Advising clients on treating or euthanizing pets with behavior problems - Veterinary Medicine
Medicine Center
DVM Veterinary Medicine Featuring Information from:


Advising clients on treating or euthanizing pets with behavior problems


Dr. Melissa M. Mckendry
Melissa M. Mckendry, MS, DVM, DABVP (canine and feline practice), Virginia Beach SPCA Pet Care Veterinary Hospital, Virginia Beach, Va.

Evaluating behavior in relinquished pets

Clients facing the decision to relinquish a pet to (or clients seeking to adopt an animal from) a shelter may find it helpful to investigate how shelters conduct behavioral assessments. Some shelters use peer-reviewed, standardized behavioral assessment protocols.

A systematic behavioral evaluation ideally should be performed on every animal admitted to a shelter or rescue organization, beginning the moment the pet enters the shelter. This evaluation period should continue for several weeks. If the person who relinquished the pet provides its history, it should be included in the animal's record, but it is assumed that information may be incomplete.

The time needed for each animal to settle into a new environment varies; so daily observations by the staff are critical to recognizing the specific needs of individual animals. Older animals or animals exhibiting signs of illness or abnormal stress levels should ideally have a medical evaluation.

The results from behavioral assessments may be considered a helpful guide, but they should not be taken as a 100% accurate prediction of the future behavior of the animal once it is found suitable to be rehomed.


Dr. Robert M. Miller
Robert M. Miller, DVM,Thousand Oaks, Calif.

The art of giving your opinion

I cannot improve upon Dr. Haug's comprehensive, thoughtful, and appropriate analysis of the subject. All I can offer is how I learned early in my practice career to advise clients about euthanasia when I considered it to be indicated.

A very old man had a cocker spaniel, equally old, with terminal cancer. He brought the old dog in every day for analgesia and supportive therapy. Finally, deciding that all quality of life was gone for the suffering dog, I said, "You know, the kindest thing you can do for him would be to gently put him to sleep."

The old man picked up his dog and said, "I bring him here because you have knowledge I don't have. If I wanted him dead I would have put him in the garage with my car motor running. I'll take him elsewhere. I'll find someone more interested in prolonging life than in ending it."

Properly chastised, I forever changed the way I would suggest euthanasia.

If I deemed it appropriate, I would say, "I know what I would do if he were mine. But he is not mine, and I cannot make that decision."

This is what I learned from countless owners' responses:

  • If owners want euthanasia they ask, "What would you do, Doctor?"
  • If they do not want euthanasia or are opposed to it, they simply don't answer, or they may say something like, "Do the best you can, Doctor."

I believe that it is incumbent upon us to advise euthanasia if we really believe it to be appropriate, for whatever the reason. But by saying "I know what I'd do if he were mine," we remove the harshness from the decision. It offers the client an option, yet expresses our professional opinion.


Dr. Thomas McCoy
Thomas McCoy, DVM, Harvard Avenue Veterinary Clinic, Tulsa, Okla.

Develop a realistic plan

Practitioners must prevent their personal biases from leading client expectations or unduly influencing clients' decisions in these often-emotional circumstances. Dr. Haug emphasizes thorough case assessment, including patient signalment and history; client factors, such as the family's feelings and perceptions; environmental factors; and the history of compliance. Our duty is to develop a realistic plan. After considering all aspects, I present therapeutic options based on the specifics of the individual case. It is unfair—and possibly dangerous—to offer therapies that, based on knowledge of the case, cannot be achieved. Recognize that we cannot reform all patients.


Dr. Robin Downing
Robin Downing, DVM, Windsor Veterinary Clinic PC, Windsor, Colo.

Be candid, but cautiously optimistic

When we are faced with this heartbreaking scenario, we do our best to work with the family to set priorities. Our number one priority is the safety of the people in the family. Then we evaluate the safety of the affected pet and other pets in the household, property destruction, and any escape issues. We try to be direct and honest, but we remain cautiously optimistic as we counsel the entire family and encourage full cooperation among family members. These really are individual, or "n=1," clinical cases, and we try to refer to behaviorists whenever needed.


Click here