect roaming livestock that could be redeemed for a fee. People would buy back their livestock because they were a source of income to the owners. When the pounds started taking in wandering cats and dogs, not many people would buy them back because they were of no financial use to them. The pounds started to euthanize the cats and dogs that were not getting purchased. (Miller)

Women’s Branch of the Pennsylvania SPCA

When Animal Welfare Came Into the Picture

The first animal welfare organization in the U.S was the ASPCA. The ASPCA was started by a man named Henry Bergh in 1866. Their focus was the welfare of horses, because Bergh was so taken aback by the way that horse drawn carriage drivers treated their horses in the streets of New York City. (Miller) The founding of the ASPCA kick started the openings of many other humane societies and animal rights organizations. It wasn’t until 1874 that the first animal shelter with a focus on animal welfare was opened in Philadelphia. It was run by the Women’s Branch of the Pennsylvania SPCA that was started by Caroline Earle White in 1869.

Evalution of Shelter Euthanasia in America

When we think what euthanasia is supposed to be, “the term is traditionally applied to killing aimed at preventing suffering in animals for which reasonable interventions are either exhausted or not available and where quality of life is poor.” (Fawcett) However, sometimes that is not the case. Often shelters have very limited space, so they feel forced to take part in “the killing of a perfectly healthy animal because it is unwanted (by a particular owner or society at large.)” (Fawcett) One of the biggest reasons for euthanization in animal shelters is overpopulation of homeless animals. When there is no more space to hold cats or dogs at the shelter, the number of animals that are killed increases to make more space for the “more adoptable” pets. Before the 1970’s, “ the veterinary community had little input into the management policies of shelters.” However, she explained once people started to have concerns about the lives of shelter animals, more strict guidelines and policies surrounding euthanization were put in place. (Miller) In 1970, right before these crucial changes started to happen, there were around 23.4 million shelter animals euthanized. (Evans) However, once policies became stricter and more initiatives were put in place, the number of animals euthanized in shelters began to decrease. In the year of 1992, around 5.2 million shelter animals were euthanized, which is a dramatic decline compared to the 23.4 million euthanizations in 1970. (Evans)

Moving in the Direction of a No-Kill Nation: Animal Euthanization in Shelters and the Organizations Working to End it

Why are Shelter Animals Euthanized?

Even though the number of shelter animals euthanized each year has significantly gone down, there are still more animals being euthanized than is necessary. Some of the animals that are being euthanized are still adoptable, or have the potential to be, with either medical treatment or special attention. According to the California Legal Guidelines for Adoptable/ Treatable Animals, if a shelter animals is adoptable, meaning they have no disease or significant behavioral issue, then they shall not be euthanized. (West’s Annotated California Codes) Shelters, however, are euthanizing too many adoptable animals, because they either don’t have enough space, or they don’t have the money to take care of all of the animals. Sadly another reason why a dog may be euthanized in an animal shelter, is if the staff believe that the dog is not outgoing or kind enough to be adopted. (Cotroneo) That is a terrible reason to euthanize a dog, because as Cotroneo points out, being in a shelter is traumatizing: “the shelter is an immediate sensory overload. A dizzying diversity of scents, sounds, and strangers.” (Cotroneo) When a dog gets put into a shelter, they are abruptly placed into a completely different environment where they don’t feel comfortable, so they most likely won’t act as confident or happy as they normally would. (Cotroneo)

Best Friends Animal Society


Best Friends Animal Society was founded in 1984, with a mission to make every animal shelter a no-kill shelter. Best Friends believes that every animal should be given a second chance, and that none should be euthanized. (History of Best Friends) Not only does Best Friends have a beautiful sanctuary, but they also work with animal shelters in the U.S. to become no-kill. (History of Best Friends)  There have been many approaches, some more successful than others, that people or organizations have taken to try to reduce the number of animal shelter euthanasias. The main reason for unnecessary euthanasia in shelters is overpopulation. This can be solved by getting cats and dogs spayed and neutered.In the 1970’s, animal welfare organizations “made the pet overpopulation crisis a high profile national issue.” (Hauser) Since then, cities and states have been working to decrease the number of homeless pets by offering low cost spay and neuter programs, and some states even require that “dogs adopted from a shelter be sterilized.” (Hauser)

