Euthanizing a companion animal due to behavioral problems. Are there alternatives?

Bad cat behavior leading to euthanasia
Photo: Flickr User MiuMiuKitty
Two useful tags. Click either to see the articles:- Toxic to cats | Dangers to cats

Problematic behavioral problems in companion animals are one of the most frustrating and emotionally draining challenges for their owners. Resolving these problems can often be extremely difficult; especially for animals who are hard to handle, aggressive and/or destructive. In these cases owners may become frightened of their pet and truly believe that the only two solutions for their dilemma are to either surrender the pet or have it euthanized. As far as this writer is concerned, there are no “bad” pets; they are simply companion animals whose behavior is misunderstood.

For those of us who deeply love animals, it’s a priority to learn what we can do to help a troubled pet. In fact, just the thought of making the decision to euthanize a companion animal due to serious behavioral issues is shocking and highly disturbing.

Unfortunately, behavioral issues are a common reason given by owners who have made that decision. But have these owners fully explored what they may be contributing to the situation and fully willing to do whatever it takes to rectify it?

Angry grey cat?
Angry grey cat? Image by Rudy and Peter Skitterians from Pixabay

We make a huge commitment to the pet we adopt. We promise to provide our companion animal with a permanent loving home and to take responsibility for all aspects of our pet’s life. Not only does this include feeding or learning how to best provide our pet with a species appropriate diet, regular veterinary care, interactive play and exercise, but also to ensure that their emotional needs are fully met.

Pets cannot verbalize their feelings. The only way they can communicate that something is amiss is through their behavior. There is always a reason for a pet to start acting out aggressively or becoming destructive. It’s up to the guardian to “listen” to what they are “saying.”

And even though these types of behavior are often frustrating and alarming; in my opinion it’s critical for owners to quickly get to the root of the problem in order for it to be successfully resolved. In fact in the majority of cases, this negative behavior can be positively changed but only if the owner is willing to examine the ways they are interacting with their pet, or to explore if the pet has a physical problem or if they have neglected to provide something that the pet is truly missing.

I can’t tell you how many times I have anguished over messages left on pet sites where irate members are complaining that their pet’s aggressive or destructive behavior has “driven them up the wall”. As a result of their pet’s exasperating behavior, some of them are even planning to either relinquish, or have the pet euthanized. And in spite of the many excellent suggestions given them by folks who have a great deal of insight into animal behavior, these owners are unwilling to go the extra mile to keep their commitments.

With the sizable advances in behavior therapy made over the years, I believe that euthanizing an animal is never warranted. Even if the owner has totally given up and has made this decision, after euthanizing the animal owners often experience overwhelming guilt. Additionally, relinquishing or rehoming the animal only results in more problems for the pet making rehabilitation even more difficult.

Today there is an abundance of resources available to pet owners living with companion animals with serious behavioral problems. As an example, Jackson Galaxy’s TV show, “My Cat from Hell” has demonstrated that the behavior of cats creating havoc in the lives of their owners can be positively transformed when the owners become savvier about feline nature and the ways in which their interactions can affect their cats. Over the years, he has saved countless cats and has restored harmony in their homes. Also, of course, this website has a plethora of pages on cat behavior.

Do you believe that euthanizing a pet who is exhibiting serious behavioral problems is ever justified? Please share your views in a comment.

Famously violent cat ‘Lux’ may have been systematically abused by man living in the home

P.S. Very rarely there are cats in homes who’ve been mentally damaged. And they even beat experts like Jackson Galaxy. One such cat was Lux.

Video of caged cat at shelter tells us how desparate he is to get out

Update August 10, 2022: this is an update by Michael. Jo Singer very usefully discusses domestic cats in homes on April 23rd, 2015. I would like briefly to mention shelter cats. Very often their lives depend upon their behaviour. And their behaviour in shelters can often depend upon the size of the cage in which they are placed and whether the interior of the cage is enriched to a certain extent. And of course, some shelters place their cats with foster parents. Both optimising cage space and placing cats with fosterers helps them to behave naturally and express their true character which almost always enhances the prospects of them being adopted.

