Monday, February 9, 2015

Pet Loss: Euthanizing An Aggressive Dog

[Reviewed and updated May 31, 2022]

My personal feeling is that when faced with certain harm to a human or euthanasia for a pet... the human health and safety considerations take precedence. It is a "no win" situation for the family and the dog; but living in constant fear of injury from an unprovoked and unpredictable attack by an animal truly diminishes anyone's quality of life. ~ T.J. Dunn, Jr., DVM

A reader writes: I have a different kind of situation, one I grieve, but mostly feel guilty about. I adopted a puppy, loved it and took care of it. After a while, I noticed some aggressive tendencies, but underestimated the problem. It grew worse, and eventually there was nothing I could do. I put the dog to sleep. Now I feel really guilty about not knowing enough to do something. I do miss her terribly. I had her for a year and a half. Is it normal to grieve about this - for a pet I loved who turned aggressive, and for putting her down?

My response: I'm so sorry to learn of the death of your beloved dog. As you came to recognize her aggressive tendencies and your own inability to control them, I can only imagine how difficult and painful it must have been for you to make the agonizing decision to have her euthanized. Even though you had to let her go, that does not diminish the love you had for her or the strength of the bond between you. The grief you are feeling now is a normal reaction to losing someone you loved so very much, and is compounded by the guilt you feel over the circumstances of her death.

You say that now you feel "really guilty about not knowing enough to do something." Please understand that feeling guilty is not the same as being guilty. Feelings are not facts, and they're not always rational or accurate.

Having decided with your veterinarian that you had no alternative but to end your dog's life, you will need to come to terms with these facts:

Even though you loved your dog with all your heart, since she was becoming increasingly aggressive you could no longer trust that she wouldn't bite or otherwise harm someone else.

Even though your dog may have looked perfectly healthy on the outside, you know that something must have been very wrong with her on the inside, probably with her brain, since ordinarily dogs are not aggressive and do not bite or harm people. If you tried everything else you could do to fix the problem to no avail, then as a responsible person you decided that you had no other choice but to end your dog's life, so that you could be certain nobody else would be bitten or harmed by her. It seems to me that you did the best you could with the information you had available to you at the time.

Whenever a tragic death like this happens, I think it's important that we take stock of whatever lessons can be learned from the experience, so that one day we don't find ourselves in the same situation again. For example, if and when you're ready to bring another animal into your life (the timing of which is totally up to you), think about what you can do to make certain that the next pup you select will grow into a loving, well-adjusted companion. There are many books and Web sites to guide you in this process.

See, for example, Dr. Marty Becker's book, The Healing Power of Pets. In the chapter entitled Looking for Love in All the Right Places, Dr. Becker discusses how to select an adult dog or cat at a shelter. He makes the point that today many veterinary hospitals...

"have shelves brimming with behavior reference and resource materials. In addition to breed advice, the veterinarian can connect you to reputable breeders, shelters and trainers… Your veterinarian may give you a referral to a veterinary behavior specialist. This relatively new profession offers the advanced training and network to help you select the best pet up front or to help you navigate through any incompatibilities you are experiencing with your pet. They are qualified to assist you in redirecting any bad habits your pet has developed that might otherwise jeopardize your relationship and diminish the bond you share..."

I know this information comes too late for your dog, but for future reference, be aware that there are other options to explore before deciding that euthanasia is the only solution. See, for example, this helpful article from Best Friends Animal Society, Aggressive Dog: Resources for Getting Help

I'm so very sorry that you were faced with such a terrible decision, but I hope you don't try to struggle through this grief journey all alone. There are both online and offline resources ready to support you. No one can take your pain away at this sad and difficult time, but I can assure you that you do not have to endure it all alone. Please know that I am thinking of you and holding you in my heart.

Afterword: I can't thank you enough for taking the time to respond. A few things you said really stood out as being the most comforting. The first was to remind me that there was something wrong with my dog, even if it didn't show on the outside all the time . . . The other thing you said that struck a chord was that, just because you are feeling guilty, it doesn't mean that you are. Most people recognize that owning a pet is a big responsibility, but no one ever thinks about the fact that it's not just the responsibility of keeping a life, but having to be the one to decide when it is necessary to end that life . . . Your words have helped a lot, both in your message and on your site. Thank you.

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