Cruelty or compassion?

Some newsroom colleagues wince when they hear the phrase "pet story," but the prominence of animals in home life is hard to deny, as reader response to the Home section's July 25 package of pet stories can attest.

Statistics back that up too. The percentage of U.S. households with a dog most likely falls between 37% (the estimate of the American Veterinary Medical Assn.) and 46% (the estimate of the American Pet Products Assn.). Cat ownership is estimated at 32% or 38%, depending on which organization you trust. The amount that Americans spent in 2008 on veterinary healthcare: $11.1 billion.

So it comes as no surprise that readers wrote in by the dozens about our cover story on Cotton, the 35-pound white puffball with a penchant for biting people, including a Los Angeles Times photographer.

Cotton's owner, Diane R. Krieger, wrote a first-person account ("Cotton's New Bite") detailing her family's failed attempts to solve the problem.

Faced with rejection from rescue groups and the possibility that Cotton might have to be euthanized, Krieger tried a much-debated procedure called canine disarming in which the dog's four sharpest teeth are cut down and made flat, theoretically rendering the dog less dangerous and, ultimately, less aggressive.

Among those who wrote in were veterinary professionals.

"This is a behavioral problem, not a dental problem. Therefore, it is best addressed by behavioral therapy, not by invasive and radical dental treatment," wrote Shane N. White, a professor at the UCLA School of Dentistry, who added: "The specific laser and pulpotomy dental techniques used in Cotton's case lack any long-term scientific clinical validation of their efficacy or safety."

But Bud Stuart, veterinary doctor who lives in Santa Barbara, wrote to say he performed a similar type of procedure more than 40 years ago with success. "Just put this approach down under the title of 'Nothing new under the sun, only the old retold.' "

Some readers expressed empathy, using words such as "heart-wrenching" to describe the dilemma of loving pets that get overly aggressive and defensive of their families.

Ventura dog trainer Joan Hunter Mayer wrote to say that it was clear from Krieger's account just how much she cared for the dog. Though Mayer would have recommended different solutions, she could sympathize.

"I'm sure she didn't want to go this route," Mayer said later by phone. "There are a lot of people who would have just euthanized the dog or dumped it at a shelter or dumped it in the middle of nowhere."

Other readers, however, weren't so understanding. "Appalled," "outraged" and "disgusted" were adjectives of choice, some likening canine disarming to mutilation and a form of animal cruelty. Trainers accused Krieger of giving up on behavior modification or muzzles too fast. Others took her to task for trying electric fences and Cesar Millan, the self-anointed dog whisperer.

Since the story was published in The Times and then picked up elsewhere online, Krieger reports that she has endured a barrage of scathing criticism. Many called for her to euthanize the animal, though it's beloved by the family and has never posed any danger to children -- only to adults whom Cotton perceived as a physical threat to Krieger.

She says canine disarming was not a magic cure, that Cotton still attempts to bite and that anyone considering the procedure should not have false hope. Though she does think the surgery reduced the dog's potential to cause serious injury, she is revisiting behavior modification and is hoping a commitment to that approach, long-term, will work.


For a story on breed profiling, the practice among some homeowner insurance companies to deny coverage or raise rates for customers who own certain types of dogs, a few readers wrote to criticize our photo selection of pit bulls. "This photo easily serves to perpetuate the pit bull terrier's undeserved and false reputation of a mean, ugly, vicious, and undesirable pet," Pamela Amodeo-Morris of San Pedro wrote. "You could not have selected a more unappealing image."

More than a dozen readers also responded to Emily Green's article, which asked the difficult question: As veterinary care advances and costs skyrocket, what criteria should one use to decide whether to extend a life that may not have much left in it?

"Wow, it sure has been a long time since a newspaper article made my eyes well up with tears. Sure, there are stories that break your heart, but with no connection it is easy to become detached," reader John Underwood wrote. "Thanks for a touching story."


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