SINGAPORE: Dr Siew Tuck Wah had waited five years for that moment.
In September 2018, the president of dog rescue charity Save Our Street Dogs (SOSD) had moved to a bigger house and this meant he could finally bring home Momo, a mixed breed that had lived in his shelter since 2013.
Momo is not any dog. As a puppy, it had started showing signs of aggression, like nipping at people. The problem got worse as it got bigger.
"When he grew up, his owners didn't correct his bad behaviour," Dr Siew, an aesthetic doctor, told CNA. "After that, they wanted to put him down."
Dr Siew was having none of that. He took Momo into his shelter, hoping it could one day find a new home. Chances were slim, however, and Dr Siew acknowledged that a lifetime in a shelter was not much of a life at all.
Now about seven years old, Momo stands at around 160cm on its hind legs, about as tall as its owner. It has food aggression, leaps at people and bites them. It needs a big space to run around.
While Dr Siew said he is "lucky" that Momo trusts him enough not to bite him that often, he still has to put in considerable time and effort to care for an aggressive adult dog. "You must be very careful," he said.
Dr Siew dog proofs the house, separates Momo from other members of the household – including his three other dogs – and ensures Momo eats by itself.
"When he first came, I had blood in the house for three months," he said. "Every day there would be a bite – (of a) human or another dog."
When he brings Momo out, he keeps it on a literal tight leash. "Just the other day, he fought with another dog. They really pull and try to run away," he added. "It's very difficult to care for this kind of animal."
THE BIG DEBATE
But not every dog is as lucky as Momo.
Veterinarians CNA interviewed said they've put down pets, including dogs, for aggression to protect public safety, although they said this makes up a tiny minority of euthanasia cases: The vast majority are for health reasons.
When owners ask to put down healthy pets for aggression, the vets said they conduct a thorough process to verify that behaviour and ensure owners have exhausted all other options, including training and rehoming.
Vets also said they quiz owners on these efforts, the family's and the pet's circumstances, and might recommend medicine to suppress the aggression. They could also observe the pet's behaviour at the clinic and at home, and recommend trainers and shelters.
But animal welfare groups are less convinced.
Dog rescue groups that CNA interviewed said while vets are the best judges of an animal's physical state, they might be less in tune with its character or temperament.
Some groups argued that vets, as human beings themselves, might pander to an owner's emotions. This is especially if, for instance, the owner comes in with a snarling dog and tells a story about how it had bitten a child.
That said, vets and animal groups agreed that owners are ultimately responsible for their pets, aggressive or not, with the groups saying it boils down to the amount of time, effort and money owners are willing to put in to save pets' lives.
THE CASE OF LOKI
The euthanasia of healthy pets has again been thrust into the spotlight, after a volunteer at a dog welfare group for Singapore Specials revealed on May 6 that one of its animals had been put down for apparent aggression.
In a Facebook post that has since been taken down, the volunteer at Exclusively Mongrels said Loki was adopted as a puppy and would have turned three soon. He alleged that Loki's owners did not seek help from the group before putting it down.
The case sparked outrage among some netizens who felt the euthanasia was not justified. Some have identified and exposed the alleged owners, and criticised the Mount Pleasant Veterinary Group that conducted the euthanasia.
"Veterinarians do not participate nor have influence in prior agreements made between a rehomer and an adopter, which is a private matter," the vet said in a statement on May 13.
READ: Case of euthanised dog to be investigated, AVS should be allowed to do its job 'without public pressure': Shanmugam
Politicians including Member of Parliament (MP) and animal activist Louis Ng have weighed in, with Mr Ng calling for new regulations on euthanasia. The Animal and Veterinary Service (AVS), formerly known as the Agri-Food and Veterinary Authority (AVA), has said it is investigating.
Exclusively Mongrels announced in a Facebook post on Thursday that it had on May 18 commenced legal proceedings against Loki's owner for what it said was a breach of the adoption agreement.
WHAT THE GUIDELINES SAY
The Code of Ethics for Veterinarians states that vets must consider euthanising animals to prevent unnnecessary suffering, but must first consider appropriate treatment options.
As far as possible, vets must get informed consent for euthanasia in writing, and may turn down euthanasia that isn't deemed necessary. The code, however, does not address the issue of putting down healthy animals.
But the Singapore Veterinary Association (SVA), which developed the code with regulators like the former AVA, said the euthanasia guidelines also cover public safety.
"This necessitates professional judgment by veterinarians to effectively apply the standards, laws and ethics that govern veterinary practice, factoring in animal health, animal welfare, public safety and safety of the pet owners," it said in a statement on May 12.
EXHAUSTING ALL OPTIONS
Regardless of the code, Animal and Avian Veterinary Clinic founder Dr Kenneth Tong said his team adopts a thorough approach when an owner comes in requesting to put down his dog for aggression.
