03.11.08

Coming to terms with euthanasia

Posted in Philosophy at 1:31 am by ACR&S

Sorry there was no post Friday; our two ill animals continue to go downhill and there’s been a lot of other issues as well. So, while euthanasia is always a depressing topic, it’s something that’s been on my mind and I need to talk about it.


Euthanasia is not, and should not be, a bad word. Euthanasia can be performed for many reasons, but it is always a difficult choice and a difficult act to carry out. A responsible pet owner or rescuer really needs to think about what euthanasia means to them before they are faced with a crisis situation and must make a decision quickly.

The Why

“Our bodies break down, sometimes when we’re 90, sometimes before we’re even born, but it always happens and there’s never any dignity in it… It’s always ugly, always.” –House, MD – 01×01, “Pilot”

Terminally ill humans are usually able to understand their own impending deaths. Often they have coping strategies or personal beliefs which help them come to terms with their death and manage their pain. But animals do not have the ability to understand death or pain. All they know is that their body is no longer responding as it should; they may become disoriented and even frantic as they are attacked from within by a pain they cannot fight or escape.

Oddly, it often takes animals a long time to die, even ones with terrible injuries or advanced illness. They don’t seem to lapse into comas as easily as humans do, they continue to suffer right up until the end. So when an animal is so ill that her body is already dying, and all other methods are no longer able to keep her from suffering as her body weakens, euthanasia may be the only humane option.

The Moral Burden

Not everyone agrees on the use of euthanasia. For one thing, it’s very hard for a person who loves animals and respects life to accept responsibility for taking a life. The concept of karma can be used here – many people feel that when they take a life, it somehow damages their own soul. For some people, that karmic evil of killing does not outweigh the cost of the animal dying slowly in pain.

I feel that sometimes, when a dying animal’s caretaker resists euthanasia, it comes from more than one underlying reason. Partly there is the desire not to let go, not to have to say goodbye, a hope that just maybe something miraculous will occur and the animal will get better and everything can go back to how it used to be. But partly there is also the inability to shoulder that burden of being a “murderer”. Nobody should have to take on that burden, and I envy people whose pets die quietly in their sleep. But if you are an animal rescuer, at some point you will be faced with the choice: either assume the burden, or find help from someone who can.

But even when you know it has to be done, it’s hard, and it hurts.

The When

There comes a point in an animal’s illness where you know that it’s only a matter of time. At that point the focus changes from curing the illness to keeping her comfortable until nature takes its course. Thankfully, there are a variety of good analgesic drugs that can help with a lot of the pain. But some pain simply cannot be taken away by other means: The slow suffocation of an inoperable lung tumor; the progressive poisoning of kidney failure; the self-destruction of autoimmune disease. There is also the increasing fear an animal experiences when her body starts failing her. The immobilization of paralysis feels no different than the grasp of a predator’s talons to a little brain with no ability for higher distinctions.

But animals, especially prey animals like guinea pigs and rabbits, also hide their pain as part of their evolved strategy for camouflage from predators. The caretaker must rely on more subtle cues to determine that the animal’s pain is no longer adequately controlled. Breathing becomes more labored, movements become weak, she can no longer eat or defecate.

Sometimes, in addition to pain, we also need to evaluate the animal’s quality of life to determine if our efforts are no longer doing any good. An animal who is in no pain but cannot move, eat, groom, or socialize is as good as in a coma. I had a rabbit who lived with me for nearly three years after being diagnosed with terminal cancer. She was unable to keep herself clean, and required special housing and daily butt washing to keep her from developing urine scald. But her pain was managed, and she could still muster an enthusiastic if weak dance for her veggies. The day that she could no longer dance, could no longer even eat her favorite treats, was the day I knew she was waiting for me to help her die.

The How

When you are the caretaker for a critically ill animal, you have to prepare yourself in advance for the day when you have to make the decision. Everyone will have a different decision point. For some, even the smallest amount of pain is unacceptable and cause for euthanasia. For others, it only comes when every other course of action has been exhausted.

You should make arrangements with your vet in advance. Some people prefer not to subject their pets to a last terrifying ride to the vet’s office, so many vets will perform in-home euthanasia, allowing the animal to die surrounded by family and familiar surroundings. If this is your wish, call your vet and let them know your intentions, so you can find out if there are any limitations on time of day or on which vet is able to perform this service. You may also wish to consult the local 24-hour emergency vets, just in case your decision ends up having to be made at 2am on Sunday morning. You may also wish to make payment in advance. You are going to be sad or even distraught when the time comes, and you don’t want to have to fumble for your credit cards. Most vets will happily place a credit balance on your account for this, and simply send you a refund for any unused amount after the crisis has passed.

For small animals, a two step euthanasia process is usually recommended. First the animal is anesthetized with isoflourine gas – the same anesthesia used in routine surgery. In at-home euthanasia, the vet may use IV or subcue narcotics to sedate them instead. Once the animal is asleep and unable to feel anything, the euthasol is injected directly into the heart to stop it. This is by far the quickest and most painless method.

You will have a choice of options regarding aftercare. If you wish for a necropsy, your vet will need to get the animal’s body to the lab right after euthanasia, although it can usually be returned to you later. Many vets offer cremation services, either with or without ashes returned. If you plan to bury your pet personally, check your local city statutes – some urban areas do not allow animal burial within the municipal limits! Go ahead and plan in advance what you would like, so you are not trying to decide in the midst of a crisis situation.

Going On

There are a variety of resources available on the Internet to help with pet loss and grieving. Be assured that grieving is normal – anyone who criticizes your grief by saying “it’s just an animal” has no idea of what it is to be able to love another creature, much less to lose that love. Someone like that is worth no retort except your pity.

I sent the following in an email to a friend who lost a guinea pig she had just rescued. She needed to be reminded why we are the ones to take on this burden, why others pretend death doesn’t exist because they let their animals get sicker and sicker and then dump them in a shelter:

Sometimes we have to rescue animals not just from a bad home, but from life itself, in the cases when every breath is agony. Someone has to be willing to take the responsibility for ensuring a peaceful death rather than letting them continue in torment.

Comfort yourself that you gave her a priceless gift – she died warm, comfortable, loved, and mourned, rather than unnoticed and unappreciated. A midwife, who helps a soul come into the world, plays a cherished and honored role – how can someone who helps at the other end of life receive any lesser accolades? You did a wonderful and generous thing for her simply by easing and marking her passing.

Even for a rescuer, it never gets easier.

Comments are closed.