Naughty dogs die young—And it’s not their fault

Aggression, disobedience, repeatedly running away, and too much barking can doom dogs to an early death, according to a new study by researchers at the University of London Royal Veterinary College’s (RVC) VetCompass program.

Per the report, one-third of dogs in the UK who die before the age of three die because of “undesirable behaviors” (UBs). UBs in dogs can jeopardize both animal and human health, leading to dog abandonment and euthanasia.

The most common cause of those deaths was euthanasia, which accounted for 75%. Another common cause was car accidents involving disobedient dogs running into traffic.

The study examined data on 264,000 dogs recorded between 2009–2014 and taken from 127 veterinary hospitals in the UK. The goal: to find out what proportion of early deaths were linked with UBs.

Males, mixed breeds, and small dogs weighing less than 22 pounds were more prone to early death due to UBs than females, purebreds, and larger dogs. Breeds that faced a higher risk of UB-related deaths included cocker spaniels and American Staffordshire terriers.

Perhaps most alarming for veterinary professionals: Only 12.9% of owners whose dogs died as a result of UBs had turned to their veterinarian for advice.

NEWStat reached out to study coauthor Dan O’Neill, MSc, PhD, senior lecturer in companion-animal epidemiology at the RVC, to ask what veterinarians can do to help stop UBs in dogs that could lead their owners to consider surrender or euthanasia as solutions.

Socialization is one possible answer.

“There is substantial evidence to link [UBs] with poor puppy socialization,” O’Neill said. And although this particular angle wasn’t a focus of the study, he suggested veterinarians should encourage prospective pet owners to make good socialization “one of the key criteria that they prioritize when getting a puppy.”

“Veterinarians could [also] encourage owners to think about how the adult dog will . . . behave rather than focus on how cute the puppy is,” O’Neill advises. “Many of these UBs may [develop] in perfectly healthy dogs [because they’re] just not a match for the household that they were brought into.”

O’Neill suggests that taking a thorough patient history that includes behavioral issues be introduced as standard practice in veterinary consultations, whether behavioral issues are the reason for the consultation or not. He points out that “a mismatch between the owner and dog can be every bit as harmful to the dog’s welfare as genuine behavioral pathology.”

If presented with a patient exhibiting UBs whose nerve-wracked owner is asking for advice, O’Neill says a veterinarian’s first step should be to have an open, honest conversation with the owner and their entire family: “These issues are complex and the input of everyone involved with the dog is needed to get to the best possible resolution.” O’Neill cautions veterinarians to make sure owners take these issues seriously; trivializing early behavioral problems “risks allowing more serious problems to develop later.”

O’Neill says that, ideally, there could be one person within the practice who has done further training in this area and could take point on cases involving UBs. “I think that many practitioners feel much more comfortable with internal medicine than behavioral consults.”

While O’Neill is not aware of any similar large-scale behavioral studies in the US, he suspects that the results would be very similar.

“The VetCompass dataset that holds the clinical records of millions of dogs in the UK is revolutionizing how we view the health of dogs and cats in the UK,” O’Neill said. Although there isn’t yet a similar national dataset in the US, O’Neill has a message for Americans: “I would like to issue a rallying call to any epidemiologists in US universities to think about starting such a research program.”

Photo credit: © iStock/cmannphoto

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