Optimising cage space of shelter cats increases likelihood of adoption

I believe, as others do, that perfectly adoptable and well-mannered cats in shelters can end up behaving in a way which gives the impression to potential adopters that they are unadoptable because of the stresses of the circumstances under which they find themselves such as, for example cage space, the noise and the unfamiliarity of the surroundings. It is very difficult to ensure that cats are relaxed in shelters. And I’m sure that every shelter manager is thinking about how to successfully overcome this challenge.

Below are some more pages on ‘bad cat behavior’. Reminder: bad cat behavior is feline behavior which is always explicable and natural but it is a form of behavior which is disliked by some humans.

37 thoughts on “Euthanizing a companion animal due to behavioral problems. Are there alternatives?”

  1. Serbella!

    The Sherpa carriers are very soft, lightweight and strong. They come in a variety of sizes depending on the cat’s weight. Sir Hubble sleeps in it in fact, even though he must associate it with going to the vet. Sometimes I wonder if when he gets into it he is telling me needs to see our wonderful kitty doc. I will have to keep an eye on this to find out if there is any connection- or just that he loves it a lot.

    As far as wellness exams are concerned, they are extremely important. Our two seniors (14 and 15) get bi-annual wellness exams- unfortunately my new pet insurance does’t pay for them- but they pay extremely well for any medical conditions for which the cats are being treated. Sir Hubble has chronic pancreatitis- with occasionaly flares, and both are just about entering the borderline kidney disease issues. We want to keep them as healthy as possible so keeping an eye on their levels is extremely important. I am so glad Samirah is going to get that checkup.

    I love the idea of housecall vet care- but sometimes all the tests that may be needed are not available that way. My vet doesn’t have a portable xray machine -like horse vets always carry- so if my vet thinks an xray is essential they have to go in.

    Additionally, since our cats are getting acupunture treatment bi-weekly- they do a lot better in our vet’s acupunture room- (it is designed almost like a meditation room- with soft music and dimmed lighting) so it is less stressful for them actually than having it done at our home.

    You must have connected with Samirah’s inner-sweet kitty the first time you saw her and knew somehow that all would work out eventually- with patience and compassion for the stresses she had been through.

    After watching “My Cat from Hell” for many years, I too have come to the conclusion that all cats who are nutsy and behave aggressively are frightened cats that can be rehabilitated- but it is mostly the owners that must be retrained. (in my humble opinion of course).

    Reply
  2. I can’t think of one single feline behavior that would ever cause me to think that killing would be the answer.
    I work, daily, with some very vicious ferals. I’ve had my fair share of scratches and bites, none of which were life threatening. So, I can’t even imagine a so-called domesticated cat being so unruly that they would deserve death, even if gnawing on a jugular vein.
    If racing around, scaling curtains, or being destructive were criteria, I wouldn’t have any indoor cats at all.
    There are always alternatives. An unruly or unpredictabe cat can always be introduced into a well managed feral colony where they may become comfortable.

    Reply
    • Dee: Couldn’t agree with you more about the importance of cats feeling comfortable in their environment.

      We should also consider that the lifestyle we provide our pets may be stressful for them, leading to outbursts of what some people might consider behavioural problems. I’m not opposed to people keeping their cats indoors, but I don’t think it’s mere coincidence that there are more cat behaviourists in America, than in the UK where cats are allowed access to the outside. Many people do a fantastic job of providing an enriching environment indoors for their cats, but sadlly too many people still don’t understand that cats need outlets for their natural behaviours. That’s why declawing is mistakenly still seen as a cure for scratching. They don’t get that cruelty issues aside, the need to scratch is so ingrained, cats will continue to go through the motions even after declawing.

      There needs to be more awareness of the pyschological needs of cats as well as the physical ones. Better educated owners will lead to less unhappy cats, trying in the only ways they know how to get that message heard.

