Everybody, please. Sit down and take a deep breath. One of the hardest things veterinarians deal with is helping owners with decisions regarding euthanasia. We are asked to euthanize animals for all kinds of reasons. The easy ones are when an animal clearly has a terminal illness or severe injury which is causing suffering and cannot be treated effectively. In these cases we feel sad but blessed to be able to help animals go peacefully. What about the animal that is seriously ill and possibly could be treated, but the prognosis is poor and/or owners cannot afford necessary but expensive treatment? Veterinarians use all our skills and experience assisting owners to navigate these situations. We offer options, discuss pros and cons, suggest ways to find financial resources, even do whatever pro bono work we can, but ultimately the decision is the owner’s.
The next tier includes conditions where pets may be relatively happy but owners’ quality of life is seriously affected. Cats who won’t stop urinating inappropriately. Old dogs that are incontinent, leaking pee everywhere. Say we have tried medications, training techniques, and environmental management without success. The house reeks of urine. The floors are ruined. Carpets, too. That can be hard to live with. How about fecal incontinence? Imagine you have a toddler and your 14-year-old dog is pooping unpredictably and indiscriminately in your living room. What about a paralyzed dog who needs a “K-9 cart,” which is like a wheelchair for dogs? Some dogs adapt, but not all do, and not everyone has the ability to caretake such a pet. Veterinarians use all our medical knowledge and compassion, offering every possible solution we can to keep that pet alive and well, including rehoming when possible. Yet sometimes we must accept that not every pet with such challenges can be happily rehomed, and that the owner’s quality of life may be the deciding factor when a situation is too much for them to handle.
Now, believe it or not, people sometimes request euthanasia for reasons such as they are moving to an apartment that doesn’t take dogs, or a family member has died and no one wants the cats that are left behind. This is all perfectly legal. Owners have a right to request euthanasia for any reason at all, including simply no longer wanting the animal. Most veterinarians, however, will decline to do this, and will counsel such people and provide information about shelters and rescue groups instead. Sometimes, when faced with an owner who simply refuses to consider these alternatives, many veterinarians I know have asked the people if they would sign the pet in question over, right then and there. Then that veterinarian has either rehomed that pet or adopted it themselves. But veterinarians cannot personally take on every unwanted animal, nor should that be expected of us.
Finally we come to “behavioral euthanasia.” Everybody. Please. Sit down. Take a deep breath. If the legal owner of a dog reports aggressive behavior and requests euthanasia, here’s what happens. We talk to them at length. Was it provoked or not? How severe was the bite? We discuss training, confinement, and referral to animal behaviorists. We discuss the legal liability and risks of keeping or rehoming a dog with a known history of biting. No, we cannot completely assess in the exam room what a dog’s behavior may be out in the world. A dog can be wonderful at home and still aggressive towards outsiders. A dog can romp playfully with the family kids and still bite the neighbor’s kids. A dog can be gentle with toys yet attack people or other animals. A dog can be delightful around a trainer or veterinarian, yet still exhibit unacceptable aggression in other circumstances.
In 2003 a woman brought her otherwise healthy 3-year-old dog to a New Jersey animal shelter requesting euthanasia, stating that the animal had bitten her without provocation. She left, believing she was doing the responsible thing. The shelter manager, however, did not euthanize the dog. Instead he deleted the history of the bite and three months later adopted the dog to a new home. Ten days later, that dog killed his new owner. Obviously that was an extreme case. The Center for Disease Control reports around 4.5 million dog bites each year in the United States. Roughly 800,000 require medical care. An average of 32 per year are fatal. The typical owner who arrives at our door requesting euthanasia for their pet due to aggressive behavior has already gone through an agony of decision-making. We try to be thoughtful, to not make a heartbreaking choice even more painful. We advocate for the pet whenever possible, but must be mindful of the potential consequences of declining to proceed.
What if the owner is not telling the truth? That would be a very rare occurrence. If the dog’s legal owner reports aggression toward people, especially children, and after discussing the situation and receiving counseling and advice, still requests euthanasia, then that is their decision, not ours. We are veterinarians. Not private investigators. Not psychics. Not family therapists. Unless we have glaring evidence to suspect an owner’s mental competency or honesty, we proceed. That shelter manager in 2003 was not a veterinarian, but he was an animal professional who chose to ignore both the reported bite and the euthasnaia request . . . with dire results.
Lately there has been a maelstrom of attacks on a local veterinarian for performing a euthansia. I do not know if there was subterfuge or misinformation from the client in this particular case. I don’t have all the facts. Neither do you. I do know that if there were untruths being told about the dog, that would be terribly sad, but it is the owner, not the veterinarian, who is at fault. A veterinarian who has given almost 40 years of his life caring for Island animals. A veterinarian who has gotten up in the middle of the night countless times to help your dog or your cat or your horse. Everybody, please. Sit down, take a deep breath, and stop scapegoating a dedicated veterinarian who did his job as correctly, kindly, and ethically as he could.