Best Friends Blog

Why we shouldn’t sugarcoat the deaths of thousands of shelter pets every day

Words matter. Their meanings matter, and we have to be able to call a spade a spade.

Right now, at this very moment across the country, hundreds of healthy or adoptable pets are being killed in shelters. In fact, 9,000 animals will be killed today, 9,000 tomorrow, and 9,000 again the next day. They are not being euthanized: They are being killed. It may not be comfortable to say, or to hear, but we have to be able to speak the truth and call it exactly what it is.

At Best Friends, we strongly believe in the difference in the meaning of the words “euthanasia” and “killing.” Here’s why.

At our sanctuary and in many programs around the country, euthanasia is defined purely as an act of mercy. This act should be reserved for animals who are suffering an irremediable medical condition and a veterinarian determining that there is no chance of the animal recovering an acceptable quality of life. In a municipal shelter setting, those animals whose aggressive behavior is genuinely too dangerous for him or her to be a candidate for rehabilitation and rehoming can be added to that list.

This is very important. All too often, when I tell people that I am a co-founder of Best Friends Animal Society, an organization dedicated to the no-kill movement, they say something like, “No-kill — so that means you don’t put suffering animals to sleep?” No! That’s not what it means. It means that we stand for the idea that lethal methods should never be used as means of pet population control or to make a shelter’s operation more manageable. We must never lose sight of the fact that with advancements in behavioral and medical care for animals, the vast majority of animals in shelters can, and should be, saved.

The only shelter animal deaths that can be called euthanasia are those for whom it is a true mercy. No healthy or adoptable animal should be killed in a shelter when alternatives exist to save them.

We consider it killing when a dog or cat’s life is ended to make space for incoming animals, or for some other consideration, such as treatable medical conditions, or age, or because it might be a special-needs adoption.

Understandably, it is caring shelter workers who are often the most proactive and vocal in trying to bring at-risk dogs and cats to the attention of the public and rescue organizations. These shelter workers often take sheltering jobs because they love animals, so when tasked with the job of ending the life of a healthy or adoptable dog or cat, these caring people are subjected to significant trauma. However, calling “killing” by the more palatable term “euthanasia” doesn’t make those shelter workers’ jobs less burdensome or the needless taking of a life easier to bear. Softening the language is also an insult to the memory of such animals by suggesting that their killing was somehow a kindness or a necessary evil. Those lives matter. Such deaths are a measure of a collective social failure that the no-kill movement seeks to correct.

I’ve said it before on this blog, but I’ll say it again. It may not seem so to the casual observer, but no-kill is a radical notion in that we are proclaiming, unambiguously, that a life is a life and that killing homeless pets is wrong not by virtue of their special relationship to humans, but because their lives have intrinsic value and they are not our lives to take.

I know that this type of language can be painful to some, objectionable to others and fighting words to others still, but what’s the point of playing make-believe to protect our feelings when it comes to the lives of homeless pets?

Let’s all work together to make this practice a relic of the past, but we can’t pretend that taking the lives of homeless pets when alternatives exist to save them is anything other than killing.

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Francis Battista
Best Friends Animal Society

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  • yesim donaldson

    thank you , thank you , thank you … at leas t we should have the courage to call it what it is …. the word euthanasia only makes us feel better and more merciful … at the end it is taking the life of animals who never had a chance at happiness .

  • VillifiedForWorking@AShelter

    Changing the word from “euthanized” to “killing” only emotionalizes what the shelter does on their end, when the focus should be on what happens at the front door. I wish there were a stronger word than “abandonment” so the focus could be more on what shitty owners do. Because THAT is the problem.

  • hannahlehigh

    I believe if more owners of dogs and cats would spay and neuter it would help. The one thing that drives me crazy though are PUPPY MILLS and PET STORES that SELL ANIMALS. We have to get the message out there NOT to buy dogs from PET STORES because they come from PUPPY MILLS. Once we stop that practise, PUPPY MILLS will have no choice but to CLOSE DOWN.

  • Francine

    Thank you, Francis. Your passion is based on reality. I hadn’t thought about the word euthanasia being a sugar-coated coverup for what’s really happening at the shelters. It’s not a merciful death…it’s a business decision. I’ll never use that word again. Francine

  • Brilliantly stated, thank you!

  • Idel


  • Stacy Phillips

    Are there facts / data we can use to help with the message — such as “if every dog owner in the U.S. adopted a 2nd dog, the # of dogs killed in shelters would be reduced by __%”?

  • Tina Clark

    Thank you so much for this, Francis. This is something that needs to be said…and said again and again, since the misuse of the word “euthanasia” is so prevalent. And as you say, it is not simply a case of semantics. Using the word “euthanasia” when the correct term is killing is damaging, both in the fact that it creates confusion about what No Kill really is, and in that it makes people complacent about the killing.

