Sunday, January 18, 2009


When I was a freshman in college, my mother called to tell me that she and my father had decided to euthanize our family dog, a beagle-terrier mix that my father had bought for the family at an animal shelter when my sister and I were very young.

P.J. -- named for my sister, Patti, and myself -- had been sick since before I went off to school, suffering from a tumor that the veterinarian believed to be inoperable.

It was a difficult telephone call, but I remember feeling odd that I wasn't as upset as I thought I should have been. Partly I was preoccupied with settling into my first semester of school, but also for several months I had understood that our dog would likely not make it through the end of the fall semester.

The memory wafted up after a reader from Waunakee, Wisc., wrote with a question about her pets.

"We love our dog and cats," she writes, "and they have been a source of great comfort and love for us. But now they are getting old. At what point do we let them die in peace or put them to sleep?"

My reader knows that her veterinarian can sell her many medical supplies that will help keep the animals alive for a few more years. She points out, however, that these items cost a great deal of money.

"Just a few years ago," she continues, "there was no treatment for these illnesses, and we would have kept them comfortable until we had to euthanize them."

Advancements in veterinary science have made it possible to prolong a pet's life longer than before, but she's not sure that it's the right thing to do.

"How do we make these decisions now?" she asks. "How do we take care of our pets, whom we dearly love, without wiping out all of our savings? Where do we draw the line without betraying our pets?"

Hers is a question that will likely be faced eventually by all pet owners except the very elderly and those who live with long-lived parrots or tortoises. It's a highly personal decision, but one that requires some pointed questions.

To start with, how will keeping a pet alive affect its quality of life? Simply because there are surgeries that can be performed, or medicines that can be administered, doesn't guarantee that a pet won't continue to suffer from an underlying disease or from the decline brought on by the aging process.

My reader also needs to consider how taking extraordinary measures will affect her own quality of life, however. Will the expense of medicine or surgery for her pets leave her unable to pay her day-to-day bills? Will it force her to forgo putting aside money for a child's education or the purchase of a home?

The questions about costs should, of course, be asked by anyone with a pet, regardless of its health. If you can't afford to own a particular pet without jeopardizing your own standard of living, then -- for the sake of the pet and for your own sake -- it's best to find a home for the pet with a family that can better afford it.

The right thing for any pet owner to do, when the pet nears its end, is to discuss these issues with a veterinarian who can lay out the options. As long as it is made thoughtfully and not capriciously, the decision to conclude a pet's life is not a matter of betrayal but rather of deciding how best to let a beloved member of the household live out the end of its life.

c.2009 The New York Times Syndicate (Distributed by The New York Times Syndicate)


Anonymous said...

Euthanizing pet dog must be a bad experience for someone
Dog Stair

Anonymous said...

Well, I probably should not have read this particular article because this is a soapbox issue for me!

I agree with Jeffrey when he says that if you do not feel you can afford to provide your pets with adequate care then you should find another home for them. It is the same as if you adopt a dog but will be traveling all the time and will not be able to take care of the dog and give it enough attention. Do the right thing for the pet.

When you choose to adopt a pet you should take many things into consideration: Do you have enough time to care for the pet, enough room, will it fit into your family, etc. However, you should also take into consideration the long term care of the pet, not just the short term when they are young and healthy. Pets are not disposable, you should not get rid of them or kill them just because it is no longer convenient for you. So you have to realize that when you adopt them it is for the long term, in good times and in bad.

A very good friend of mine is a veterinarian and whenever a client of his adopts a young pet he tells them to consider the future. He tells them to either invest in pet insurance, which is available through many different organizations, or to start a savings account for their health care. This is a very practical approach to something that is very likely to happen.

Many new procedures and drugs are now available for our pets. This is a great thing! It is not wrong to go the extra mile for a pet. Many times a newer procedure,operation or drug will extend the life of a pet, and at the same time improve the quality of the pet's life! A great example of this is hip replacement surgery. While this is not always the best choice for every pet, more often than not it will give the pet many more years of pain free life. This operation is expensive, there is no doubt about that. However, I think it is extremely unethical to deny the pet the operation and either doom it to pain for the rest of its life, or to "put it down" because you chose to put the money towards a new house rather than do the right thing. This is, of course, if the operation is warranted for that particular pet. If you can't afford the operation because it will keep you from being able to feed your family then you should look at other options. Many vets offer payment plans, and if you do your research there are also many groups that offer assistance to people in need. You can also ask your vet if there is a "Good Sams" fund that you can apply to. Many of the large vet practices that deal only in specialty vet medicine have funds to help pets in need whose caregivers can not afford the health care.

The way I look at it there are far too many people take the easy way out. I cringe whenever someone says "I had to put my pet down". So many times you have so many other options available to you and you just simply chose to put the pet down rather than explore those options. Sometimes it isn't even your fault, sometimes the vet will assume that you won't want to look at other, sometimes more expensive options so they won't even give you those options. They do this because they are afraid you will become angry with them and will stop using their services. I take the opposite approach, if they don't tell me all the options available for my pet I will walk away from them. It is up to me how I spend my money, not them. Their job is to offer the best medical care they can for my pet, not to worry about my reaction. But then that is another ethical question!

Look, the facts are that when a pet comes into this world they have no choice at all as to where they live, how they are treated, when they get to eat, what they get to eat, who they get to play with, or really anything at all. And in return for living their life according to our whims they give us unconditional love! Isn't that amazing, they still love you even when you lock them outside and ignore them! It is our responsibility to reward this love and affection with the best care we can give them. And that includes the best health care available. When you adopt a pet, start a savings fund or buy pet insurance. If you already have pets, start saving right now, don't wait until it is too late and you are faced with an even tougher decision.

Do the right thing.