The worst situation in the world

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:

oh god

And this:

oh boy

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).

Filed: Blog, Health, Picks of the Litter Tagged: , ,
  • melfr

    Finally some levity in an emotional situation. I totally agree with you. I doubt Kay wanted to euthanize the dog but when owners chose not to listen and the laws are stacked against a dog who bites, what else is there to do?

    At our shelter, when someone said their dog bit their child it was almost always euthanized. It frustrated me to no end because in many of the cases I suspect the owner was at fault, not the dog.
    When will dog owners take more responsibility for the pets they own?

    • Guest

      very well said. thank you.

    • e1ande2

      Unfortunately, in this day and age where dogs are “accessories” and “dressed up”, most owners will not take more responsibility for their pets, sad as that is.

      There are just as many people that I think should not be allowed to have pets of any kind as there are that I think should not be allowed to have children.

      • Robert Paul Hudson

        But we cannot legally or morally decide who can have children and who cannot, and for the most part it is the same for pets. Other than a pattern of severe abuse, situations can only be addressed after the fact. I interviewed a woman in Canada who was trying to raise money for a service for her adopted daughter who suffers from fetal alchohol syndrome. The child’s natural Mother had a total of 13 children and during the pregnancy of
        ALL OF THEM, this woman was a drug addict and alcoholic and every single child was born with severe birth defects. Not once, but 13 times. All 13 children were taken from her, but that did not stop her

        • e1ande2

          How awfully sad for all of those kids.

        • Robert Paul Hudson

          ain’t that the truth

  • kgseymour

    I’m so happy you weighed in on this with such a smartly written piece. While I understood much of the argument, I didn’t know all the details about the laws and precedents you face, so this is really helpful for those of us who want to support all of our well-meaning, animal-loving veterinarians. That really is just the worst situation in the world.

  • Keely Hakala

    Thank you for this! I didn’t know about the legal ramifications involved for you, and it definitely makes sense to me now

  • Leah S

    It is a miserable situation. You mentioned that the Vet could lose everything, but an even worse scenario is the Vet does not put the dog down, and it goes on to permanently damage or kill a child/person. The Vet would feel some serious responsibility in that case.

    • Absolutely. I can’t even imagine how that would feel.

    • Eden Myers

      This is, honestly, how I get through these situations. Situations, plural; I’ve had to do this more than once. When I have, I compare how I feel about performing an unnecessary euthanasia to how I feel thinking about reading a child’s obituary. It gives me the resolve to keep from crying, at least until after I push the plunger.

  • A Macfarlane

    I believe the law only applies if the owner can confirm that the dog did in fact bite a child or a person and that it as reported to a doctor or hospital. Anybody can say anything….and a dog loses it’s life. If the vet asks for proof and then refuses to euthanise that would be different but if proof is not available then it would be very hard for a court to take away your licence. No shelter should be putting dogs to sleep on the word of a previous owner. After all…the owners want rid of the dog or they wouldn’t be at the shelter. Any reputable shelter would test the dog themselves and make a judgement on the way the dog behaves, taking into consideration the information they have to hand. If a shelter automatically euthanises a dog on hearsay…with no proof…then they are not reputable IMO….maybe just an excuse to get rid of a dog that will be hard to home…and that probably will be PTS anyway in a few days. I appreciate that in the scenario the vet had no option but to PTS…but the parents really must be held accountable for not taking the advice of a vet and allowing their children to continue to interact with the dog in a dangerous manner. As soon as parents are held accountable you will find that this type of behaviour decreases. A vet also has a responsibility to a dog and to make sure the dog gets justice for the loss of life…by reporting said incident and previous recommendations to the police. I don’t know if vets have a responsibility to do that!

  • Cleopawtra

    You hit the nail right on the head, It’s the parents of these children that don’t think about the danger they put their children in. If only the animal had been properly trained and the children taught to be more careful around the dogs. I’ve seen some of Dr. Kay’s writings and I know she had to agonize over the fact she had to euthanizine any animal for biting someone.

