A Behavioral Euthanasia Requires Patience and Empathy

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Earlier this year, a member of the CAETA Euthanasia Facebook Group asked a very important question about behavioral euthanasia.  In particular, they wanted to know what questions should be asked of pet owners when they request a euthanasia based on their pet’s behavior, plus professional support questions like how do you decide if it’s “right” or not and how do you support everyone’s needs, including the pet itself?  Behavior euthanasias are very complicated cases and they deserve to be front and center for a CAETA blog. 

There are different types of euthanasia and for our purposes today, we will highlight medical, economical, and behavioral euthanasia.  Medical euthanasia means there is an illness or condition significant enough to warrant the procedure, to prevent imminent suffering, often after palliative treatments have been provided.  Think cancer, heart disease, kidney failure, or frailty in old age. An economical euthanasia may be elected if a medical condition is present and treatment is available but unaffordable. This may occur either early in the course of illness or later when owner finances become depleted. Economical euthanasias are especially hard on everyone, knowing treatment to cure or palliate exists but cannot be utilized without money. 

Behavioral euthanasia is the third type and the focus of our blog. Behavioral euthanasia is chosen when a pet’s behavior is either too difficult to manage or the pet has become a danger to others or themselves.  Examples include inappropriate soiling/elimination in the home, destruction, escaping, noise violations, and aggression.  When I think of behavioral euthanasia, it’s aggression that comes to mind, likely because in my practice, that’s the most common behavioral reason.

In many instances, choosing euthanasia for a pet showing mild to severe aggressive behavior is not black and white.  These pets are often very loved, come from adoring homes that would do anything for them, and who have every comfort they could want.  Often it makes little sense as to why they would have aggressive tendencies in the first place. While it’s too much for us to analyze all the reasons behind aggression, it may be due to illness, pain, fear or distress, abuse, or congenital in nature.  Identifying why the aggression exists is important if it’s to be reduced or managed.  If it persists, euthanasia may be necessary.  

When I’m asked to perform euthanasia for a pet with aggression, be it towards another animal or human, we begin with a gentle, honest conversation about what’s going on.  Owners need time to explain what they see and the full extent of the situation.  Only then can I make an informed decision with them.  Any decision for a behavioral euthanasia must be in full partnership between owner and veterinarian.  Alternatives are always discussed, which we owe to the pet whose life is in question.  Euthanasia is rarely if ever the first choice. It’s more often the last resort when nothing else will suffice to protect everyone involved; pet, owner, community. And these conversations take time, often an hour or more for everyone to be heard, although there are times when a consensus comes quickly.  It’s common for me to have multiple conversations with an owner in the course of a week to come to a united decision.  They take time to think things through, and so do I.  Immediate decisions only need to be made if someone is in imminent danger.

Then there is the approach to the procedure itself.  Behavioral euthanasia cases take an extra gentle touch to facilitate a smooth, uncomplicated appointment.  For me, this requires pre-euthanasia sedatives be given before the appointment begins, especially in cases of human aggression. This adds a layer of protection for the owner and the veterinary team. See CAETA’s blog on oral pre-visit pharmaceuticals for more information.  Clients have shared how grateful they were to have their pet sleeping during the entirety of the appointment, reducing their worries of a bite incident and added stress for the pet.  Feelings of guilt, worry, and helplessness abound in these types of cases so creating a calm setting is of paramount importance.

Circling back to the original post in CAETA’s Facebook Group, here are some questions and approaches that may help.

  • Start with patience and empathy. The situation is often more complicated than it appears.
  • Questions to ask owners include “What are your concerns if the pet remains in the home?”, “What behavior training approaches have you heard about so far?” and “How has the behavior affected your family?”. This helps open up more dialogue.
  • The decision to euthanize will remain subjective in many cases, but I think the clear choice is when the safety of others cannot be guaranteed. Assessment tools are being developed to help make the choice more objective, however they are not enough on their own. All psychosocial factors must be considered (emotions, finances, community resources, previous experiences, etc.)
  • Veterinary professionals support the needs of owners by being open to learning the full history, remaining nonjudgmental, and giving the pet a gentle death if that is what’s decided.  
  • Having a Standard Operating Procedure (SOP) that outlines the communication approach and appointment details, is very useful for the whole team. It helps keep the team working collaboratively for challenging and often emotional requests such as these. Those who complete CAETA’s 10-hour Master Program receive a complimentary Euthanasia Manual where veterinary teams can create their Behavioral Euthanasia SOPs.

Resources for pet owners

Euthanasia for Behavioral Reasons factsheet from The Ohio State University

Quality of Life and Human-Animal Bond Assessment for Companion Dogs

Facebook group for those who have faced or are facing behavioral euthanasia choices

Resources for veterinary professionals

CAETA’s online learning module: Behavioral and Convenience Euthanasia

Webinar by Dr. Rolan Tripp on Behavioral Euthanasia

Podcast on Behavioral Euthanasia with Dr. Chris Pachel

Navigating Difficult Conversations Around Behavior and Euthanasia

Some language for veterinarians to use regarding Behavioral Euthanasia Requests (shared by Katherine Grillaert )

“Our veterinary service offers compassionate behavioral euthanasia consultations for current and new patients. The consultation will include a review of your animal’s case history and a guided discussion. We will discuss behavioral quality of life and wellness of the animal and the animal’s caregivers. We encourage your trainer or behaviorist to be included in this discussion. 

Please be advised that in some circumstances we may refer to, or require previous work with, a behavior modification professional before we schedule a behavioral euthanasia.”

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Dr. Kathleen Cooney

DVM, CHPV, CPEV, DACAW resident Founder, Senior Director of Education for the Companion Animal Euthanasia Training Academy