Those eyes, those beautiful eyes, which, for so many years have looked at us with love, laughter, and joy implore our mercy, and yet there is nothing for it. You hold them tight, sobbing all the while, as the doctor administers that last needle and our friend sleeps forever. And we weep as we return home and put away the beds, toys, and dishes once enjoyed by our dearest companions and we weep some more.
When I ran across this New York Times article by Jessica Pierce I knew I had to share it. I hope it helps you decide when it’s time to say goodbye:
ODY died peacefully last year, Nov. 29. He was 14 and a half. Truth be told, Ody didn’t just die. I killed him. I paid a vet to come to my house and inject a chemical solution into a vein in Ody’s back leg.
People ask me how I knew it was time. There was no watershed, but a slow accumulation of miseries. Ody had been in serious decline for six months. Partial paralysis of his laryngeal muscles made it hard for him to breathe, and he would begin to pant at the slightest exertion. His once deep tenor bark had transformed into a raspy Darth Vader croak. The signals from his addled brain often failed to reach his body, so when I walked him he left a Hansel and Gretel trail of pee and poop behind him. His muscles atrophied, and his walk was crab-like and unsteady. He grew increasingly uninterested in food and people, his two great passions. Worst of all, he began falling more and more frequently and was unable to get up by himself.
Toward the end, I would wake in the night to scuffling sounds. I’d search the house and find Ody trapped behind the piano or tangled up in the exercise equipment. It was on the fourth such night that my husband said: “It’s time. We can’t do this to Ody anymore.”
Euthanasia is deeply entrenched in the culture of pet keeping in America, and for the vast majority of companion animals, death will be orchestrated by a human caretaker, the time and date chosen in advance and not, as it were, decided by “nature” or some higher power. Yet despite its ubiquity, we rarely question its moral appropriateness.
Euthanasia is typically thought of as a choice between suffering and death — and, indeed, it can offer relief from unyielding pain. But death is too often prescribed as a de facto treatment for suffering when much less aggressive possibilities exist. We can ease our animals into the valley of death, rather than abruptly shoving them off the cliff.
Pain is the barometer most often used to assess whether an animal should be euthanized, and one of the most important improvements we can make in caring for our pets is to provide them with better palliative care. Untreated or undertreated pain is epidemic among companion animals. Kevin Stafford, an authority on veterinary ethics, estimates that 10 million dogs in the United States suffer from osteoarthritis but that only a small fraction get treatment. Of those dogs that do, he says, many are treated ineffectually or are given too little pain medicine for too short a time. The only treatment many arthritic dogs receive is euthanasia.
Effective and affordable pain treatments for animals are available; many human pain drugs were developed using animals. We can also lessen the pain for ailing pets with structural alterations to our homes, like ramps.
Why, then, are so many animals in pain? The reasons are largely cultural. Some veterinarians, particularly older ones, have been taught that animals don’t feel pain (the same convenient skepticism under which the animal research juggernaut labors). Few vets specialize in palliative care, and treating pain effectively takes a tenacity that harried and underpaid vets may find difficult to muster on a daily basis. And pet owners can be inattentive, even lazy.
To be sure, animal pain can be tricky to recognize and treat. Cats and rabbits are notorious for their so-called stoicism, but dogs, too, may not display pain in ways we easily see. As with humans, responses to pain vary. Effective pain management often requires trial and error with various types of drugs, as well as the use of non-drug therapies like weight management, controlled exercise, physical therapy, massage, acupuncture and nutritional supplements.
Pain must be understood broadly, as it is in human medicine, to include psychological suffering. Ody’s physical ailments were mostly caused by neurological decline. The fact that he wasn’t obviously in physical pain made the decision to euthanize a difficult one, because I was left to make an imperfect judgment about his overall well-being.