      Reply
  3. Serbella,

    I can’t imagine a veterinarian suggesting not to handle a cat. It is with the patient, careful and gentle handling that cats can be rehabilitated. Your work with Samirah shows that listening to her- knowing when to touch her and when to back off- returning her eye blinks and building her trust has transformed her into the loving cat that you knew that she would be.

    We just got a second Sherpa carrier on Amazon. It was on sale! The first one we bought to replace a carrier which was far from escape-proof anymore- was a big hit. I rubbed some catnip onto the “fleece” lining on the bottom and the two of them would curl up together in it- so I got the second one to replace another worn-out carrier. They hang out in them a lot. If Samirah is carrier shy- leave one out all the time- maybe rub some catnip in it and leave a toy in it- and perhaps the trip will be less stressful for her. You have done wonders with her. Your love has been such an inspiration for so many who have followed your story.

    Reply
    • Hi, Jo!

      Yes, I thought the vet’s advice about not handling her was off the mark too. I think he really wanted to come out and say “Take her back to the shelter”) which he actually did say later on. He and his staff seemed amazed that I adopted her. I took great pleasure going back to the office bragging about how I clipped her claws.

      Thank you for the recommendation about the Sherpa carrier. You know, that just might work! Samirah has no problem climbing into my purse if I leave it out on the bed. Having a carrier made out of softer material might just fool her. I tried leaving catnip and treats in the hard plastic cat carrier. She went over, sniffed it, then looked at me as if to say “Woman, do you really think I’m going to fall for that?” I’ve had cats who slept in the cat carrier all the time, but not that girl.

      Reply
      • Serbella, you’ve done a fantastic job with Samirah. I’m very impressed with your patience and understanding of cats. She may have been grieving for her previous owner when you first adopted her, and perhaps that, combined with the painful claw injury, just meant she used anger to vent her feelings. You gave her what she needed most – time. Time to heal emotionally and re-build trust in someone new. I believe a lot of cat’s emotional problems could be solved much better with caring people like yourself, than all the medication in the world.

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        • Thanks, Jo!

          Samirah was so violent my vet and I agreed on the Prozac as a last resort. That didn’t matter because she was too smart to eat the doctored wet food anyway. I had the feeling that was not her first time at the Prozac rodeo.

          You’re right, she needed time. She still has good days and bad days, but now more good than bad. And I always remember that she had that life longer than the time she’s spent with me, so it’s only natural she might react fearfully sometimes.

          Reply
  4. In the past I’ve euthanized two of my furkids, both males, both for the same reason: they blocked up completely. I discovered my boys had birth defects. Coyote was 11 months old. Rocky was 14 months old.

    My lady Samirah is my latest companion. I adopted her a year ago. She’s 15 now. I always had cats from when they were kittens. She was someone else’s cat for the first 12 years of her life. 10 days after she came to live with me Samirah accidentally pulled out one of her claws. She immediately went into a rage. She thought I hurt her and she went on the defensive. Just the sound of my voice was enough to make her very very angry. She slashed me with her claws every chance she got. Taking her to the vet made matters worse. They gave her antibiotics and painkillers. Anyone who says that cats don’t hold grudges doesn’t know what they’re talking about.

    The vet explained that during the first month with me Samirah had been handled more than she ever had been in her entire life. That was why she was angry. He also told me that the first time the shelter brought her in to his office he had to trank her through the holes in the carrier, and he and his tech still put on protective gear.

    I tried everything: Feliway, calming drops, a calming collar, Jackson Galaxy’s Spirit Essences. She was too smart to eat the Prozac my vet prescribed. She physically attacked me whenever she saw me. I was afraid to be around her. I slept with my bedroom door closed. Whenever she lunged at me I blocked her with the lid of a large underbed storage container. Whenever I sat in the living room to watch tv she tried to run me out of the room. I refused to let her run me off. Everyone, including the vet, told me to take her back to the no kill shelter.

    Three months later I gave up. I was going to take her back to the shelter that Saturday. That Thursday morning she hissed and growled at me. When I came back from work she was friendly. She’s been that way ever since.

