Downeast Dog News

Behavioral Euthanasia: Making the Hard Decision

By Christine D. Calder DVM DACVB | May 01, 2022

Making the decision to euthanize your pet can be one of the hardest decisions you will ever have to make in your life. This decision becomes even harder when your pet is physically healthy, young, and active. However, it is important to remember that behavior problems can result in emotional suffering and mental well-being is just as important as physical health.

If you are considering euthanasia for behavior reasons, there may be alternative options to consider first:

1. Have your taken your pet to the veterinarian? Many behavior problems have underlying medical conditions that contribute to behavior. Conditions such as ear infections, dental disease, arthritis, and even skin allergies can cause pain and irritability increasing your pet’s anxiety levels or resulting in a bite when stressed. Scheduling a checkup with your veterinarian should be first on your list with any noted behavioral change, especially if this change is recent or your pet is older.

2. Have you sought out professional help? A board-certified veterinary behaviorist is a licensed veterinarian with advanced training in animal behavior for all types of behaviors. Applied Animal Behaviorists also have advanced academic training although these professionals do not need to be licensed veterinarians. Medications may be helpful in treating your pet’s aggression or anxiety problems, but only a licensed veterinarian can prescribe medications for your pet.

Another option for help, would be to hire a qualified dog trainer. These professionals can help you implement a management, training, and behavior modification plan often prescribed by your veterinarian or veterinary behaviorist. Unfortunately, experience levels, education, and training methods are not standardized among dog training professionals; therefore, it is important for you to do your homework before hiring a trainer. Understanding that some training methods can do more harm than good is important. You should seek out a trainer who utilizes positive reinforcement methods and avoid punishment-based and balanced trainers. Punishment-based training techniques (shock collars, e-collars, stim collars, prong collars, and choke collars) have all been scientifically proven to increase fear, anxiety, and aggressive behavior in dogs and therefore are never appropriate for behavior modification or the treatment of behavior problems. Positive reinforcement is the preferred method when treating behavior problems of all types including aggression.

3. Did you consider rehoming? This may not be the solution for all pets, but some behavior problems can be managed well in a different environment. Fighting dogs and cats may do better when separated and away from the common stressors in their lives. The same for dogs with a bite history towards kids. Sometimes a home without kids is just what your pet needs to feel safe. Not all pets benefit from or should be rehomed. In general, finding a new and safe home for your pet can be difficult. Animals with behavior problems are often at greater risk for abuse and neglect in new environments because in these situations, they may not have as close of a relationship with the new owners as they did with you.

What are some criteria to consider when making the decision to euthanize your pet?

1. Current living situation. If there are young children or elderly relatives in the home, they are often at a higher risk for injuries related to bites and scratches. Also, behavior modification can be difficult or impossible for some depending on the living situation and commitment made to the pet. Liability is always a concern along with safety for you, your family, and other pets in the home.

2. Rehoming is not an option. Some animals are not safe in any home. Most shelters will not adopt out animals with a bite history or a history of aggression towards other animals. Cats that eliminate outside the litterbox can also be harder to place. Transparency in shelter adoptions is important from both a legal and ethical standpoint.

3. Emotional well-being and suffering. Mental suffering may not be as visible to us as physical pain and disease, but this suffering can significantly affect your pet’s quality of life and therefore, yours. When making euthanasia decisions, it is important to consider your pet’s overall emotional state and well-being. We need to make sure that we are making decisions that are in the best interests of both ourselves and our pet.

4. Severity and progression of disease. If left untreated, behavior problems tend to get worse over time. As your pet matures, aggression may become more severe or with fewer warning signs while anxiety generalizes and becomes more difficult to manage. It is not uncommon for pets to have more than one behavior problem which can sometimes make it difficult to effectively treat and manage them all.

Remember, behavioral euthanasia is a hard decision. Make sure you have all the information before scheduling. There is never a wrong answer, but if you make this decision, it is important to know you are not alone and will always be supported.


Christine Calder, DVM, DACVB

Calder Veterinary Behavior Services