    Hope you have fun in South America doing the good work you do in your volunteering at the spay and neutering clinics. Remember to take lots of pictures. We like the pictures you take on your trips.

    One more thing did you pop that cork yet? Haven’t heard anything lately. Just wanted to know
    Be safe on your trip!!!!!

    • I DID and it’s killing me I haven’t been given the go-ahead to tell you all why. I’ve been dying with excitement!

    • e1ande2

      I have been teaching all my children since they were old enough to walk that you don’t touch any animal, dog or otherwise, without permission, and if you see it outside and without a human, then you don’t touch it at all.

      Until someone with a service dog commented on the fact that it was nice I was teaching my children that her dog was not a pet, but actually working and helping her, that I realized that I was one of the rare parents out there. How sad.

      • Judy Jackson

        I did the same thing with my son. From the time he was a toddler, I made sure that he knew to NEVER touch a dog or cat without permission. We were at the grocery store one day when he was 6 or 7 & a lady was shopping with her service dog. Justin was fascinated & stopped in his tracks to look at the dog. She invited him over, introduced him to her dog who was named Shasta. She let him pet Shasta & told him a bit about service dogs. She thanked me for raising such a polite little boy. It never occurred to me that all parents didn’t do that.

    • Lexi

      I’m sure the dog Was properly trained. The parents were just idiots. The kids were the ones not “properly trained”.

  • Pam S.

    I’m a veterinary student and situations like these make me really nervous about my chosen profession. Even in situations I cannot control, despite my best efforts to mitigate things, I usually experience a lot of guilt and second-guessing if things go wrong. I cannot imagine what Dr. Kay must have felt. I’m also a mom and cannot imagine being so irresponsible as the mother in the Big Ben story (I read Dr. Kay’s article yesterday). When you choose to welcome both children and pets into your family, as the adult it is your responsibility to teach everyone appropriate boundaries to keep all safe.

    • Absolutely. And as a veterinarian, you have three interests you need to protect: your own, your clients, and the pet. Usually all three work well together but when you need to decide which one has priority, you will never be 100% happy with the decision.

  • shadowsrider

    The thing is, sometimes there just isn’t a choice. I had a friend who raised a gorgeous Rottie from a pup. Obedience trained, therapy dog, search and rescue dog. The things she could do with this dog were amazing. But, she moved from a farm to an apartment, it was unaltered, and it got more dominant and aggressive. She worked with the dog (VERY experienced dog trainer), there were a few incidents, she took precautions, but eventually the dog went for her and was an inch away from doing permanent possibly deadly damage. She agonized about what to do, considered donating the dog to the police for work, neutering to see if that would help, but it finally came down to she was responsible for that dog. No matter what she did, there was always the possibility it could hurt someone. She decided to put the dog down. Her vet completely supported her decision, no what ifs or did you try this, just understanding of such a difficult and heartbreaking decision.

    • And no one should insert themselves into that room except the owner who knows the dog, and the veterinarian who knows them both.

  • Robert Paul Hudson

    I could not agree with you more. Every day the internet is bombarded with ‘cute” photos of children and infants lying with dogs and potentionaly dangerous situations. It always makes me cringe

  • Brook Whyte

    i was attacked and bitten by a dog when i was a kid and was told that it was my own fault for crossing the dog’s yard to play with the other kids in the yard when the dog had an invisible (to me) bone. i was the first child the dog bit. when he tore up a little girl he had known his entire life and crippled her (he hamstrung her and then tore up her gluteous and back before he was pulled off), he was finally put down. that little girl was the third child he bit. turns out the dog had attacked and severely bitten one of his own children (there were 3) and the owner had covered it up by not reporting it or taking his child for medical care.

    my niece has been bitten in the face several times by friends’ dogs (luckily small nippy type dogs), but has not blamed the dogs and the dogs’ were not punished. she has learned the hard way DON”T PUT YOUR FACE IN A DOGS FACE.

