Focus on the Law: Euthanasia of Pets

By Sharon Frankenberg,
Attorney at Law

We Americans love our pets.   The Humane Society of the United States estimates that there are more than 160 million dogs and cats in the U.S. today.  According to statistics from the ASPCA, approximately 7.6 million companion animals enter animal shelters in the U.S. every year.

Unfortunately, approximately 2.7 million of these animals are euthanized each year.  Thanks to increased public participation in spaying and neutering of pets this number is way down from the 15 million typically euthanized in animal shelters back in 1970.

Tennessee has established specific legal rules governing the euthanasia of pet animals.  The statute is titled the Non-Livestock Animal Humane Death Act and may be found at T.C.A. Section 44-17-301, et seq.  This particular law does not cover livestock animals like cattle, sheep, swine, goats or poultry.  It covers pet animals including dogs, cats, rabbits, chicks, ducks, pot bellied pigs and some exotic animals.

The law limits which individuals may perform euthanasia on pet animals.  Of course properly licensed veterinarians may perform euthanasia.  Tennessee veterinarian medical technicians and employees and agents of certain public or private agencies and animal shelters who have successfully completed a euthanasia-technician certification course may perform euthanasia on these animals as well.

The board of veterinary medical examiners must approve the curriculum of this certification course which includes the study of everything from animal anatomy to pharmacology to verification of death techniques.

The board of veterinary medicine rules specifically approve the methods used for euthanasia.  The statute references using sodium pentobarbital and other such agents to be administered via injection or added to food.  Pentobarbital is the drug currently used by 14 states for the executions of humans by lethal injection.  Five more states including Tennessee plan on using it on humans as well.  Pentobarbital acts as a sedative.  Euthanizing agents which act as a neuromuscular blocking agent may not be used on non-livestock animals.  No non-livestock animal may be left unattended between the time euthanasia procedures are first begun and the time that death occurs.  The euthanized animal may not be disposed of until a qualified person confirms the death.

State law also requires what a facility knows or should know by identification or vaccination tags, personal knowledge or otherwise that a non-livestock animal has an owner it must be held for at least three full business days from the time it is brought in before the animal may be euthanized.  This applies to any public or private agency, animal shelter or other facility operated for the collection, care or euthanasia of stray, neglected, abandoned or unwanted non-livestock animals.  This three-day holding period does not apply in an emergency situation that requires immediate euthanasia of an injured, dangerous or severely diseased non-livestock animal.

Spaying and neutering your pets will reduce the number of unwanted pets who could end up being euthanized.  Also using identification chips and collars with vaccination tags can increase the chances of finding a beloved pet before the holding period has expired and your pet is gone for good.  Always consult an attorney if you need assistance in understanding, complying with or enforcing your rights under the law.

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