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Dealing with dogs that bite
  1. Simon Coghlan


THIS series gives readers the opportunity to consider and contribute to discussion of some of the ethical dilemmas that can arise in veterinary practice. Each month, a case scenario is presented, followed by discussion of some of the issues involved.

In addition, a possible way forward is suggested; however, there is rarely a cut-and-dried answer in such cases, and readers may wish to suggest an alternative approach. This month’s dilemma, ‘Dealing with dogs that bite’, was submitted and is discussed by Simon Coghlan. Readers with comments to contribute are invited to send them as soon as possible, so that they can be considered for publication in the next issue.

The series is being coordinated by Dr Steven McCulloch, acting director of the Centre for Animal Welfare, University of Winchester. It aims to provide a framework that will help practising veterinarians find solutions when facing similar dilemmas.

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Simon Coghlan is a veterinarian and has a PhD in philosophy. He is currently a lecturer in health ethics and professionalism in the School of Medicine, Deakin University, Geelong, Australia. He writes on veterinary ethics, animal ethics and applied ethics.

Dealing with dogs that bite

You work as a veterinarian in an animal shelter. The senior vet tells you about a dog that was surrendered to the shelter after it escaped from its yard and, without provocation, attacked a person, causing them a laceration that required stitches. Someone has offered to rehome the aggressive dog, as they live in the country and have a fenced yard. They believe the dog is owed a second chance. The senior veterinarian disagrees saying: ‘Such dogs do not deserve to be in the community. They are a menace and should be destroyed’. Is it morally right for you to kill the dog?

Issues to consider

In 2018, an online petition to save the life of a dog in Germany garnered 290,000 signatures. ‘Chico’ had savagely attacked his owners, who bled to death. Authorities investigated placing Chico in a ‘secure facility for dogs with behavioural difficulties’ (Connelly 2018). Many were incredulous at the support for the dog. ‘I would personally chop its snout off if it killed my family’, said one blogger. ‘Europe has gone mad’, said another. ‘The lives of two people are worth less than a freaking dog? . . . Shoot the beast already’ (Martin 2018). The authorities euthanased Chico.

Authorities sometimes order the killing of dangerous dogs. But is it always ethical? Vets have duties both to their patients and to public safety. Dog bites are a public health burden. A 2018 UK study found that the ‘real burden of dog bites is considerably larger than those estimated from hospital records’ (Westgarth and others 2018).

Any thoughts?

Readers with views to contribute on ‘Dealing with dogs that bite’ should e-mail them to so that they can be considered for publication in the next issue. The deadline for receipt of comments is January 4, 2019. Please limit contributions to 200 words.

What level of public risk is acceptable? A dead dog poses no danger, but society also has non-lethal provisions for ‘dangerous’ dogs. When a dog causes violent harm, we may respond as the senior vet did: the ‘menace’ should be killed. A strong feeling that such dogs should be euthanased may persist even when the option of a secure facility is possible.

Possible way forward

Some people may worry that such secure facilities will be socially barren and will harm the dog’s welfare. That the dog will be better off dead, however, may be uncertain. Others might think that even secure facilities will not render the risks to society acceptably low. Even the promise of an Alcatraz for dogs will not change the minds of people who believe in the necessity of ‘destroying’ dogs that attack.

The blogger who was inclined to chop off Chico’s snout comes close to saying that such dogs deserve to die. Europe has a strange history of animal trials. In 1507, a young French pig was ‘convicted and sentenced for the . . . brutal murder of an infant. The pig was to be hung and strangled . . . from the fork of a tree right beside the local gallows’ (Srivastava 2007). In the USA, a circus elephant was publicly ‘executed’ after killing a spectator. Topsy’s death is immortalised in the 1903 film Electrocuting an Elephant.

Can non-human animals ever display moral behaviour? Some claim that animals do have moral agency in a minimal sense (Coghlan 2014, Rowlands 2015). Arguably, animals can exhibit fairness, unfairness, empathy and reciprocity (Bekoff and Pierce 2009). Careful observations, and reassessments of what moral agency is, have led some to this conclusion.

True, we now find animal trials amusing. Yet it does not follow that animals cannot display moral behaviours. We may think that a dog that attacks viciously without provocation is displaying moral behaviour – and is behaving morally badly – without also thinking the dog should be punished in a spirit of blame. After all, many believe that very young children can behave morally very badly, such as those who kill other children, without also believing that they should be blamed and punished by the courts. Instead, they should be helped and rehabilitated.

Let us assume in our scenario that the authorities have left the dog’s fate to you. Even if we think that the dog behaved morally very badly, this is not sufficient grounds for killing it. Animals should not be blamed and punished. We should determine how secure the fenced yard option is and whether it will allow the dog to have a life worth living. Ensuring public safety is vital, but it may be compatible with the dog living in a secured area.


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