    i was visiting my sister and niece with my newest rescue and half way through the second day he inexplicably seriously went after my niece. i snatched him back into control and told my sister i was leaving; she insisted i stay. it made me very uncomfortable but i stayed for a few more hours holding the dog by my side on a very short leash. my niece was seriously spooked and i finally told my sister that we absolutely had to go. Clyde is a large dog; he is so sweet and calm at home (more like a typical golden); it was an abrupt wake-up call that he is much more stressed than i was aware in social situations. i now know to keep him away from children and i won’t let any approach when we’re on walks.

  • Krista Magnifico

    Thank you for writing this, for being honest, and for not living in the grey zone.

    I find that I often have to practice medicine by addressing worst cases scenarios and deciding which consequences I can live with. It is a constant juggling act of helping pets, protecting human beings, and being able to live with the decisions that are made.

    I know that in some cases I must chose between a pet, a human being, and my conscious. I also know that even though a human being is in many cases at fault, the pet will pay the ultimate price.

    Along the way I have had to make heart-breaking, gut-wrenching decisions, and then follow through with being, judge, jury, and executioner. It is not a task for the faint of heart, nor the soul devoid of compassion.

    To not care anymore is to abandon the purpose of my chosen profession.

    I am the last person in that pets life to let them down, and I carry the responsibility and the disappointment through every day of both my personal and professional life.

    Every night I hope that the actions taken that day will still let me wake up the next and remember all of the reasons that I longed to be a veterinarian in the first place and still want to get out of bed.

    • Beautifully stated Dr M, and thank you for this.

  • PetsWeekly

    Great post – and I’m sad that Dr. Kay got so much grief over her initial post. That’s just wrong. I wish people would think about all sides of the issue before spewing hostility online. This is a horrible position to be in for all parties. The best solution is to avoid the situation. Kids need to be taught to respect animals, parents need to understand that animals are instinctual, not logical. Humans, in general, need to be more responsible…

  • Endofstory.

    I guarantee the dog that bit that kids face was a pitbull.

    • If you read the story you would know it was a Saint Bernard. I’ve also consulted on a bite to the face with a Golden Retriever.

    • R

      You’re an idiot. Pitbulls bit much less often then other breeds.

    • Judy Jackson

      I have a friend who is a dog groomer. The worst bite she ever got was from a cocker spaniel. 25 stitches.

  • Kristina Marzec

    So in Nevada we have the case of Onion the dog before our Supreme Court. A beloved pet to grandma and constant companion to 1 yr old grandson, Onion the Rhodesian Ridgeback and baby spent a birthday together, both got presents, both had lots and lots and lots of excitement for the day. Onion was sleeping, exhausted, in a dark room. Grandma puts baby down to say goodnight to Onion. Baby pulls self up on dog, something baby has done many times before WHEN DOG WAS AWAKE, and dog startles, clamps on baby’s head, shakes and kills baby before anyone knows WTH happened. Now the fight is on because the law is absolute here (and i think everywhere in the US under these facts), dog goes down. However, an out-of-state rescue filed intervention documents trying to get the Court to release the dog to them to live his life out on a sanctuary. I think because there are many dog lovers on the bench here, several of whom i am privileged to know personally (although they havent of course discussed the case with me as it remains ongoing) this case is still pending a year and a half later and Onion has been in solitary in the hands of the city. Horrible horrible predicament all the way around. IMHO as truly devastated as we locals are, many of us quietly feel grandma here is the person whose error in judgment put these tragic events in motion.

  • Donna Baker

    Thank you for sharing your insights on this and also for supporting Dr. Kay. I was horrified by some of the vicious and (in my opinion) uninformed comments directed at her as a result of her honesty regarding how Ben’s story ended. I had planned to post myself on her blog but don’t seem able to access it any longer – perhaps it has temporarily been disabled? While I have never met Dr. Kay, I’ve read her books and followed her blog and found her to be an exceptionally compassionate and caring vet – she certainly does not deserve the negative feedback she received from her post.