The dog, he said, will be muzzled while its temperament is observed in the clinic and consultation room with zero or minimal restraint. Staff will also see how it behaves in public with other animals and people. These episodes will be recorded.
Dr Tong, who has more than a decade of veterinary experience, said he will ask for documented proof of injuries or hospitalisation due to injuries caused by the dog.
Besides that, owners should provide a "complete history" of the dog to the point of aggression, including potential triggers. This depends on how thorough the owner can be.
The owner must say how he has tried to correct the aggressive behaviour, including whether he has personally tried to train it or engage professional trainers, the number of trainers contacted, and the number and intensity of lessons.
With the owner's consent, Dr Tong could refer the dog to a behaviourist or trainer for further assessment. If not, he will offer some contacts.
The owner will also be asked if he has attempted to rehome the dog, including which adoptors and shelters he's contacted.
"The owner will then look into these alternatives, along with any medication, dietary changes and therapies, and take a period to decide the options," Dr Tong said. "That can be days to weeks to months of trying the different or combination of options."
VETS LIABLE FOR PET INFLICTED INJURIES?
Dr Frederic Chua, a vet at Allpets and Aqualife Clinic with 33 years of experience, said staff could also drop by the owner's home to observe the pet in its usual environment.
The clinic puts down three to four animals – mostly dogs – each year for aggression, a figure he said is already considered high.
"In a sense, you could say we try to do everything and find any excuse in order to save a pet’s life," he said.
"But we also have to consider the other side of things. For example, what if the pet, having gone through all these checks, retraining and treatment, continues to be a menace to the family and other other families?
"Then it becomes an ethical reason – public health, public safety. Then we have to be responsible in that sense."
Dr Tong said vets must make a professional judgment on whether there is "imminent danger of injury and safety towards the family and public, including legal liability of the decisions made".
"If a dangerous dog were to cause life threatening injuries, or even death, to a child, their owner or a member of the public, the vet who had refused to euthanise the animal would be considered partly responsible for these consequences," said Dr Gemma Hepner, a senior veterinary surgeon at the Animal Practice Veterinary Clinic and Surgery.
Ultimately, Dr Tong said his final decision would consider this public health and safety risk in relation to the pet's subsequent welfare.
"Confining an animal with limited movement area, chaining it continuously without the ability to bathe or groom it, or attend to its injuries for fear of being attacked, is in itself infringing on animal welfare," he added.
ANIMAL WELFARE GROUPS RESPOND
However, SOSD's Dr Siew said vets might not be the best people to assess an aggressive dog's behaviour. "Vets are good at assessing health, but not behaviour all the time," he said.
This, he said, is further complicated by the "difficult ethical question" that vets face: What happens to the pet if they don't agree to the owner's request, especially as many shelters face capacity issues?
When it comes to taking in aggressive dogs not originally from their shelters, SOSD, ASD and VFA will generally advise owners to look for trainers and alternative shelters or adoptors.
"If the vets say no, then the owner might go to another vet," Dr Siew said. "Vets have taken in dogs that owners have given up, and are themselves under a lot of stress and emotional burden as well."
Voices for Animals (VFA) founder Derrick Tan believes an owner could still "manipulate" a vet to put down a healthy pet for aggression despite not exhausting alternative options.
"It could be how owners had communicated with the vets, and how they had shared information with the vets," he said. "How much and how far the owner has gone, no one knows. It’s all words."
Echoing this, Action for Singapore Dogs (ASD) president Ricky Yeo said vets are also human beings who will react emotionally to a "snarling, growling dog" in the clinic.
"And the owner just rams it into the vet’s mind that this is aggressive," he said. "Then it fortifies that notion, and so the vet, maybe in a moment of emotional stress, may then take on that fateful decision to euthanise."
Dr Chua acknowledged that as with any industry, there will be "rotten apples". "That's what the code of ethics is for," he said. "To investigate and penalise vets, even to the extent of suspending vets."
OWNERS ULTIMATELY RESPONSIBLE
Nevertheless, vets and animal groups agree that owners are ultimately responsible for their pets.
Dr Chua said he's had owners who come in wanting to euthanise a dog that has evidently been cared for mainly by a maid. He turned down these requests.
On the other hand, he said he's seen families where every member of the household has been bitten by their dog, but they still love it and send it for training, despite it clearly not working.
"We also tried to use certain drugs as support for the training to help reduce the dog's anxiety or sedate it,” he added. “In spite of all that, the animal is still aggressive and cannot be handled.”
Mr Yeo, a certified dog trainer who's been in the industry for 20 years, admitted that a small handful of aggressive dogs cannot be helped as they are genetically imbalanced, and so he wouldn't object to their euthanasia.
