Tuesday, July 31, 2012

Favorite Rainy Day Topic: euthanasia

A vet friend just told a story (and she might blog about it at some point) that reminded me of an experience I had several years ago.  I was working as an emergency vet at some tiny EC and a couple brought in a tiny doggie with some sort of very fixable issue.  I don't even remember the issue, just that it was a no-brainer and would be a happy end for the family.

Now, this couple was engaged and they were kind of planning to start attempting to have a baby soon after getting married.  As with all smart couples, they discussed how this addition would change their lives.  The happy, wriggling canine on the table, all 5 lbs of him, was friendly and openly interested in making new friends.  But not everyone in the house was like that.

The woman had a cat, one that she loved dearly, that was....honestly, nuts.  The cat was fine with her, but would attack the fiancee, even charging the WINDOWS and tearing up blinds if she saw him coming up the stairs, before he had even entered the house.  She had attacked him, unprovoked,  on multiple occasions, but was mostly fine for the female.  It sounded like there might be some displaced aggression issues, along with over stimulation issues, plus some other psycho babble that I will not bore you with.

It was obvious from the stricken look on the woman's face, that she loved this cat.  And the husband to be loved his wife to be.  They had talked to multiple vets and veterinary technicians about this cat and how to help her adjust.  They had done metabolic testing, tried drugs, and behavioral modification....and all had failed so far.  I mentioned referral to a veterinary behaviorist, and might have been more enthusiastic about it, save one issue:  the possible future baby.

Now, if a cat sized animal is dangerous to an adult, it usually ends up with some biting/scratching wounds for the adult and perhaps a punting injury to the animal.   If something is attacking my leg, the first thing that snaps to mind is to get that thing OFF OF ME.  I do admit to throwing a lizard into a bathtub wall as a kid when I slung my hand in an effort to GET IT OFF OF ME as it chomped down between my thumb and finger.  Around Easter, a chihuahua tried to attack my 6 year old (who loves most animals BTW), and that dog almost got punted across the yard...a well placed kick/shove and my daughter would have been safe (soccer, those skilz are useful when being attacked).  It is pretty much instinct and, while I do not agree with kicking animals, I would have to qualms about it in that situation.

Well, a cat hopped up on pure crazy could do some serious damage to a baby.  Even just infected scratches, lacerated eye balls, scaring the child so that the mere mention of "meow" sends it running and hiding under at desk at the tender age of 26....that is trauma.  And I felt like it warranted, "the talk."  Now, keep in mind, the happy dog was technically my patient, but the owners were really torn up about this cat thing.  They wanted to help her, but they also didn't want to put the future groom and risk, much less a theoretical baby.

Every vet and vet tech they had talked to made them feel guilty.  As a new mother with a timid, possible biting dog on my personal hands, I could easily place myself in their shoes.  I told them that if they were looking for permission to euthanize the cat, I gave it to them, that I would do it for them.  I said that the cat was mentally ill and perhaps years of drugs and therapy might help, but in that time, they and future fruit 'o the loins could be hurt.  If they wanted to euthanize, I would pre-medicate the cat and allow her to fall asleep before really putting a hand on her to minimize stress.  I would not make them feel guilty about it because I knew I was facing something similar at home with my dog and daughter.

I was not going to shame them into a position of attempting to "help" the cat, only to get a call in a couple of years about how it attacked their baby or a guest.  There are so few times that I will literally say, "If this was my animal, I would euthanize," but this was one of those times.  It was agonizing for the woman who loved her cat and I could see the pain in the man's eyes as he watched his future bride think about it.  I told them that they needed to go home and discuss it.  If they wanted me to euthanize, they just had to call back to the EC to make sure I was working that night and I would do it for them.

When they did come back in with the kitty, it was rough on everyone.  I sedated her until she was pretty much asleep, allowing "mom" to let the kitty fall asleep while she was petting her.  The couple chose to leave the room once the kitty was asleep, but before I actually euthanized her.  It was tough on me, on them, and on my staff, even though we all knew that it was the best decision for everyone.

The next time I saw the couple was a happy day visit at a regular clinic where I did relief.  The happy puppy had grown to 7 lbs doggie and was still as happy and wriggly.  The couple was married and the wife was pregnant.  And the relief was palpable.  The family unit was intact, and though any pet, even a well adjusted little dog, can hurt someone (especially a baby), the risk was so much lower.

Not a fun rainy day topic, but my friend's case made me think about this one.  Yes, I euthanized the cat: one that could not be re-homed due to aggression, one that might have hurt someone in the family.  But perhaps I took away that cat's mental pain and saved a child from a scar or a scare or worse.  It sounds like an unhappy thing at first: euthanizing a "healthy" animal, but I would do it if I felt like I could save a little kid in the process.  Most vets have had to face this issue on multiple occasions.  Some owners will have to face this decision.

And as someone who has been on both sides of that table, I can tell you it is hard.  But once my dog finally bit my daughter (by the time she was 3, I could no longer control all of their interactions), I knew  that it was time.  He snapped at her when she bumped into him because he was afraid...but an inch to the center and she might have lost an eye as his tooth scraped her face.  I could not deal with that.  And though I still look at my pictures of him and keep his urn on my shelf, it took about a week before I realized I was no longer worried about a bomb going off in my house and taking out my daughter.


  1. I've been there as an owner as well; with a cat we had for years and a puppy we had rescued. The cat was never quite right but not a danger. The older she got the more unhappy she became, screaming at anything that came into the room. There was such a peace in the house when we finally decided the whole household couldn't take her craziness anymore.

    The puppy was part of a litter we rescued. He was going to be a big dog and there was a level of aggressiveness noticed early on. At around 12 weeks when he would still become unhinged for routine grooming, I knew it was time. It would be a liability to place him into any household. My vet and staff tried to convince me not to, but I told them I could not in good conscious place that animal.

    So, thank you for a post regarding the euthanasia of a physically healthy animal. Sometimes the mental state just needs to end, a lot of thought goes into it, and it isn't just a matter of 'convenience'.

  2. I've been there too. She was a dog that I loved and connected to like no other. But she was also a danger to my new husband's smaller dog. The behaviorist said there was no hope of fixing the problem. It took me 2 years and unfortunately some injuries and trauma to the smaller dog, but I did finally decide to euthanise. I still feel horribly guilty about it, but I know she wouldn't have done well in another household (we tried it) and our little dog is exponentially happier without the looming threat of attack.

  3. Been there, had to do that. My dog - who loved me and only me hated my husband but initially would behave for my little boy who was verbal and could give commands. When at age 3 she began to hate everyone but me - and every training thing we tried didn't work and she bit my husband's hand very badly - and the trainer said, "You really can't place her anywhere - and she'd be miserable away from your wife".
    We did it. We euthanized and I still cry about it even as I type this - I LOVED that damn dog. But we had to. She was just plain dangerous.
    15 years later my sister called with a dog with a similar problem and a grandchild on the way...I was able to convince her that it was the right thing - hard, but the right thing to do.

  4. The week after I had to euthanize my dog, I had someone bring in *his* dog that had cornered his pregnant wife. It was really hard for me to relive my feelings, but after I told him my story and showed that I had literally been *there* a week earlier, he felt better about it. My boss and co-workers told me that it worried them that I took the case, but I think that I could have helped him like no one else.