    The legal/liability issues you have outlined regarding veterinarians are sobering and I hope they prove enlightening to those who would pass judgment so quickly. Liability issues are also a huge concern for rescues and shelters, and any reputable rehoming organization will take its legal AND ethical responsibility very seriously when it comes to dogs with a bite history. I have close to 20 years volunteering and working for a Golden Retriever rescue group and have dealt with many situations where hard and painful decisions had to be made. (Yes, Golden Retrievers do bite.)

    It’s easy to say just find a new home for a dog like Ben; it’s a lot harder to be the one signing the adoption contract as a representative of the rescue and knowing that if the dog bites again, YOUR actions and decisions contributed to that outcome. Euthanizing a dog for aggressive behavior, especially when lack of appropriate adult supervision played a role, is heartbreaking and devastating, to say the least. Allowing that dog to potentially repeat the behavior, however, is irresponsible and short-sighted, not to mention unfair to the dog. A Golden Retriever rescue in New England found that out the hard way some years ago and whenever I am tempted to cut corners with a questionable dog I re-read this story:
    I am glad that you, Dr. Kay, and others are speaking out about the pictures and videos that can be truly heart-stopping in their imagery of children interacting inappropriately with dogs.

    • Thank you for your perspective. Rescue volunteers must face the brunt of angry people as well when they cannot accommodate a person’s aggressive pet. As a Golden person myself I am still sooooo careful with my kids and my dogs. And the first bite consult I sat in on the behavior service at Davis was for a Golden. Any, any, any any any dog can bite, period.

    • Cynthia

      I’m a rescue volunteer (15 years) in a large-breed rescue (females average 80 lb; males 95 to 100 lb). I have fostered and adopted/kept fosters. The *only* bad outcome from my fosters is when my analysis & report was ignored and overruled by the Foster Coordinator because the would-be adopting family’s female parent was a vet. I had recommended that NO ONE with children under 12 years of age be permitted to have custody of this male dog because he was emotionally unstable and needed a quiet environment.

      The adopting vet’s family had three children, ALL OF WHOM were under 12 years of age, were boys, and were quite active. The father was either military or recently ex-military, quite physically fit, so probably active as well.

      Three days later came the phone call. Yep, they pushed the dog beyond his threshold really fast, he snapped at the youngest, and “Mom” put him down. I had told them to bring him back to me–or I would come and get him–should anything not work out. It’s just my husband and me here in the house, with cats and the others of the rescue breed. I work at least 95% of the time from home, so there is a LOT of hands-on time with the dogs.

      I commented on Dr. Kay’s blog that her “tactful” remarks just didn’t do the job. People this…well…dense need to have graphic slides shown to them of hurt children, of injuries, of the emergency room. I don’t think anything else will get through to them. And yes, I drove to my vet’s clinic in January 2012 to pick up a (non-biter) dog whose owner had sent him there for PTS but someone at the hospital called our rescue.

      Slide show, brochure where the vet “walks through” it with the parents, something absolutely not “tactful” but rather direct in the style of “I’m concerned when I see XYZ between the children and the dog because ___.” This is not “in your face” language; it does convey your deep concern and it shows the possible injury to the children. “Humanized” statistics may also help, but the slides/photos are most likely to be the #1 wake-up call.

  • My Brown Newfies

    Thanks for taking on this topic and posting about it. It’s so sad that the original message of Dr.Kay’s post was overlooked by many.Maybe one day all pet owners will take into serious consideration that the lives of their pets are in their own hands. I would imagine that the ones who were quick to judge and name call Dr. Kay and other veterinarians are not the ones advocating and taking care of animals, rather they are the ones who sit on the sidelines while others do it and then chime in with their two cents.

    • Cynthia

      Not so, at least not in my case.

