A Blessing & A Burden


My dog of 14 years before he died. Pickles was deeply loved and is sorely missed. For the last year of his life, he was paralyzed. In addition to daily pain management, I had to carry him up and down the stairs and everywhere else. We made it a point to always have him in the same room with us so he knew how much we loved and wanted him around. When his pain became unmanageable and he was in the end stages of his disease, we said goodbye and ended his suffering. Picturing him on the floor of the vet’s office still drives me to tears. You can read about my life with him by clicking here.

Last year, I received a call from someone whose dog was near the end of his life. She told me that he was a 16-year-old dog who had nerve damage and no ability to use his back legs or hind quarters. For about a year, she took him for walks in a doggy wheelchair, but he no longer had the strength. She explained that she couldn’t leave the house for long periods because he couldn’t be left alone; she hadn’t gone on a vacation in years. Every other week, he became blocked and she had to help him defecate, an ordeal that kept her up all night with him and caused him pain. But most days, she said, he just relieved himself without control. Sounding embarrassed, she told me her house smelled like pee. But: he had a good appetite, had more good days than bad, and was genuinely excited and happy to see her. He still had the spark. The day when he no longer did would come, she knew; when there would be lots of bad days and he would he no longer find comfort in her gaze or caress. Is that when you know for sure it is time, she asked me?

More recently, another person told me of her 23 year old cat losing a battle with kidney failure. The cat was nearly blind and had suffered a stroke. Her person explained that she still had quality of life, was still eating and drinking and using the litterbox but that she was getting weaker. She said she had other kitty family members pass away naturally in her home before, and called it “heart wrenchingly horrible.” Is humane euthanasia, she wanted to know, truly humane?

This week, someone asked me a similar question. Her cat was also suffering from kidney disease and the daily sub-q fluids were not giving her the boost that they used to. Nonetheless, she still purred when she was being caressed and seemed to take genuine pleasure in being held. Should she opt for “euthanasia” when the time came, she asked?

Those who follow my work know that I am an unrelenting critic of shelter killing, that my efforts are focused on working to expose the myths and misperceptions upon which the systematic and needless killing of millions of healthy and treatable animals every year now rest, chief among them the myth that killing is kindness. I have worked for decades to expose that what happens to healthy and treatable animals behind closed doors in our nation’s animal shelters in no way bears a resemblance to the favored euphemism the animal sheltering industry uses to describe it – “euthanasia,” a word the dictionary defines as “the act of killing hopelessly sick or injured animals in a relatively painless way for reasons of mercy.” And I wonder if it is because of these efforts I am so often consulted on end of life issues by people who share my love of animals and want to make sure than in opting to take the lives of their beloved animal companions when the very end is near, they haven’t likewise been misled to believe that this sort of killing is also morally justified when it is not. The most I can offer when asked about such issues is to share my own experiences and struggles with the choice as it pertains to my own animals, struggles which time and again have ended with me opting to end their life.

As an adult, I have shared my life with many, many animals who have since left this world. In each case, it was always my hope that they would die peacefully, in their sleep, at home in my arms or that of one of my family members, but that has never happened. Although a few people have shared their experiences of letting their animals die naturally and did not regret it, describing it as “peaceful,” that has not been our experience. Each and every time, when death was near, suffering was evident, and we were never able to justify letting them continue to experience it. They were leaving the world, nothing was going to change that, and there was simply no reason we could think of to allow them to go on suffering to no greater end. For as one palliative care veterinarian once told us in what is the understatement of the year, “Dying is hard work.”

In my family, when one of our animals is dying, we do all we can to care for them for as long as possible after treatment has failed, including fluids, hand feeding, and pain killers. When they are truly dying, we wait for a combination of symptoms that demonstrate to us that the end is very near: not eating, incontinence, and no longer seeking or enjoying the comfort of me, my wife, and my kids.

And in those final moments when it became clear to me and my wife that our animal was in the last days or hours of life, and only when we could be fairly certain that a near death was inevitable, we have opted to take their lives. I wrote about one such time, about my experiences with one of those cats, Gina, and the struggle of not knowing what the right thing to do was. I wrote it in hope that it was a help and a comfort to others facing similar difficult and sad times. As I look back now, I believe I did the right thing.

I don’t begin to pretend to have all the answers here. And I am loathe to make blanket, definitive statements. With animals, we have the possibility of ending their suffering in a way the law, in most places, does not allow for humans. As such, we bear a tremendous responsibility; one that experience has taught me to regard as both a blessing and a burden.

For further reading:

For the Love of Dog

What is True Euthanasia?


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