The necessary and final duty of a responsible pet owner
When acquiring a new puppy or kitten the furthest thing from an owner’s mind is the end of their pet’s life; however, this is a reality that one should consider before getting a pet like a dog or cat. For most healthy adults under 65, the fact that you will out your pet is all but inevitable. In general a cat may be expected to live anywhere from 15-20 years. This age range is almost equivalent for small dogs, but large dogs like St. Bernard’s, and Great Danes often live much shorter lives. Furthermore, depending on the breed and the skill/knowledge of the breeder, a purebred animal can succumb to many breed specific disorders that can lead to an untimely death which no amount of love, money, or veterinary care can prevent. So as much as one loves animals, one should always ask themselves if in their final moments, will they be able to let them go.
Having volunteered and worked in multiple clinics, this is something I have become accustomed to. The doctor informing the client that there is little more they can try, they can make a referral but do not see the point, the animal is suffering or will surly suffer shortly. The doc finishes the dreaded sentence “At this point it is not unreasonable for you to consider euthanasia.” A good vet will never make the decision for you. At the end of the day, as the owner of an animal, this is a decision you should be making for yourself. Part of this is due to the possibility of litigation. It is possible that should a vet recommend euthanasia and the owner second guesses later that legal action may be taken. The other part pertains to morality and ethics. It is considered unethical in many if not all situations to pressure someone into making such a choice, regardless of how much you may want to. When an animal is suffering incurably, and intolerably, the most compassionate decision (I believe) is euthanasia, but a veterinarian should not make that choice for you.
One of the vets I met as a student volunteer once told me something that stood out in my mind so clearly that I remember it to this day:
“The hardest thing in veterinary medicine is not performing euthanasia, we do it to relieve pain. The hardest thing is informing an owner that their animal is going to die, and either they decide to kill a friend or let them suffer.”
I too have watched people agonize. The unexpected realization on their faces that slowly gives way to an unspeakable pain. Even if you know in your heart it is the right thing to do, you will second guess yourself, feel guilty, a sense that in an effort to relieve pain you must betray the very instincts that make you human. As a veterinary professional one develops a certain detachment. You cannot morn the death of every animal that passes through the natural cycle of life and death and keep your sanity, yet some deaths do hurt more than others and you always feel it when its your own animal.
Growing up in a house with many pets, I have watched many a euthanasia. Each time my heart felt like it was being forcibly shattered, then stuffed into my stomach such that I could taste the pain better. A few months ago, we made the decision to euthanize one of our cats. Her name was Kitty. Kitty came to us in fall when I was just 4 years old. My mother and I were at the post-office when two boys on bicycles stopped to ask us directions to the nearest vet clinic. They were not much older than I was at the time and they held in their arms a small black kitten they had found and did not know what to do with. My mother, responsible adult that she was, offered to take it. We grew up together. Kitty was a constant presence on my bed. When I graduated elementary school, I came home and snuggled her. When I returned home from University for the holidays she was there purring in the corner. When I went to sleep her head was on my shoulder, hence why I sleep on my back. Over the last few years though, she had begun to decline. Her teeth were decaying but she was anesthetic intolerant. The arthritis was getting worse every month. Her creatinine was slowly climbing despite the expertly formulated renal diets. She was loosing weight, but she continued to lie there every night and purr profusely. Then one day the purr stopped.
We had been looking into the possibility of a dental referral, but her kidneys were too far gone. In my heart I knew it was futile but I still went to the appointment. My mother and I discussed it in the car. We agreed that we would euthanize if they said she wasn’t a candidate for the dental surgery. She was skinny, unkempt, and no longer purred. I knew what they would say. They did the pre-op blood work and it came back as expected. I began to say, “I knew this was a possibility, in that case we are ready to euth…” My mother stopped me. “Actually I’d rather go home now… to think.” Ultimately we ended up returning home. That night we cried buckets. We gave kitty her favorite meal, patted her, made a fuss of her. Reluctantly I agreed to keep her on pain meds until my mother was sure.
A few days passed. With the amount of medications she was on, Kitty was likely comfortable, but that weekend during the night she left my bed and curled up in the coldest corner of the room. No purr escaped her throat, no head on my shoulder. We finally agreed it was time. In fact, I felt we’d waited too long. We drove to the clinic in silence. As the legal owner, only my mother could authorize the procedure. I paid ahead of time. I went in with her.
First the vet injected a ketamine based sedative. This, such that the animal will not will feel the final injection or so we hope. After 10 minutes, she was asleep. At this point a butterfly needle was inserted and a lethal dose of Euthasol was delivered. She was dead in seconds, and would suffer no more. We took her body home an buried her in the garden. A chill hung in the house. That night I cursed myself for having let her go as far as I did. I could hear my mother choking on her tears in the other room. The thing is, I know if I had done it sooner, before the will to live had left her, that I would wonder if I’d made the right choice. There is no way one can “win” in theses circumstances. Kitty was 19 years old and had far surpassed the lifespan of the average feline. She lived the best life we could provide surrounded by those that loved her. Even with that knowledge, the next several weeks passed in a deep depression. I often look at the corner of my bed and feel as though a piece of my heart has gone missing.
One thing I think people that do not own pets are unaware of, is that an animal cannot simply be replaced like changing a lightbulb. Each animal is unique, has its own personality, preferences, and habits. To say “just get a new one” is like suggesting to a bereaved parent that they can replace their lost child. We have other animals, but just as they are individually unique and special, the loss of Kitty is also unique and cannot be fixed. One moves on slowly and as their heart permits them.
To be a pet owner is to understand death. It is to make the tough decisions when they need to be made. No one can tell you when the right time is, but sometimes you just know. Some cope better than others, but before getting an animal you should always be aware that someday you will have to face an indescribable inescapable pain.
So why at the end of the day would a person choose to subject themselves to this kind of suffering? I think the answer is obvious. Kitty was a cat of many fine qualities. Her warmth, her gentleness, the grace with which she carried herself, her patience for my long one-sided conversations, and most of all her deep and penetrating purr. I defy anyone to argue that her presence in my life did not make it infinitely better. At the end of the day, I know we gave her a live full of love, and that she passed peacefully. Euthanasia should be first and foremost, an act of love and mercy. With hope, one emerges from the experience of pet ownership a better and kinder person than they were before, and is able to find room in their heart for the next animal to grace their lives with its presence. Kitty will be remembered. She will be missed. And while I shall have other animals, she will never be replaced. I will hold her in my heart as a precious and cherished memory that filled my life with love.
After euthanasia, life moves on and so do we. I hope that you have found this article helpful.