Every Life Has Worth: Why Compassion Holds are so Important

Blackie was paralyzed and began having neurological issues. He spent his last two nights with me.

I’ve written before about issues concerning animal rescue, but want to write about an issue that’s near and dear to my heart: compassion holds.

You don’t hear much about compassion holds in the rescue community, and it makes me sad. I understand that compassion holds may be a difficult topic for some people to hear about, but I also think that they’re under-utilized by many rescues. Some rescues don’t even do them. This is a shame, since they’re a very big way to make a difference for a needy animal.

So, what is a compassion hold? In the simplest sense, it’s a way to ensure that the last days of a suffering animal’s life are filled with love, safety, and dignity. It’s a humane act.

There are two kinds of compassion hold cases: behavioral and medical. I do both.

Medical compassion holds are done in cases where an animal is not adoptable due to a severe medical problem. This could be untreatable cancer, severe wounds that the shelter or rescue deems untreatable, puppies with congenital conditions (such as severe heart murmurs or liver shunts) who will not live to adulthood, or senior dogs who don’t have long left.

Henry was fearful, reactive, and a resource guarder. He was also sweet and earnest. He had spent most of his life tied to a radiator in a NYC apartment.

Behavioral compassion holds are in some ways much harder, as these are animals who are young and healthy, but are not adoptable due to severe behavior issues (usually aggression). These animals are not at fault. They have been damaged by people, and because of the horrible things that have been done to them, they cannot safely be placed.

Whether a dog is not adoptable due to behavioral or medical issues, my stance is the same. Every life has value. No dog deserves to spend his final days afraid, alone, or in pain. This is why I do compassion holds.

When a dog comes to me for a compassion hold, they come to live with me for a period of time. For behavioral cases, this is usually one or two days. Medical cases vary, depending on how long the animal can remain happy, comfortable, and pain-free.

While in my care, the dog is given when makes him or her happy. This could be walks, massages, ball games, or just lots of quiet time to sleep and recover from a stay in a shelter. In the most heartbreaking behavioral cases, sometimes this is little to no interaction with me, as the dog may find every human frightening. Regardless, I ask the dog what he or she wants, and try to honor their individual choices. I provide a safe, supportive environment. I tell the dog over and over that he is a good dog, that I love him, and that he is safe. I talk to him quietly and touch him gently. I provide stuffed kongs, good food, and soft beds. I work with a veterinarian to provide appropriate medical care: pain meds for medical cases, anxiety meds or mild sedatives for some behavioral cases.

When the time comes for an animal to be euthanized, the veterinarian comes to my house or we meet somewhere else where the animal feels safe and comfortable. We use treats and sedatives as necessary to make the dog feel okay about the vet. I encourage the dog to climb on my lap and talk to him softly, holding him and petting him. I tell him what a good dog he is and thank him for coming to stay with me for awhile. I tell him I love him. The veterinarian is gentle as she injects the euthanasia solution, and the dog slips away peacefully. For some dogs, it is the first time I ever see their face without raw fear, without pain, without worry. I don’t believe that death is always the worst thing that can happen to a dog.

Are compassion holds difficult? Of course. People often tell me that they couldn’t stand to do what I do, that it would be too painful, and I can respect that. We all help however we can. That said, I think this misses the point. Pretending that euthanasia doesn’t happen in the rescue community isn’t going to make it true. If I can bring a dog into my home so that he doesn’t have to spend his final days in a cage, I can make an enormous difference to that dog. I can hold true to my morals and make sure his life is valued and he is treated as an individual, with love and dignity. I can be humane.

Perrin broke my heart, and would still live with me today if I could have made it work. I'm sorry the system failed you, little girl. You were so loved.

The logistics of each compassion case are different. For behavioral cases, I usually have my own dogs go elsewhere for the length of the hold, both for their safety (oftentimes the dogs I take in are dog-dog aggressive) and for the peace of the dog who I’m bringing in (my dogs aren’t exactly the easiest pack to live with). In severe cases, I may utilize a basket muzzle or leash for my own safety when the dog isn’t in an ex-pen or crate. I know that I have the knowledge to read a seriously aggressive dog well enough to keep myself safe. If I didn’t feel comfortable having such a dog in my home (and in some cases, I haven’t), I would still try to do something for that dog’s final hours – perhaps a walk with two people (with the dog double-leashed), a McDonald’s cheeseburger or full jar of peanut butter in his kennel, or a bunch of paper bags to shred apart. Behavioral compassion cases aren’t something to be attempted by the average foster home with little knowledge for dog behavior or body language, and each rescue should respect that and be sure that they are placing these cases safely. That said, these dogs deserve it. They don’t deserve to be blamed for what poor breeding, no socialization, abuse, or neglect has done to them.

Medical cases are a little easier, since these dogs often don’t have behavior issues (although sometimes they may be cranky due to pain or other physical issues). Still, a working knowledge of basic medical care is important. I’m a certified vet tech, and this background gives me the knowledge base to assess a dog’s changing condition. If I notice a dog’s vitals weakening, I can seek medical care for him quickly so he doesn’t suffer. If a dog has a seizure, gets explosive diarrhea, or suddenly starts limping, I’m not going to panic or become upset. These cases are easier for fosters new to compassion holds to begin taking, and are a great place for a rescue who hasn’t previously offered compassion holds to start.

So, have you ever heard about compassion holds, or done one yourself? Does your local rescue do this? If you feel like a compassion hold is something you may have the ability to do, I would strongly encourage you to contact your rescue and ask. Ask if they do compassion holds, and if not, ask if they would consider starting such a program. Every life has worth. Every animal deserves safety, dignity, and compassion. No animal should spend his final moments alone, afraid, or pain.



Filed under Anxiety, Other Dogs, Rescue

4 responses to “Every Life Has Worth: Why Compassion Holds are so Important

  1. Hi there,
    I have never heard of something like “compassion holds” before and I think it is a really wonderful and important thing to do. Thank you for writing about it!

  2. Lauren

    You are my new hero! I used to work in an animal shelter and had to perform euthanasia’s (sp?). I always tried to spend extra time with the dogs on “the list”, making them as comfortable as possible and sharing my lunch with them. I would hold it together for them during their final moments and then fall apart afterward. 5 years later I am still affected and remember every single one. I am so glad that you wrote this article. Thank you!

  3. You are amazing, I know I wouldn’t have the emotional strength to see that kind of thing through on a regular basis. I’m glad there are people like you in the world. 🙂 Thank you!

  4. I have done a lot of fostering over the years and have I am proud to say that my original mentor, Mickey, thought a lot like you. At the shelter, she taught all of us to make a dogs last day the best-treats, love, a walk, a car ride, whatever we could do for that dog safely. She also made sure that one of us was with the dog or cat when the time came. They were not dropped off at the vet to be euthanized by people who did not know or care about them. It would have been easier on all of us to just drop the animals off and walk away, but they all deserve better than that.

    I have a set of keys that has one of the shelter dog’s tag on it. I loved him while he was at the shelter, but the stress became too much and he bit someone. While the name we gave him at the shelter has faded from my mind over the years, I still carry that tag. It reminds me of ALL the dogs who came through the shelter’s door and left without ever finding a loving home.

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