Anyone who has loved a pet dreads the time when the pet seems to be suffering so much that you feel that the humane thing to do is euthanasia. But that decision is never obvious nor easy because there will be very bad days when you think that the time has come that are followed by better days and you are grateful you did not go through with the decision. This up-and-down can go through many cycles and you never get over the guilt of finally making the fateful and irreversible decision.
In this article Bernard Rollin, who is a professor of philosophy, animal sciences and biomedical sciences at Colorado State University, begins with some information that will shock and disgust anyone who has a pet.
In the 1960s, I knew people who, before going on vacation, would take their dogs to a shelter to be euthanized. They reasoned that it was cheaper to have a dog euthanized – and buy a new one upon returning – than pay a kennel fee.
But he says that in general people’s attitude towards pets has vastly improved.
Two decades later, I was working at Colorado State’s veterinary hospital when a group of distraught bikers on Harley-Davidsons pulled up carrying a sick chihuahua. The dog was intractably ill, and required euthanasia to prevent further suffering. Afterwards, the hospital’s counselors felt compelled to find the bikers a motel room: their level of grief was so profound that the staff didn’t think it was safe for them to be riding their motorcycles.
He says that this dilemma about when to put down a pet not only has deep emotional effects on the pets’ caregivers, it also affects the veterinarians who have to do the euthanizing.
In a paper that I published entitled Euthanasia and Moral Stress, I described the significant stress experienced by veterinarians, veterinary technicians and humane society workers. Many chose their profession out of a desire to improve the lot of animals; instead, they invariably ended up euthanizing large numbers of them, often for unethical reasons.
These ranged from “I got the dog to jog with me, and now it’s too old to run,” to “If I die, I want you to euthanize the animal because I know it can’t bear to live without me.”
In other cases, the animal is experiencing considerable suffering, but the owner is unwilling to let the animal go. With owners increasingly viewing pets as family members, this has become increasingly common, and many owners fear the guilt associated with killing an animal too soon.
Ironically this, too, can cause veterinarians undue trauma: they know the animal is suffering, but there’s nothing they can do about it unless the owner gives them permission.
He suggests ways to for pet caregivers to recognize when it is time.
Here is my suggestion to anyone who is thinking about getting a pet: when you first acquire it, create a list of everything you can find that makes the animal happy (eating a treat, chasing a ball, etc). Put the list away until the animal is undergoing treatment for a terminal disease, such as cancer. At that point, return to the list: is the animal able to chase a ball? Does the animal get excited about receiving a treat?
If the animal has lost the ability to have positive experiences, it’s often easier to let go.
This strategy can be augmented by pointing out the differences between human and animal consciousness. As philosopher Martin Heidegger has pointed out, for humans much of life’s meaning is derived from balancing past experiences with future aspirations, such as wishing to see one’s children graduate or hoping to see Ireland again.
Animals, on the other hand, lack the linguistic tools to allow them to anticipate the future or create an internal narrative of the past. Instead, they live overwhelmingly in the present. So if a pet owner is reluctant to euthanize, I’ll often point out that the animal no longer experiences pleasant “nows.”
That may help but I think the feeling of sadness and guilt never quite goes away. It is so for me with my first dog Copper whom I still miss even more than a decade later.