Treat or euthanize? Helping owners make critical decisions regarding pets with behavior problems - Veterinary Medicine
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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.



Owner perceptions

A client's perception of the animal and the issue is an important factor. How the client feels about the pet, the problem, and the likelihood of the problem's improving will affect his or her dedication to a behavior modification program. If the owner has decided the problem cannot be fixed, the outcome is generally unsatisfactory even if the owner seeks referral. A preexisting defeatist attitude will sabotage the behavior modification program even if the problem is amenable to change. Careful counseling with these clients will often resolve many of their doubts and turn the clients into dedicated participants.

Sometimes warring factions exist in the home with regard to how the animal and the problem should be handled. This family divisiveness can appreciably reduce the effectiveness of any program implemented. This issue should be openly discussed when assisting clients in making a decision.

It is important to know whether the client is afraid of the pet and whether anyone in the home has given an ultimatum. Both situations generally indicate a lower prognosis for success if the client elects to try to work through a behavior modification program.

Finances and time

A significant limiting factor to success is the client's resources: financial, emotional, and temporal. Working through a serious behavior problem requires repeated contact with a veterinarian, veterinary behaviorist, or qualified trainer. Few problems can be resolved in one visit, particularly when dealing with anxiety or aggression disorders. The client must be able to dedicate enough training time to the issue and also have the emotional fortitude to persist through the ups and downs of the program and the opinions and perceptions of friends, family, and outsiders.

Physical or emotional limitations

Clients may also have physical or emotional issues that influence their ability to implement a program successfully. In discussing an animal's prognosis, pay careful attention to whether children or seniors are in the home, as well as any individuals who have substance abuse disorders or mental disorders that can create chaotic or unpredictable behavior. In my experience, the presence of family members with such disabilities generally portends a poorer prognosis, particularly in aggression cases. Similarly, senior citizens may have physical limitations that affect their ability to control large or unruly dogs. That puts the senior at risk of injury in the event the dog pulls the owner over, and it places the public at risk if the dog escapes the owner's control. If you and the owner cannot find an effective way to allow the owner to control the dog physically, the prognosis declines.


The environment plays an important role in the onset, maintenance, and resolution of behavior problems. Environmental stimuli are major factors in reinforcing or punishing behavior. For example, each time a territorially aggressive dog barks out the window at a passerby, the dog is reinforced for the aggressive response when the passerby disappears from view. If the owner cannot limit this behavior, especially when the dog is left alone, the prognosis for resolution is lessened because of the dog's continued rehearsal (and concurrent reinforcement) of the behavior.

Noteworthy environmental features include the presence of other animals, which may contribute to the problem; children or senior citizens in the home, who may be targets of aggression or may inadvertently undermine the behavior modification process; and the layout of the home and property. The owner must be able to control the environmental impact. If the owner cannot control the pet's exposure to trigger stimuli to any degree, then the prognosis for improvement will be poor.

Routine care issues are also important. What options are available to the client for walking a dog for exercise and elimination? How does the pet behave in the car? Are there other animals in the home that also have behavior problems or whose behavior in some way contributes to the patient's issues? For example, in multicat households, I often find that more than one cat is spraying—one cat sprays and then another sprays in response. Each animal must be included in the training process, and the more animals, the greater the burden of work for the family.


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