  • Colleen

    I am with you 100%, but I have a question. I volunteer for a municple shelter in a city with approximately 1 million residents. We have approximately 36 kennels for dogs and 20 cages for cats. Most times, what should be a single dog run is divided in two to make room for more dogs. The number of strays and surrenders we get each day is staggering. We rely heavily on rescues and fosters, but there are many times when they, too, are full. We use social media and local media, we take our animals out to adoption events AT LEAST 5 times a month, but many times there are too many animals and there is simply no place to put the incoming animals.

    As staff and the volunteers our hearts and souls into helping these animals. We take time and money away from our own households and responsibilities to give these animals even a shot at a life.

    NO ONE wants to kill these animals, but many times – too many times – there are simply no other options. What do you do? I really want to understand the options.

    • Jennifer P.

      I was struck by your question and have wondered the same thing. Both my dogs are rescues, I volunteer with Best Friends, donate money to shelters, promote adoption over breeding, etc., but there are so.many.animals. How do we find the space, people and money to care for them? It’s an overwhelming task.

    • Francis Battista

      Colleen, Thanks for your commitment to the animals. A clear eyed assessment of what is taking place in any given shelter is just the first step in implementing a comprehensive strategy to achieve a no-kill community. This blog is only intended to make a clear distinction between the appropriate use of the words killing and euthanasia. Ending shelter killing, in most communities, requires a top down prioritization of that objective. It can involve some or all of a variety of programs and policies that reduce shelter intake – “noses in” – and maximize positive outcomes – “noses out”. Turning shelters and communities around is not necessarily easy, but few things that are worth doing are easy. You can find resource information here, but I suggest that you encourage your shelter manager and even animal friendly city or county council people to attend the Best Friends National Conference which will be held this year in Atlanta in July. The conference has tracks geared to every level of involvement from volunteer, to rescue organization and this year includes a track for shelter professionals ( If this is something that you are passionate about, you should consider attending as well. Communities of every size and circumstance are demonstrating that no-kill is achievable and that together, we can Save Them All. Thank you again for your question and for sharing the Best Friends blog.

    • Brian Gold

      I am not responding on behalf of Best Friends but, based on my familiarity with shelters and the no-kill movement, I am confident in stating that the shelter you describe is very seriously undersized. If it is the primary shelter in the area I cannot imagine that your kill rate is not extremely high, whatever efforts you are making. It seems to me that the director of the shelter should be constantly lobbying the city for funds for a larger shelter and drumming up public support. Areas with populations one-tenth the size of yours have shelters with greater capacity. I would also suggest in general that you check out the website No Kill Advocacy Center for information about the issues. Although Nathan Winograd (who runs the site) has been occasionally at odds with Best Friends over tactics and specific pieces of legislation, he does provide a large array of practical information designed to help shelters save lives.

    • Alex

      This is a great question and it’s a huge part of the problem. Recognizing the difference in the words used and changing what’s used in different circumstances arguably could make a profound impact on the heart of the problem. If people realize that animals in shelters are being killed and not “euthanized”, then hopefully people will begin to take a more responsible view in pet ownership and pet backyard breeding. By changing the worlds from an act of mercy to create a culture where we recognize that what we are doing is bringing animals into this world to be killed by people, then maybe we can create a culture of true respect for animal lives. I hate it as a solution, but I agree that changing the vocabulary we use can have a profound effect.

    • Michelle Davis

      What is your yearly intake? For a city of a million residents your shelter is WAY too small…

  • perfectly said Francis

  • Lisa

    Very well said! We have to call it what it is. It’s not OK to kill animals that could be rehabilitated. In my experience as a volunteer, even “no-kill” shelters stretch this unacceptably. They are often quick to label dogs as “aggressive” when they simply have behavior challenges that are solvable but cumbersome to an over-stretched staff with not enough resources. Seeing this line crossed too many times, I can not emotionally handle volunteering anymore because it seems to happen in every shelter, even the well-respected, “model” ones.

    • BingsMom

      I couldn’t have said it better myself. I wish there was more I could do for these animals who are too quickly labeled aggressive… but I’m just a volunteer.

      • Carolyn M

        NEVER say “I’m just a volunteer” or “I’m just one person” You’ve got a brain! You’ve got a heart! What makes you think you are any less powerful than anyone else? Speak up! Research! Pursue! NEVER UNDERESTIMATE THE POWER OF ONE!!!

    • Peter Masloch

      It is actually not very difficult. If you really want to do it and take the option of killing from the table, you can make it work. It involves better marketing strategies for adoptions, closer relationships with rescues and of course a shelter management team that is willing to stop the killing.
      4 years ago I was a vital part in turning a open admission shelter from high kill to No Kill. Our shelter killed almost 90% of all incoming animals. Now we safe up to 97% of all incoming animals and we do this now for 4 years. Today we are the only open admission No Kill shelter in the State of MD.

  • rabbitgirl

    Thank you. Well said.