To say that 2020 has been a weird year is an obvious understatement. However, it’s the best I can come up with to describe the duality of extreme lows and brilliant highs of human nature that have punctuated the last 10 months. I’m not sure whether it’s due to the seemingly unending stream of stressful, frightening, infuriating, and downright bewildering happenings of 2020, but recently I seem to be surrounded by people displaying ninja-level skills in emotional resilience and perseverance against adversity.
The Great Goat Rodeo of 2020 has highlighted to me how skilfully some of my friends manage to keep their running shoes on and go find their cheese, no matter what life throws their way. The whole ‘baptism of fire’ approach to well, everything this year, seems a tad excessive when you lay it out chronologically like an Ant Man meme. We really don’t know how strong we can be until we have no other choice though, and there is something to be said about our ability to better empathise with others following personal hardship. Like I said, 2020 has been a weird one; one of the few things it has going for it, is that it’s shown us how valuable the support of our friends and family really is for our wellbeing…
Now that we are heading into month 10 of the GGR2020, when masks and ‘running shoes’ have become wardrobe staples, I want to take this opportunity to chat about a tricky topic – behavioural euthanasia of companion animals. I’m going to tackle this topic in depth over a few posts because it’s a big one.
I’m starting by drawing on our collective experiences of 2020 to discuss how important social support is for pet owners affected by this specific form of traumatic loss and how as a community we could be doing a much better job at this than we currently are. You see, modern day behavioural euthanasia of companion animals is taboo – like an out-of-wedlock pregnancy in the 1930s – we all know it happens, but when it does the situation is riddled with shame for those involved, hidden from public view for fear of reprisals and largely, those not directly involved (especially in the animal welfare and advocacy communities) simply accept this compounding of trauma for the people involved.
Perhaps this taboo lets us carry on the pretence that only ‘bad’ or inexperienced owners would ever choose behavioural euthanasia for their pet because ‘it’s all how they are raised’. We must acknowledge that some of our community don’t just pass over behavioural euthanasia with a quiet ‘tut tut’ and silent judgement or offer unsolicited but poorly informed advice. Instead, they actively encourage each other to seek out and verbally attack grieving pet owners in their darkest moments .
There are also those of us who recognise this particular form of abhorrent behaviour for what it is, but choose to stay quiet and avoid the conversation because it’s easier than dealing with the ugly unintended consequences of years of animal advocates and TV trainers teaching the public that all pet behaviour problems can be fixed with true love and cookies. If we all take something from the GGR2020, it’s that we now know how critical social support is in tough times, so we can’t sit back and pretend that choosing silence is not doing harm.
If you are an owner who has made this impossible choice, when the only other choices left were truly terrible ones, I’m so sorry for your loss and I admire your strength. Please be kind to yourself while you grieve and know that you are not alone. I strongly encourage you to head over to Losing Lulu – in this behavioral euthanasia grief support group you are safe with people who truly understand what you are going through. And while I’m writing this with a broader audience in mind, I hope that you can take something from my experiences as a behaviour and welfare professional that helps you find peace with your impossible decision.
Now, I know that at least some readers are currently thinking that there is no situation in which they could imagine looking at their beloved, “healthy” pet and choosing to end their life. First, let me tell you that some animals with severe behavioural abnormalities are not nearly as healthy as they look on the outside, such as Bunker the Bulldog, who probably suffered migraine-level pain for most of his troubled, behaviourally-challenged eight years of life.
Animal behaviour is an integral aspect of welfare and pain evaluation because we can’t tell that an animal is truly healthy and well based only on physical measures, even with complex diagnostics. Humans can explain their pain to us and even so, ‘invisible illnesses’ elicit less empathy and understanding from the general population than obvious physical ones. In animals, where the only symptoms of significantly compromised welfare are behavioural, there is not a competent animal welfare scientist or veterinarian on the planet who would suggest this is not justification for taking serious action to improve welfare, or to end suffering when other measures to improve the welfare of the animal have failed.
