Because one of my main areas of research interest is animal euthanasia, I am always on the lookout for articles in the scholarly literature with “euthanasia” in the title. The article that caught my eye this morning was from the most recent issue of the Journal of Veterinary Behavior: “Dog- and owner-related risk factors for consideration of euthanasia or rehoming before a referral behavioral consultation and for euthanizing or rehoming the dog after the consultation.” Or to put this in more straightforward language, why do some dogs with behavioral problems wind up being euthanized or relinquished while others are able to successfully stay in their home?

As background to their study, authors Carlo Siracusa, Lena Provoost, and Ilana Reisner provide some general context: millions of dogs are relinquished to shelters each year and behavioral problems drive many of these relinquishments. Behavioral problems, particularly aggression, are also one of the primary reasons that dog owners decide to euthanize an otherwise healthy animal. In addition to behavioral problems and aggression, some of the other known risk factors for dogs include an owner moving, owner illness, unrealistic expectations of the dog, inadequate time for the dog, and not liking the cost of owning a dog. If you are a dog, being old or having a medical illness are also risk factors for being abandoned or euthanized by your human.

The purpose of Siracusa, Provoost, and Reisner’s study was to zero in on one particular risk factor for euthanasia or rehoming which has not yet been studied: presentation to a referral behavioral clinic. The researchers wanted to look at what factors might influence the consideration to relinquish or euthanize a dog prior to a behavior consultation and after a behavioral consultation. They looked at patient records for 302 dogs presenting to a veterinary behavioral service and analyzed presenting complaints, demographic information, and whether or not owners were considering euthanizing or rehoming their dog.

Which factors, other than the dog’s behavioral problem, seem to have influenced the owner’s decision to keep or reject (through euthanasia or relinquishment) the dog?

Here is a summary of their findings:

Dog-related factors that increased the risk of relinquishment or euthanasia:

  • Heavier weight
  • Mixed breed
  • History of separation anxiety
  • Diagnosis of resource guarding
  • Aggression toward people (especially familiar people, and especially over resources, resting places, or when being groomed or medicated)
  • Presence of a medical problem (especially chronic, non-life threatening conditions which may alter a dog’s behavior, e.g. because of pain)
  • History of biting
  • Living in a family with children aged 13 to 17

Owner-related factors that increased the risk of relinquishment or euthanasia:

  • Living in a rural neighborhood (risk factor for euthanasia only)
  • Change in dog’s social environment (death of a household member)
  • Moving to a new home
  • Previous consultation with a nonveterinary behaviorist or trainer
  • Use of punishment-based training methods 

One of the most striking aspects of this research, in my opinion, is the association between euthanasia/relinquishment for behavior problems and the use of punishment-based training and consultation with a nonveterinary behaviorist. The authors speculate that consultation with a nonveterinary behaviorist may be a risk factor because an owner seeking the assistance of various behaviorists and/or trainers indicates that the behavioral problems may be quite severe. The risk of punishment-based training, they suggest, is that these methods can elicit an aggressive response toward the person applying the punishment. If the owner is the “punisher,” and aggression toward a familiar person is a risk factor for a dog, then this use of these training methods may lead to higher rates of rejection/relinquishment/euthanasia. 

Understanding the complex range of dog, owner, and environmental factors that can contribute to failed human-dog relationships is incredibly important and this study adds some interesting new details to the picture.

References

Dog- and owner-related risk factors for consideration of euthanasia or rehoming before a referral behavioral consultation and for euthanizing or rehoming the dog after the consultation. Siracusa, Carlo et al. Journal of Veterinary Behavior: Clinical Applications and Research , Volume 22 , 46 - 56

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