A couple of days ago, the wonderful Dr. Nancy Kay posted a story I hope all parents (human and pet) read about the trend of kids and dogs in pictures getting into potentially scary situations.
If you haven’t read it yet, she punctuated the apprehension she feels seeing pictures like this:
with a story from her own practice, where a parent disregards her attempts to help her children interact with their dog more safely. And the story ends, after the dog bites one of the children in the face, with Dr. Kay tearfully euthanizing the dog after another home could not be found.
While most of the respondents reacted with sadness about the situation, a good-sized number of commenters took Dr. Kay to task for euthanizing the dog. While she is too gracious (or smart, but I’ve never pretended to be that) to respond to the people who think they know what goes through the mind of a veterinarian in these situations, I feel somewhat compelled- OK, really compelled- to say this:
You have no idea how hard, how awful, how utterly agonizing these situations are, because if you did you would never call her a murderer. And until you’re the one holding the syringe in your hand, I implore you to take a step back and return the discussion to its original context, how we all need to do a better job by working together to prevent these situations in the first place. Because here’s the truth:
That is an utterly impossible situation to be in. Yes, vets have a lot of wiggle room when it comes to “my cat is peeing on the rug” or “my dog has flea allergies” or even “my dog growled at a kid” to say, “I am not comfortable with euthanizing this pet.” But once a pet bites a person, a line has been crossed and everything changes.
The law is stacked against any dog who bites
Once upon a time, a person went to their veterinarian and said, my pet snapped at my neighbor and I don’t know what to do. The veterinarian said, let’s try to work through this with a good behaviorist, or find a rescue who can take this on.
Later on, the dog bit someone. The person who was bitten sued not only the owner but the veterinarian for not suggesting the aggressive dog be put to sleep. And they won. That is the legal precedent we function under, the standard of care to which we are held.
So let me reiterate: if a dog comes to us after biting a person and we do not counsel the owner the dog should be put to sleep (even if the owner never brought it up), we are liable if that dog bites anyone in the future. If a dog with a history of biting a child comes in, the owner requests euthanasia, and you refuse? You are basically agreeing to hand over your license, your livelihood, and your ability to be an effective advocate for anyone should another bite happen. Even if a rescue agrees to take the dog, which despite protests to the contrary is pretty rare. That is not to say I have euthanized every dog who’s ever nipped- far from it- but yes, every time I send them away for behavior work I’m taking a risk that only I can truly assess.
And when you have an extreme case in front of you like Ben? That is a horrible, awful corner to be backed into as a veterinarian. There is no happy solution. You’re either a murderer or someone willing to gamble away their entire career on a really bad bet or someone passing the buck to a shelter employee. It is awful and nausea inducing and likely to cause migraines and the sort of thing we all struggle with and few are brave enough to mention out loud for fear of judgmental types who think they know better questioning our dedication to animals. So you take that weight on yourself, mentally apologize to the dog for the crap hand he has been dealt, and cry. At least that is what I did the one time I was put in the same position.
Solving the problem we all helped create
I don’t want to play advocate Olympics here and saber rattle over who has done the most good for dogs, but if that’s your thing- Dr. Kay, for example, quite literally wrote the book on animal advocacy. And it makes me sick to my core to have people react to her with nastiness because of that unwinnable situation that we have all contributed to.
We contribute when we suggest any situation be handled through specious lawsuits.
We contribute when we throw shade at each other and erode the trust between the public and veterinarians.
We contribute when we roll our eyes at well meaning but ultimately uninformed parents instead of trying, with kindness and care, to change the way we educate new parents about pet safety. With compassion, and consistency. I am sure the people who took the above pictures love their kids and their dogs, as do I: only difference being I have no pictures like this because I understand the risk more than they do and don’t allow that situation to happen in my house.
Now if you’ll excuse me, I have to go continue the conversations I’ve begun about ways to make life easier and safer for parents then get on a plane to South America for a volunteer spay/neuter initiative . Signed, your local animal murderer/advocate (you decide).