  • so tired

    Well said. Being in the claims field, I can attest to most laws being ‘strict liability’ when it comes to dog bites, especially if the breed is known for bites (sadly, larger dogs including Pit Bulls, Rotts, German Shepards, Mastiffs, Chows). The law is on the side of the injured party and they (plaintiffs) will go after whomever has the deepest pockets, including the vet. The key is education (of pet owners), and their pets. A well trained animal makes for a good home- BUT you still have to educate your children on HOW to play and interact with their pets. If you do that, you will have a happy home both for your pets and children.

  • Cathey

    There is so much good that has been said here; I can’t add anything except to reiterate that parents MUST teach their children good/correct behavior around animals, and they MUST school the dog (with a good professional–no matter how many dogs or classes you have had before) if it is theirs. If they are not willing to be responsible for those two things, they should not probably not have children OR animals.

  • sandy weinstein

    i am at odds over this, i dont like to see any dog euthenized, most dogs can be rehabilitated. i was bit by my neighbor’s dog when i was 5, on the face, had to have abt 60 stitches, still have a scar, the dog was put down b/c back then they could not tell if the dog was rabid. i was just petting the dog on the back….it was a dog that i had known for a long time, had been around lots of children, it was a chow. however, i know that going to dog events, i have lots of kids that run up to my dogs, stick their hands in their faces, pull at them, jump up and down, act crazy, the parents do nothing, when one of my dogs get anxious they blame me….not their children. my dogs are very, very well behaved. i even tell the kids to be nice, dont yell, stick their hands in the dogs faces and the parents get mad at me….i get compliments all of the time, wherever i go, horseshows, dog stores, shopping, art events, restaurants, how well behaved my 3 girls are….they dont bark unless someone is trying to irritate them, or another dog trys to attack them….so i think the parents are more to blame here than the dog….just like people, someone maybe nice, and then something may upset them and they just go off, and kill someone….would you put that person down when he gets upset….sorry i dont agree w/ putting the dogs down….look at m. vick’s dogs, and how they were rehabilitated….it is the parents who are at fault here.

    • Jo

      You said, ” . . . would you put that person down when he gets upset?”

      That’s what the Death Penalty is. And I agree, that’s not right, either.

  • Kimberly Morris Gauthier

    Thank you so much for saying something, because tearing each other down in an effort to share disagreement on a point does nothing to help dogs. Thank you for sharing a view point that is clear yet still heart breaking.

  • Should be a ball in South America, Dr. V!

  • Cat

    I have a fabulous, protective dog that i found hiding under cars in my neighborhood. After 1.5 years with us we STILL have to be careful with her around visitors to our home (we have 2 kids, 8 & 14, and their friends visit frequently). She is a mix, clearly chihuahua/terrier/shepherd so she is a bit nervous with the herding instinct…the perfect storm for nips and bites. She does snap at runners and tug at their pants…the perfect opportunity for bites on hands and legs. THE OWNESS IS ON US AS THE OWNERS to not police visitors, but keep the dog away from them. I love this dog, but if she ended up at a shelter she would have been returned by someone less patient. My hub and I know that is she bites someone (true bite, not playful or herding) things would change. We have a neighbor (5, rough troubled boy) that has run up to her and kicked her, then ran beyond the invisible fence…he also dragged her to be shocked once before we could stop him. He is her nemesis…we have warned his mom and him to stay away from her BUT IT IS STILL OUR RESPONSIBILITY…She is getting much better – a recent family reunion netted lots of lap time and snuggling – even from the kids, but at all times we were right at hand. It is a lot of work…but it is OUR RESPONSIBILITY…dogs are animals and as such need to be trained watched. EVER owner needs to be responsible to themselves, their families and anyone the dog comes in contact with.

  • Kim

    Those pictures make me think of one thing…that the parents of those children have no respect for the animals in their care. Pets are not toys. The parents of these kids are not only putting their kids at risk, but they are teaching their kids to not respect another life. Again, dogs are not toys. If you want to allow your kids to be rude to a dog, get a stuffed one.