Euthanasia of animals

As a veterinarian the issue of euthanasia is never really far away.  Not many weeks go by that I don’t get asked to put someone’s dog or cat to sleep, or the euthanise some stray possum or bird, and having now been practicing in the same location for nearly 20 years the animals that I get to euthanise are often ones that I’ve know their whole lives.

During the course of the euthanasia visit I often hear “this must be the hardest part of your job”, and truthfully I think perhaps it is. Sometimes we joke about it, and often we make light of it, and certainly after a while we become inured against it so it doesn’t always feel like the hardest part of the job.  At other times it might be our own companion whose suffering (and life) we seek to end, and the terrible reality of death and loss hits home.

It’s hard because of the emotions that are involved, and the loss and the grief that accompanies death and the end of that very special relationship that we call the human-companion animal bond, and it’s hard because there has to be a decision made to place a definite end point on what is nearly always a shifting and unpredictable decline.  It’s hard because as vets we are often asked to arbitrate, to weigh up the case for life against the case for death – to play god, you might say.

The ancient greeks included Thanatos in their pantheon.  He was the daemon personification of death, and is the etymology of eu thanatos or a good or easy death.  By signalling the idea of a good death we must acknowledge that there is the possibility of a bad death, and by the practice of euthanasia it is clear that a bad death is what we seek to avoid.  Most obviously we seek to avoid the protracted pain and suffering that death from disease might bring, but perhaps we also seek to avoid the discomfort that we might feel in watching what we think is pain and suffering in another.  Do we practice euthanasia for our patients’ sake, or for our own?

To properly explore the idea of euthanasia in animals, I will start by posing some questions that I see as being raised by the concept and process of ending the life of another, and then attempting to consider possible answers.

Is death to be feared?

Is there such a thing as a ‘good death’, or a ‘bad death’?

Is it OK to hasten death?

Are pain and/or suffering bad per se?

Is there a ‘right time’ to die?

Who should decide when that time is?

And maybe all this might lead to some harder questions, like why is it OK to kill some members of your family and not others, based on what species they belong to?

I’d love to hear people’s responses to these thoughts and questions so far, so if you feel moved to say anything on the subject then please add your comments below.   Feel free to add questions, statements, beliefs or comments of any kind, or links to relevant web pages or references to texts that you know of that address these issues.   More tomorrow….


3 Comments (+add yours?)

  1. Heidi
    Sep 29, 2011 @ 18:36:52

    I have too much to say about this, which inevitably means I’m finding it impossible to say anything at all.

    But I do want to say that I’m of the unpopular opinion that animals are property, and there IS a divide between human beings and other species that requires different sets of decision making processes. This by no means implies that you can’t form as strong emotional connections to animals as you can to people, or that you can do whatever you like to animals – there are still right and wrong ways to treat pets, obviously, but ultimately, your pets belong to you and you’re responsible for making decisions for them.

    Which is my very convoluted way of saying – every owner will have different answers to the questions you posed, but at the end the death of an animal IS the owner’s decision.

    The rest of what I think about death etc is quite rambling and inconsistent, so maybe I’ll leave it for the next time I visit. I do have writing on the subject I could link you to if you wanted, but again – rambling and inconsistent, and most of it not really relevant.


    • bikenarian
      Sep 29, 2011 @ 21:00:17

      Thanks HCCBB – I appreciate your thoughts, and I’d appreciate links to your rambling and inconsistent writings too please.
      Your opening line about having too much to say, and therefore finding it hard to say anything, is interesting. This blog post has been viewed by more than 30 people, but you are the only one to comment. What does this mean?


      • Heidi
        Sep 30, 2011 @ 09:46:27

        The most relevant piece of writing I have on this particular topic, is this: . I wrote it in 2009 though, and it’s overdue for an update. It never got completed ’cause the person I was writing it for isn’t around anymore. There’s more recent stuff, but this journal’s been locked since 2010; tell me if you’d like access.

        Maybe I’m the only one to comment because the rest of your watchers are super busy people? 🙂

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