Treat or euthanize: determining which patients can be helped (Proceedings)


Treat or euthanize: determining which patients can be helped (Proceedings)

Behavior problems are frustrating, emotionally taxing, and often dangerous to the animal or those around the animal. They can also pose a huge financial burden in terms of potential liability and resources for attempted resolution of the problem(s). Owners of pets with behavior problems have four possible solutions: 1) Live with the problem as it is, 2) attempt to rehabilitate the pet, 3) rehome the pet in a more suitable environment, or 4) euthanize the pet.

Due to the numerous variables that affect the development and maintenance of behaviors, outcome predictions for behavior problems are often less reliable than for medical issues. This makes it difficult to give owners solid prognostic information.

Pets are an important part of family life in most American homes. While the level of attachment that any particular owner has to their pet varies, even those owners that appear to have a low level attachment can have great difficulty in making the decision as to whether they should euthanize the animal. The clinician should never underestimate the degree of emotional attachment to an aggressive animal even if the owner is the target! Euthanasia is a very personal and very permanent intervention and the recommendation should never be made lightly. The advances in behavior therapy in animals and humans in the past few decades are sizeable. If owners have any inclination to pursue therapy, or they are having difficulty deciding whether to treat or not, they should be referred to a behavior specialist.

Each animal with a behavior problem is a case study of one. The factors that affect the risk:benefit analysis will be unique to each individual situation. Factors that must be evaluated include those related to the client, the animal's environment, the animal itself, and the behavioral presentation.

Client factors

One of the most important factors is the client's perception of the animal and the issue. How the client feels about the pet, the problem and the likelihood of the problem improving will impact their dedication to the behavior modification program. Sometimes there are "warring factions" in the home with regard to how the animal and the problem should be handled. This divisiveness will reduce the effectiveness of any program implemented. It is important to know if the client is afraid of the pet and whether anyone in the home has given an ultimatum.

A significant limiting factor to success is the client's resources: financial, emotional and temporal. Working through a serious behavior problem requires repeated contact with the clinician and/or a trainer. Very few problems can be fixed in one visit, particularly for dogs. The client has to be able to dedicate enough training time to the issue and also have the emotional fortitude to persist through the ups-and-downs of the program and the opinions and perceptions of friends, family and outsiders.

Clients also often have physical or emotional issues that influence their ability to implement a program successfully. In discussing the animal's prognosis, the clinician should pay careful attention to whether there are children or seniors in the home, as well as any individuals that have mental disorders (which can create chaotic or unpredictable behavior) or substance abuse disorders. Senior citizens often have physical limitations that affect their ability to control unruly large dogs.

Environmental factors

The environment plays a huge role in the onset and maintenance of behavior problems. Likewise the environment can play a large role in resolving them as well. Features of the environment that are critical include: the presence of another animals, children or elderly in the home, and the layout of the home and property. Routine care issues are important. Where does the client have to walk the dog for exercise and elimination? How does the pet behave in the car? Are there other animals in the home that also have behavior problems or whose behavior in some way contributes to the issues of the patient?

The client must be able to control the environmental impact. If the client cannot at all control the pet's exposure to trigger stimuli, then the program cannot be implemented safely and effectively. The prognosis for improvement will be poor.

Patient factors

Behavior is, thankfully, malleable. However there are characteristic of the patient that will make altering a behavior easier or more difficult. The patient's size will certainly affect the ability of the owner to control the animal and may impact the severity of an injury the animal could inflict. The patients signalment, including breed, will also factor into the situation – sometimes merely because of public perception.

One can never divide genetic influences from environmental ones; these are always intricately intertwined. Research does show that we can alter genetic expression with environmental experience; however, the animal's genetic template is set and this will influence the types of behaviors expressed as well as the approach to resolving them.

The pet's developmental period, most importantly the socialization experience, has a crucial influence on future behavior. Certain training during this time can greatly reduce the likelihood of behavior problems, but some practices will actually induce behavior issues. As with humans, an animal's juvenile and adolescent periods have a profound impact on the animal's behavior. This is the most trying time when raising a pet and a time when most owners reach the limits of their knowledge and fall short of their obligations as a responsible pet owner.

The pet's medical history, including diets, supplements and medications will affect their behavior. These conditions and medications may also put limitations on the success of a program.