Treat or euthanize? Helping owners make critical decisions regarding pets with behavior problems


Treat or euthanize? Helping owners make critical decisions regarding pets with behavior problems

Owners of these pets come to you to help them make a crucial decision. To be better prepared, here are the critical factors you and the owner should consider, as well as concrete steps you can take in reaching a decision.
Nov 01, 2011

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Behavior problems are frequently cited as a major cause of relinquishment or euthanasia of companion animals.1-3 But owners who receive competent and efficacious assistance in dealing with their pets' behavior problems may be more likely to preserve the human-animal bond and, thus, retain the animals. Indeed, studies show that pets receiving routine veterinary care and dogs that have attended obedience classes are more likely to be retained in the home.2,4

Still, behavior problems can be frustrating, emotionally taxing, and often dangerous to the animal or those around it. These problems can also pose a substantial financial burden in terms of potential liability and resources to attempt to correct the problems. Controlling or resolving a behavior problem is typically not easy and, in some cases, is too risky for certain family situations.


Owners of pets with behavior problems have four possible solutions:
1. Live with the problem as it is.
2. Rehome the pet to a more suitable environment.
3. Attempt to rehabilitate the pet to an acceptable level.
4. Euthanize the pet.

Living with a behavior problem is hardly a satisfactory solution. And rehoming or relinquishing a pet often poses additional challenges.

A client who has decided that a pet can no longer stay in the home often wants to send it to a different home, to the proverbial "farm in the country" or to a sanctuary. But rehoming animals with bite histories, or cats with inappropriate elimination, is generally difficult and, with the former group, fraught with ethical and legal constraints. Potential owners often adopt animals out of pity, not understanding the severity of the problems they are inheriting. Many adopters assume their love and empathy for an animal will translate into automatic appropriate behavior on the animal's part. ("He just needs love, and he'll be fine.") Moreover, many rescue groups will not take in dogs with bite histories because of legal liability if the dog bites someone in the new home.

Realistically, rehabilitation or euthanasia is the only practical option in many situations. In this article, I focus on the factors that may influence owners' decisions to rehabilitate or euthanize pets with behavior problems, with an emphasis on pets with aggression or anxiety disorders.

While the level of attachment an owner has to his or her pet varies, even those owners who appear to have little attachment can find it difficult to decide to euthanize an animal. You should never underestimate an owner's emotional attachment to an aggressive animal, even if the owner is the target. Euthanasia is a personal and permanent intervention, and this procedure should never be recommended lightly. The advances in behavior therapy over the past decades are sizeable. If owners have any inclination to pursue therapy or if they are having difficulty deciding whether to treat, referral to a credentialed behavior specialist should be offered.

Because many variables affect the development and maintenance of behaviors, outcome predictions for behavior problems are often less reliable than they are for medical issues, making it difficult to give owners solid prognostic information. Each animal with a behavior problem is a case study of one. The factors that affect the risk:benefit analysis are unique to each situation. Factors that must be evaluated before making critical decisions include those related to the client, the animal's environment, the animal itself, and the behavioral presentation.