    My friends joked that Samirah realized I was sending her back. I just wanted to get her back to that sweet, shy cat she showed me when she first came. I never hit her back and I always stayed calm. That was hard, though.

    A year later and she’s the sweetest thing. She follows me from room to room, she slow blinks, purrs and insists on head rubs. She sits there and watches me like a kid watching cartoons. She offers me her belly to rub, and I do, very carefully.

    Her annual senior wellness exam is coming up in May. I’m retired now, and I have no way of knowing how she’s going to react this time. For the past year I’ve played and handled her every day. We cuddle, and I always try to follow up that time with something she likes, like treats or catnip. Every day we sit in the window and watch the traffic. Now I can clip her claws and examine her ears and teeth if I need to. She fusses, but she lets me do it. Before the vet warned me not to handle her much. He wanted me to bring her in to have her claws clipped. I couldn’t accept that. I never thought of putting her down, even when things were really bad.

    I’ve noticed her fear reactions are all human based. I have a couple of robot dinosaurs that move and roar. Samirah sits there and watches them and I’ve seen her go up to them and kiss them on the nose. But the first time I pulled out a broom she ran and hid. She hates trash bags too. Just the sound of one being opened is enough to make her hide. I suspect physical abuse at the worst, or at least she received rough treatment.

    If she has a bad reaction to the vet visit this time I know what to do. I’m just stubborn enough to hang in there with her.

    Reply
    • I’m beyond impressed with how you’ve dealt with this extreme challenge. Even though I consider myself a highly conscious cat guardian and advocate, this would have been way over the top. I probably would have had her euthanized, thinking she was too emotionally damaged to re-home.

      The fact that she came around in such a miraculous way defies logic.

      Regarding the wellness exam. I would get a mobile vet to come to the house, rather than put her through that
      stress of the carrier, and then the triggers in the vet’s office that could set her back.

      You didn’t mention any health issues. I’d skip the wellness exam myself, and try home remedies if she had any health problems. My cat was traumatized by so many vet visits and reactions to drugs, that I decided I’d never subject her to that again, unless I’d tried everything I could think of at home, or a situation that required surgery. In your case, I wouldn’t take the risk, after all you’ve both been through. Weigh the possibilities wisely.

      She’s a beautiful cat, and your story is inspiring. I hope you share it on cat sites, to help others with problems.

      Reply
      • Thanks, Sandra!

        I had an idea what I would be up against when I paid Samirah (she was Cherub back then) three visits at the shelter before I adopted her. She was sad and distant. She sat in a corner of the lobby and she didn’t interact with me. I had the feeling she was waiting for her previous human. If she’d been violent from the start I never would have adopted her, but I saw how sweet and shy she was before she hurt herself. I wouldn’t have felt right if I didn’t give her a chance, but I’d be lying if I said that her violent behavior didn’t test my patience. I don’t like to put human emotions on an animal, but I feel that she felt betrayed. She couldn’t understand where the pain was coming from, so she blamed me.

        It’s been two years since she had a wellness exam. I looked at her paperwork and her kidneys are borderline. I’d just like the peace of mind knowing for sure. And she is limping a little. I give her a Dasaquin capsule in her wet food. No way I’d try to pill her. Otherwise I haven’t seen any indications that she has problems, but I’m a little concerned about her kidneys at her age.

        I’m keeping my fingers crossed that she’ll be more relaxed this time around. She responds really well to me now. And the funny thing about that rage of hers? When I brought her back from the vet I was given a tube of tramadol paste for the pain. Samirah allowed me to rub it inside her ears, no problem. It was as if she knew that would make her feel better. An hour after I administered the painkiller she went right back to hissing and growling.

        Thank you for your kind post. I admit I’m a little reluctant to share because I have no idea what turned her around, but I don’t mind telling this story if it will help other people out.