I wish more trainers working with pet animals understood this and were able to convey the basic principles of welfare assessment to pet owners struggling to understand how to best ‘fix’ their welfare-compromised pets. Often these owners have invested significant time and resources looking for anything that will fix their pet’s behaviour and improve their quality of life. When they can’t find a solution, they then feel an enormous burden of guilt for considering behavioural euthanasia for their beloved animals, due almost entirely to the widespread and incorrect assumption that ‘looks healthy on the outside’ is the same as ‘objectively healthy with positive welfare’.
Lesson one in learning how to support owners of pets lost to behavioural euthanasia is to understand that all behaviour has a biological basis, and not all illnesses are obvious on the outside.
Compromised welfare aside, there are also situations where an owner finds themselves making the impossible choice because their companion presents a significant risk to the safety of others. These are often much harder decisions because no pet is dangerous all the time – these owners are deeply in love with their pet’s best qualities, (and probably some endearing but not-so-great ones too) so they willingly turn their lives upside down and inside out to micro-manage their pet’s world to keep everyone safe.
Imagine living with a person that randomly explodes and physically attacks you if you wear different deodorant or get too close to an empty chip packet that’s fallen beside the bin in your kitchen. Or perhaps the person showers you with love but has stabbed your partner/child/visitor repeatedly for no discernible reason. Or maybe they are great with your family but regularly threaten to kill your neighbours – and there was that one time they violently beat your neighbour’s child for getting too close to the fence. It’s ludicrous to suggest that you would or should excuse away this behaviour because the person is great at spooning on Saturday mornings, or that you should just manage the threat they pose by always locking the front door with a key and never having visitors in your home again. No-one, except perhaps the violent person themselves, would suggest that if you just loved harder you could fix the situation. If you tried to justify that approach, even a casual observer would quickly conclude that the relationship between you and your violent but beloved companion is deeply unhealthy and unsafe.
Now imagine that person is a 35kg dog you raised from a puppy, with liquid brown eyes and a goofy smile. The extremely unhealthy nature of the relationship and the danger they pose to your loved ones is no different just because your companion is an animal, but for some reason we expect owners in this position to simply manage their dangerous pets more closely and ‘love them better’.
When humans commit violent acts against others, the police take them away to prison for a long time because they cannot safely live among us. For dogs who cannot live safely in the community, the options are more limited. I could write an entire essay on why prisons for dogs are terrible for both dog and human welfare (they do exist, although few provide conditions any better than puppy farms). However, even if these facilities did provide excellent welfare outcomes for dangerous dogs, the costs alone of providing lifelong care in intensive housing for thousands of dogs would be prohibitive . When there are no good options left for creating a better life for pets who can’t safely live among us, owners face the impossible choice – continue to live within an unhealthy and unsafe relationship, or plan your pet’s final day. It’s one thing to release your pet from mental suffering that you can’t alleviate in any other way. It’s another decision altogether to choose euthanasia in order to keep everyone safe from your pet.
In my experience, many owners find themselves as a ‘frog slowly boiling in a pot of water’ with these dogs. They know their situation is not sustainable, but they can’t yet justify the impossible choice to themselves, so they put off the inevitable until something happens that takes the choice away and they are left to pick up the pieces afterwards – often alone, and always in a lot of pain.
Lesson two for supporting owners of pets lost to behavioural euthanasia is that you should never judge a person until you have walked a mile in their shoes (or lived on eggshells in their home).
Lastly, a word of advice from someone with more experience helping owners through this situation than I wish to think about, this late at night. The place for discussions about whether euthanasia is or was an appropriate choice for any pet is within the relationship between a qualified professional and the pet’s owner. If you are not part of that relationship, then your only role is to support your friend or family member through the traumatic loss of their animal companion – be there, be kind and do your best to understand that no-one is being harder on your loved one than they are being on themselves.
If your loved one is balancing impossible choices for their pet and you would like to show your support, this advice shared in Losing Lulu by an owner who has lived through the process is as good as any I have heard…
“Be sure. Be sure you’re sure. Then, go ahead”.