This is the fourth and last in a series discussing euthanasia. The first three installments focused on medical reasons that might result in a decision to euthanize a pet. In this blog, I will discuss behavioral reasons that might prompt this most difficult of decisions.
Once before, I addressed the issue of human safety vs. animal rights. Human Safety Comes First discusses a client cat named Koda, as well as my own personal experience with my Rottweiler named Emma.
Emma repeatedly attacked Leah, a Border collie female who still resides with me. I tried giving Emma Prozac to alter her behavior, but it was merely a bandaid, and a poor one at that. I had raised Emma since she was 8 weeks old. She was never abused or mistreated, as some of my rescued dogs have been. Right around the time she turned 6 years old, I had to put her down. It was an agonizing decision. However, during her last attack on Leah, Emma was focused on one thing and one thing only… harming Leah. I have young grandchildren. I could not and would not risk Emma losing control and harming one of them. She had never exhibited any aggressive behavior towards children. However, her attack on Leah was far beyond my control and I was not about to have it repeated.
Rotties are great dogs and I have had several over the course of the last two decades. One rescued female was one of the sweetest dogs I have ever owned. Sadly, I have also had a few squirrelly ones. Zoe was one of those… She was rescued, and she wasn’t a very good specimen of a Rottie. She was narrow and mentally wired. Zoe had a high prey drive, which is very much a Rottie thing. Again, I had not seen any aggression towards people.
One day I went to Walmart and, as usual, the pups went with me. I had 3 dogs in the car at that time. I remember hearing something over the loudspeaker at Walmart that alerted me to the fact that someone was looking for me. When the employee found me, his opening line was, “Both of your dogs are fine!” I responded, “Both? I had 3 in there!”
Immediately I headed out to the parking lot. I found that Zoe had lunged at the person getting out of the car next to mine. She was so committed to getting to that person that she broke out the side window of my car! She wasn’t a large Rottie, only weighing about 65 pounds. That meant she hit that glass with tremendous force. Zoe was loose in the parking lot, while the other two terrified dogs cowered in the car. That episode, combined with other issues we had encountered previously, resulted in me deciding Zoe was not mentally sound enough to be safe.
I had another rescue dog named Ben. (He’s the Border collie on the far right of the feature photo.) Ben joined my family by way of a Border collie rescue group. Ben lived with me for about 18 months. Prior to coming to my home, he resided for several months with a foster mom. During his 18 months with me, I noted that Ben’s demeanor and behavior were wonderful about 97% of the time. The other 3%, he would “go off” with no provocation and lash out at any human or animal nearby.
As this behavior became more evident, I mentioned it to an acquaintance named Mickey. Mickey taught agility classes and personally ran three Border collies in high-level agility competitions. Mickey said, “You know what I would do…” I did intuitively know what her response would be… she would not tolerate an unpredictably dangerous dog.
I reached out to the rescue group. They opted to pay for me to take Ben to the local animal behavior expert. He evaluated Ben and listened to how I was responding to the situation. He said, “You are doing all the right things. You just have to decide if you want to live with this behavior.” I didn’t… so I returned Ben to the rescue group. For whatever reason, they questioned the assessment they had paid for. Ben returned to the home of his previous foster mom. She had never seen his ugly behavior prior to his placement with me. She had him for three weeks and he was a gentleman. Consequently, they decided to offer him to another family. They had convinced themselves his issues were solely related to my household.
The night before she was going to re-advertise him, Ben showed totally unprovoked and unexpected aggression towards his foster mom. She was a vet tech. The next day, she took him to work and they put him down.
When is it time to decide enough is enough?
I have seen clients completely rearrange their lives to accommodate unstable dogs and cats. Recently, an elderly client entered the clinic with her husband. Bandaids covered this woman’s hands. She considered herself “the cat whisperer”, a nickname embraced by many of her friends and family. However, she was finding no success in “taming” one of her rescue cats. Like Ben, this female could go from extremely cuddly to downright dangerous in a matter of seconds. This lovely lady had tried for 18 months to “fix” the problem. Prior to life with my client, this particular kitty had already been returned to the shelter because of behavior issues. The shelter staff were surprised that the woman had experienced any success with the cat at all.
The cat had been to the clinic a week or two earlier and seen my colleague. He found it necessary to give the cat medication to even be able to examine her. The clients liked the tamped down behavior of the cat while medicated. As an alternative to tougher decisions, they were wondering about making that medication more of a permanent thing. There are psychotropic medications that alter cat behavior. Does anyone like to medicate a cat? Clients find it hard enough to give medication when necessary for an infection or illness. To medicate on a daily basis to keep the peace would be challenging. More importantly, medication may only mask the behavior.
I gently initiated a conversation with the couple. I wasn’t suggesting they make an immediate decision. But I was acknowledging the fact that they had already been considering their options. Just that morning, the husband had declared that the cat had to go. We talked about how hard they had tried, and how the cat’s bad behavior was, in fact, escalating. I don’t know what decision they have reached, as I have not seen them since.
If you are living with a difficult cat or dog, talk to your vet. Part of our job is to walk you through the tough decisions. Euthanasia for behavioral reasons is a really difficult scene. Sometimes training and behavior modification can help. Sometimes it doesn’t. Don’t risk your safety or the safety of the ones you love.