        Reply
  5. Wow, this is a very hard subject for me to comment on. This problem not only exists for cats, but to many domestic animals. Animals have different personalities just the same as humans do. Now, make no mistake, it is a very good thing that the fate of sub humans that abuse, or neglect animals is not in my hands. Since I would probably get kicked off of social media, I will not say what my punishment would ber. The fact is there are some domestic animals that have personalities that can’t be coped with by some individuals for whatever reason. One of our Derby runners, Danzig Moon has a very nasty temperament and is very hard to handle. I do think it takes a special person to be able to handle some temperament of “hard to train” animals, the fact is that not everyone has the education or resources to correct the problem, or the financial means to do so. I think it would be a last resort to have the animal euthanized, but some people may think it is their only answer.

    Reply
    • I believe that animals can be born with chemical or other imbalances, the same way people can. And depending on their environment as babies, they may be able to overcome this. I haven’t done any research on this, but maybe someone else can contribute their knowledge.

      Forty years ago, I bought a 6 month old female German Shepherd pup from a breeder. I didn’t consider rescue dogs because I had toddlers, and didn’t want to take a chance with a dog’s unknown background. This dog was a perfect specimen, and for those who may remember, looked like Rin Tin Tin. And also had thought of breeding her for an extra income. It seems so ignorant to me now….

      Anyway, I began to experience various problems soon after I got her. She was very aggressive with other dogs when I walked her. She dug under our fence several times. We enrolled her in obedience school, and….she flunked! It seemed that she was
      un-trainable. She was also un-affectionate! We’d had a German Shepherd before who was a sweetheart, and died of liver failure. Maybe Cesar Milan could have been helpful, but he wasn’t around.

      So we returned her to the breeder. We had done everything we could think of. I can’t imagine that these behaviors weren’t shown when she was at the breeder’s home. So, what was going on for this dog?
      It remains a mystery, and I’ll never know for sure.

      I had one other dog many years later, who was a red Doberman. (yeah, I like big dogs) Sweet and extremely intelligent, with no behavior problems at all. Protective, but obedient, without going to school for it!

      Cats have been a thread throughout my life, and I have to admit my preference for them.

      Reply
      • I believe that animals can be born with chemical or other imbalances, the same way people can.

        Good point. I am sure you are correct. Although most behavior problems are associated with learned behavior and/or the environment there must be some which are inherited. Your story reinforces this.

        I think too that there may be some issues with breeding, specifically inbreeding resulting in low intelligence. That is my theory. I have seen it in some cats.

        Reply
        • I had almost forgotten my brief experience with 2 young black cats who were sisters. They were about 6 months old.

          I found these cats through a classified ad when I was looking for a cat. I thought two might keep each other company while I worked.

          I’d never experienced cat behavior like theirs. They flew around the house, bouncing off the walls, and that’s not what I was wanting. I kept them only a week, and the hyper behavior continued. I couldn’t deal with it, so I returned them to the person I got them from.

          I decided I would get kittens, and I did. Although kitten behavior can be highly energetic, they usually grow out of this phase. The kittens I got were part Persian, and they seems to be known for their calmness. I got the kind of cats I was looking for.

          So, that’s another aspect of adopting a cat. Look into their predominant breed (if there is one) characteristics. I’d never have a Siamese or Bengal, because I can’t stand the way they meow. I don’t know much about the various breeds, but I’d do my research. Also, many people aren’t prepared for the extra work involved with long haired cats. They get attracted by the beauty, and then reality sets in…the daily brushing or mats, the fur on the FURniture and clothes, etc.

          Reply
        • Chemical imbalances are a distinct possibility. I also believe that some domestic cats retain more of their wild side than others. Their fight or flight response seems more easily triggered than with other cats. Nervous cats are far more likely to be diagnosed as having behavioural problems, because their reactions tend to be extreme.

          Reply
  6. Do I think that was necessary? Well, probably the dog, with better training and perhaps a child-free home, was a possibility. But I’m glad he made the choice he made. The child had 5 surgeries to reconstruct her face. She definitely learned to never bug dogs.

    Reply

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