September 7, 2016 – Almost all companion animal vets in the UK have been asked to euthanise physically healthy pets, with over half, or 53%, saying this was not a rare occurrence and 98% of those who had been asked to euthanise a healthy pet citing the owner’s reason as their pet’s behaviour.

The figures, released by the British Veterinary Association (BVA), were obtained by a survey of 720 vets across the UK. According to the BVA the figures “overwhelmingly show the importance of adequate socialisation of animals at an early age”.

British Veterinary Association President Sean Wensley said the figures were likely to come as a shock to the public.

He told Pet News Today while the statistics come from the BVA’s survey in 2015, the issue of euthanisation of healthy animals is current.

“It’s an ongoing ethical issue we wanted to shine a light on,” Sean said, adding,”This isn’t something that we feel is time sensitive: it is a longstanding issue and it is something that we have been well aware of.

“Certainly from my perspective, when I was working in practice full time, these types of requests weren’t uncommon,” he added.

Sean said the BVA gave careful consideration to how our members would want to communicate these findings and what messages would be important to owners.

“We’ve carefully considered it; we are aware it is a very sensitive topic.

“But this is the sad reality of a failure to socialise animals from the earliest possible age – a specific time in a puppy’s development which has a significant impact on their future temperament and behaviour. With dogs, this process starts from before a puppy is even seen by a potential owner.

“In recent months there has been a litany of news stories about the illegal importation, breeding and trading of puppies through puppy farms. This is no way for a family pet to start life and we urge potential owners to thoroughly research where a puppy has been born and reared, using the AWF/RSPCA Puppy contract [Animal Welfare to help. Then, in the first year of ownership, and especially in the first few weeks, work with your local veterinary practice to ensure your puppy is introduced to everyday sights and sounds, including other people and animals, in a safe and structured way.”

“Nobody enters the veterinary profession wanting to euthanise healthy pets, but this is the stressful situation that many vets are facing because of undesirable behaviours in pet animals. Vets will do all they can in these situations to avoid euthanasia, including offering evidence-based behavioural advice, referring to accredited pet behaviourists or assisting with rehoming through reputable rehoming organisations, but sometimes these options are not appropriate, particularly where the behavioural issues make it extremely difficult to rehome the animal.

“Vets are not required to euthanise healthy animals at an owner’s request, but sometimes, having carefully considered all options and given the circumstances the pet finds themselves in, it may be in an animal’s best interests to do so. Euthanising an animal who could have been a loving pet is the hidden, tragic cost of poor socialisation.”

Problem behaviours vets can see include persistent barking and howling, destructive chewing and inappropriate toileting. Aggressive behaviour, towards both people and other pets, is also a problem, with the PDSA Animal Wellbeing (PAW) report having revealed that a third of pet owners have been attacked or bitten by a dog. Such behaviours can cause a breakdown of the human-animal bond, leading to pets being excluded from family life to the detriment of their welfare, relinquished to re-homing centres or euthanised.

Owners often offered a number of reasons when requesting euthanasia for their healthy pet, with surveyed vets saying that some of the most common reasons they were given included poor health of the owner (48%), owners moving to accommodation that is unsuitable for their pet (39%), and legal enforcement reasons (32%).

Sean said that “moral stress” of being asked to euthanise a healthy pet creates is significant.

“Where what you are being asked to do may not align with your personal values you very carefully assess the ethical dilemma you have been presented with take action best interest of your patient.”

When asked if the reason given to euthanise a physically healthy pet was because it was behaving badly was genuine, Sean said that there is corroborating peer-reviewed research from the Royal Veterinary College that has shown dogs are being euthanised because of “undesirable behaviours”. But he said the scale of such problems ranged from potentially serious and dangerous, such as a dog biting humans and/or other animals.  Issues such as chewing shoes or toileting around the house can also be significant to a pet owner.

“But they are doing it for a reason; they [the pets] are not doing it to be naughty or spiteful. They are doing it as a sign of stress.” He added that behavioural problems can be successfully resolved and this is an area of increasing veterinary specialisation and knowledge in its own right.

Good pet insurance policies often cover treatment with an accredited pet behaviourist and should be the first step before relinquishing an animal to a rehoming centre or having him/her euthanised, Sean added.

The Spring 2015 survey asked: “Have you ever been asked to euthanise a pet for reasons other than ill health?”
The respondents (%) answered:

Never                          2%

Rarely                         45%

Sometimes                  51%

Often                           1%

A list of reasons was presented to those who had been asked to euthanise pets for reasons other than ill health. Respondents were asked: “What reasons are given by owners requesting euthanasia? They were also asked: “Which one of these is the most common reason you hear?” (If owners gave more than one reason for the request, vets were asked to list all of the reasons that owners had given).

Respondents (%) answered:

  What reasons are given by owners requesting euthanasia? Which one of these is the most common reason you hear?
Behavioural issues 98% 90%
Ill health of owner 48% 1%
New accommodation doesn’t allow pets 39% 2%
Legal/enforcement action 32% 2%
Divorce/change of circumstances 28% 1%
Change in financial circumstances 24% 1%
Moving overseas 23% 0%
Moving to unsuitable area/accommodation 23% 1%
New child in the family 22% 1%
Death of owner* 4% 0%
Can’t afford treatment* 2% 0%
Old age of pet* 2% 0%
Don’t want pet anymore* 1% 0%

*Not presented as an answer option. This means these answers were not given in the list of options but if a respondent chose ‘other’ as a reason, there was a free-text box they could give the reason in.

Polly Stewart
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