“Adopt Don’t Shop”

Another way organizations are working to decrease the number of shelter euthanasias is by encouraging people to adopt a shelter animal when looking to get a pet, rather than buying one from a breeder or pet store. (Herzog) As of January 2019, California “became the first state in the nation to bar pet stores from selling dogs, cats, and rabbits unless they come from animal shelters or rescue groups.” (Hauser) This will assist in battling both animal shelter overpopulation and also puppy mills. There is also so much more awareness of the harsh reality of what life is like for a shelter animal, and people are becoming more awake to the idea of no-kill shelters. The number of no-kill shelters in the U.S. has risen from around 50 in the 1980’s to about 250 today. (Szabo)

Reducing the Number of Innocent Victims: The Solutions to Ending Animal Shelter Euthanasia

What Has Been Done?

There has been a great amount of steps toward ending animal shelter euthanasia and a lot of those steps has been successful. Organizations dedicated to ending shelter euthanasia have attacked this problem by encouraging people to adopt a shelter animal rather than buying a pet from a breeder or pet store and encouraging people to get their pets spayed or neutered. Getting animals spayed or neutered helps to manage the pet overpopulation. Emphasis on spay and neutering has gained the attention of the public and has even increased the percent of spayed or neutered dogs from 10% to 85%. For example, New Hampshire offers “discounted spay and neutering to pets of low-income residents through a $2 surcharge on dog licensing fees.”(Szabo) Through this program they have become the state with the lowest shelter euthanasia rate and have reduced the number of shelter euthanasia by 77% from 1993 to 2000. (Szabo)

What You Can Do to End Animal Shelter Euthanasia. Featuring: Lucy

Animals in Our World.

Animal shelter euthanasia is just one of the many places in which humans are not treating animals with full respect and placing the animal’s well being as the priority. Even though there has been significant progress in the way that animals are valued in our society, there is still an insanely large amount of improvement to be made. Animals are inhabitants of the planet we live on, and humans need to treat them as intelligent living beings who are deserving of love, appreciation and respect. There needs to be more government money going towards animal welfare, including animal shelters. Following the model set by New Hampshire, other states need to put initiatives in place to increase the number of spay and neuter animals. The United States, and in fact the whole world, needs to change our mindset about animals from being things that are disposable and lesser than us, to living, breathing, feeling creatures who have the right to a wonderful life. If we act on this problem using those ideas we will be able to insure that the number of animals killed in shelters each year will be little to none. If there is even one shelter animal being euthanized, it is one too many.

Share this project
  1. April 25, 2019 by Farzaneh Milani

    Thank you, Georgia, for this touching, informative, and important essay. I learned a great deal from it and am grateful to you for researching and writing about this urgent topic.

  2. April 30, 2019 by Ella.Bogdanski

    Hi Georgia,

    Thank you for educating me on this important topic. I think that it is sad that a lot of people do not understand the vast number of animals that are euthanized each year. I think that it is tragic that adoptable animals are being euthanized in the shelters to get more cage space. I love the comments that you make at the end about how people need to treat animals better in general. Another way that we can respect animals is by trying to slow down climate change. Is there legal action that can be take to make more shelters non-kill? is there anything that individuals can do to save animals from kill-shelters?

  3. April 30, 2019 by Ingrid

    Thank you for shedding light on such an important topic! Reading your project made me sad in a way that I am more aware of the seriousness of it. Maybe you can list a few organizations at the bottom of the page where readers can visit?

  4. April 30, 2019 by Crystal Land

    Thanks for this thoughtful report, Georgia. I particularly enjoyed your perspective on how to reduce animal shelter euthanasia as well as Lucy’s feature in your video.

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