This week, we look at issues around the death of a pet. Anyone who loves and loses a pet knows the intense pain we feel when an animal companion dies. These are beings that give us unconditional love and look to us for their wellbeing. How we treat our pets, and how we treat the people we love, reflect our individual approaches to end-of-life care.
We humans agonize over choices we must make when a pet is sick, in pain, or suffering from deterioration due to advanced age. This Sunday’s Yoder and Sons column in the Wall Street Journal provides a perfect example. While it’s a personal finance column, and they pose the question “How much do we spend on a sick pet?” the dilemma is actually more complicated.
You can hear their dog Tex’s obvious pain in their descriptions. You can hear the love for Tex in their words. And you know that they face some very expensive veterinary procedures that could be undertaken in the hope of giving their dog a bit more time with the family, hopefully pain free. As Steve Yoder says, “At what price does an ailing pet cease to be family? $1,000? $10,000?”
An ailing pet never ceases to be family. As humans, we have the power to relieve their pain with humane euthanasia. A couple I know, Mark and Merri, made the painful choice to euthanize their suffering dog Lucky earlier this year. They recognized that no amount of medical intervention was going to improve his quality of life. The veterinarian came to their home and administered the shots in the back yard that he played in. He passed peacefully, cradled in their arms.
Mark explained their approach: “Merri and I started talking about euthanasia for Lucky months before it became inevitable. I’m glad we did. Though nothing makes the decision easy, I think it helped us both that we didn’t have to decide under any extra pressure. Even in the two month’s prior to Lucky’s death, we switched back and forth as to which of us was more ready to accept it. For a long time, I thought if Lucky had any good moments, they made life worth living. Eventually, I realized that five good minutes with a bone might not offset five hours pacing in pain. Not that it ever became a calculation, but it was an effort to gauge his quality of life.”
“I would stress how important and helpful it was to us to have him euthanized at home. We’ve had three cats euthanized at the vet’s. Although those euthanasia experiences were humane and compassionate, being at home and not adding the stress to Lucky or us of getting to the vet made a huge difference. The hardest phone call I ever made involved scheduling his death. I sobbed on the floor next to him after that. Having his long-time vet perform the euthanasia also helped us all. Turning the spot he last lived into a garden gives us an ongoing memorial to a great friend and loved one.”
Merri, who has an aunt dealing with terminal cancer, wondered aloud why we can’t treat human suffering in the same way they were able to relieve Lucky Dog of his pain. This gets into a whole “box of Pandoras” as Bruce King, the recently deceased former governor of New Mexico, would say. Oregon is the only state where physician-assisted suicide is allowed.
Humans can tell their families that they want to live, even if they are in pain and facing further deterioration. And many people will say they want to continue to live, in spite of pain and progressively downhill quality of life. Religious dictates, ethics, and most state laws lean toward the preservation of life at all costs. And that’s where it gets expensive, with our medical-industrial complex offering ever more invasive ways to stay alive.
Do we want to stay alive just for the sake of keeping on breathing? What kind of life is that? Hospice care can be so helpful, relieving pain, helping the family cope, and improving quality of life for so many terminally ill people. Yet, so many resist going on hospice care, until only a few days or weeks before the patient dies. Hospice does not mean you are giving up – it gives back the kind of life a person can best have until the very end.
Our animal companions cannot speak in words, but we can hear their pain. As caretakers of our pets, we are in the difficult position of choosing when and how to relieve their pain. Some will opt to take a medical intervention route, in the hope of postponing their grief over the animal’s death, relieving guilt by being able to say, “We did all that we can,” and spending a lot of money in the process.
Some will opt for humane euthanasia, surrendering to the inevitable that comes to all, whether animal or human. Yes, it avoids huge veterinary bills, but it also prevents a beloved pet from further suffering. I hope the Yoders will consult with all of their sons who shared the love of their dog Tex. From what they have described of their pet’s situation, I hope they choose to lovingly put their pet to sleep, there in the comfort of the family home, rather than subject him to more medical intervention that may not help.
As I write, my black cat Caesar is curled up in my lap. He was an outcast from a family down the street from us, taken in by the parents of a daughter who had moved to Spain. They already had cats and dogs who pushed Mr. Caesar around. He chose my husband and I two years ago, and we couldn’t be happier with him. He’s a healthy, if sometimes neurotic, 9-year old. When the time comes that he is no longer healthy and happy, then we will make the difficult decision to relieve his pain. I don’t look forward to that day, but enjoy him now, today, and every day.