Gone too soon? When veterinary ethics and euthanasia conflict

There are bound to be shades of gray in difficult decisions, but is euthanasia too often the end result?
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Jul 01, 2014

I was speaking with a friend the other day who always shows an interest in what I do. I told him about a sad case in which I euthanized a healthy 1.5-year-old Great Dane mix because of the dog's unpredictable aggression. The pet was a rescue that bonded quickly with its owner—so much so that there was destructive behavior when the owner left the house. A few attempts of anti-depressants only made the problem worse. So the owner made adjustments and only went places where she could take the dog.

Unfortunately, anxiety turned to aggression—at first with other large dogs, but then with any dog daring to walk in front of the house. The Great Dane would turn into the Incredible Hulk, and the window, blinds and anyone in the vicinity would pay the price. One day the owner's grandson was a little too close when a dog walked by and he got the brunt end of the aggression. The owner told herself it was a fluke and that she would make sure the grandchildren don't play near him or the windows. But one day he wouldn't come out of his Mr. Hyde personality and bit the owner.

With no one she felt she could give him to and without the financial means to pursue consultation with a veterinary behavioral specialist, she felt she had only one choice. After a long conversation, as difficult as it was, I agreed.

After telling my friend this story, he asked about removing all of the dog's teeth. Wouldn't that make him less of a threat and therefore allow him to stay alive and in the home? I told him that would be unethical. Certainly there are dogs that lose their teeth because of dental disease or an immune-mediated reaction to tartar and need to have them all pulled. But removing all the teeth from a dog with a healthy mouth is something we simply don't do. I explained that a dog without teeth doesn't become harmless; the dog can scratch or knock someone down, especially one this size.

Our conversation did get me thinking, do veterinary ethics bring us too soon to premature euthanasia? Should a dog be debarked that won't stop barking in an apartment no matter what the owner tries? There are scratching cats that keep their homes and lives when they're declawed. But in Europe and Australia, veterinary ethics have made this illegal. In some areas here, our widely recommended procedure to spay and neuter dogs and cats is deemed unacceptable and even unethical.

For some of these issues, there will never be a black-or-white answer. The least we can do is talk about them and push the envelope in areas where it can be pushed.

Dr. Andrew Rollo is a Veterinary Economics Editorial Advisory Board member and an associate at Madison Veterinary Hospital in Michigan.