But he said most can see an 80 per cent improvement in behaviour with suitable and sufficient training.
Still, rescue groups said owners opt for euthanasia as the cheapest and quickest option. A quick Google search showed euthanasia costs about S$200, compared to up to S$650 for 10 training sessions.
"Shelters can be full, but boarding places are always available," Mr Yeo said. "It’s down to cost, at the end of the day. If the family’s mind has been swayed, they don't want the dog anymore. They'll be looking for all sorts of excuses."
Then again, SOSD's Dr Siew accepts that owners might choose not to get in touch with animal welfare groups for fear of being scolded or harshly judged.
"Those worries are not unfounded," he said, noting that animal lovers will get angry with owners who want to give their dogs away for frivolous reasons. "There are some groups that are more outspoken, they tend to go online and say a lot of things."
Loki's case is no exception.
After the rescue group went public with it, some netizens blasted the Mount Pleasant vet on Facebook, with scathing comments like Loki's blood is on their hands, or that they're just doing it for the money.
One commentor wished grave harm upon their children.
In a Facebook post on May 13, Law and Home Affairs Minister K Shanmugam waded into the issue, saying it is unfortunate that some were coming to conclusions and questioning the vet's professionalism without all the facts.
"I think many who expressed their views, were genuinely upset, and may not have considered the effect their cyber comments may have on the targets," wrote the minister, known to be an animal lover.
The vets and rescue groups agreed that these types of comments are uncalled for.
Animal and Avian Veterinary Clinic's Dr Tong said vets are already devastated about putting down an animal, but are not able to show these emotions to appear strong for owners.
"A proportion of mental stress arises from what veterinarians think will be the public perception of them carrying out and suggesting such acts, without complete knowledge of the reasons behind it," he added.
"Having no avenue to clarify due to client-patient confidentiality, and the privacy or sensitivity offered to the grieving family, leaves veterinarians in an empty void all alone."
Over the years, numerous studies across the globe show higher rates of mental illness and suicide among veterinarians, sometimes up to four times that of the general population.
Dr Kevin Polglaze, chief veterinary surgeon at the Animal Practice Veterinary Clinic and Surgery, said vets like and respect animals, work long hours with disrupted rest, and earn less far less than doctors and dentists.
"Public abuse is all it takes to trip a vet to leave the profession, and in some cases take their life," he said.
BAD FOR EVERYONE
SOSD's Dr Siew said this "lynching of vets" will only be bad for animal welfare as vets become "very scared" of working with animal groups.
While ASD's Mr Yeo said social media can be used to apply the "right kind of pressure", he agreed that personal attacks mean no good will come out of the episode.
"Personal hateful comments just encourage more people to become a mob, and then in the end, the parties involved become very defensive," he added.
Instead, the rescue groups believe such matters should be settled calmly and maturely, with the end result being a push for change. In this case, it's a revised euthanasia protocol.
Mr Yeo would know. He said he had tried to train a seven-month-old adopted puppy, Tammy, that was eventually put down in 2013 due to aggression, sparking similar public outcry after a rescuer had offered to take it back.
The then-AVA, laying out its investigations, clarified that the vet had followed protocol and that the decision was ultimately the responsibility and right of the pet owner.
The five-month saga was only resolved after lawyers for the owner and rescuer met and issued a joint statement saying their clients agreed that rehoming Tammy would have been the better option.
While the rescuer remembered telling the owner she was finding Tammy a suitable boarding place with the intention of finding it a new home, the owner said she remembered the likely outcome for Tammy was a long-term boarding place – something she did not consider humane.
NEW RULES ON EUTHANASIA?
Following the incident, Mr Yeo said he and other animal welfare groups submitted a revised euthanasia protocol to the SVA for discussion with the then-AVA. While nothing has materialised until now, he is hopeful the Loki incident will put it back on the agenda.
The Nee Soon MP Louis Ng had also taken to Facebook on May 7 to renew calls for clearer rules on euthanasia.
He suggested that owners must show proof that an aggressive pet cannot be trained or rehomed, and vets go through a mandatory seven-day "cooling off period" for owners to reconsider their decision or rehome the animal.
The vets said they are wary of new regulations, pointing out these could be too prescriptive and rigid for a complex issue with many factors, and nuanced cases that need to be assessed individually.
Dr Tong, however, welcomed a revision of the ethics code to include guidelines that "empower the veterinarian to confidently carry out his or her decision in declining, offering alternatives or reaffirming euthanasia based on sound judgement without fear, pressure or ambiguity".
VFA's Mr Tan said he wouldn't question vets' professionalism, stating that they "go to school not to learn about euthanasia, but to help animals".
"There are no bad dogs, only bad owners," he added.