Companion animal euthanasia is on the agenda due to advances in veterinary treatments

NEWS AND COMMENT: In the UK, some veterinarians are questioning the judgement of cat and dog owners when it comes to a decision about when to euthanise their companion animal. It is one of the most difficult decisions to make. The timing of it is the difficult part. There are competing interests. And pet owners and veterinarians are somewhat in the dark about when to euthanise a companion animal because evaluating the state of mind of the animal is essentially guesswork based upon experience and knowledge.

Last moments of a cat before euthanasia
Last moments of a cat before euthanasia. Photo: Pinterest – in public domain
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There are two competing forces in countries where veterinary treatment is advanced. Technology is allowing veterinarians to treat companion animals to the same standard as physicians would treat humans in hospitals. And secondly, pet owners are increasingly relating to their companion animal as a member of the family. The animal is fully anthropomorphised. There is little difference between the pet and the child. In many ways this is a good thing. It means animals are equal to people in some homes.

This means that human caregivers treat their companion animals with great respect. This is truly an advancement in animal welfare. It does bring with it a complication. This attitude tends to push back the decision to euthanise and extend the decision to go on treating a chronically sick animal thanks to the advanced treatments.

The Guardian mentions an interesting case which I think is very illustrative of the problem. Lisa Kucyk, from Swansea, Wales, is the caregiver of Nambo, a dog with the canine equivalent of motor neurone disease. Kucyk has the best possible pet insurance. She has agreed, as has the insurer, veterinary bills totalling £20,000 of which she has had to contribute £3,000. Nambo is paralysed and Kucyk is able to keep him alive while she works at home, I guess because of Covid work-at-home policies.

She is clearly conflicted as to when to decide to euthanise Nambo. She must decide when the quality of life is such that it is the right thing to do. She has to try and get into the head of her dog. She says that the bills are worth it because Nambo is “a member of our family, and to be honest I prefer my dog over most people. He’s everything to me.”

This is completely understandable. And I’m not in any way criticising her. But her statement indicates that she is thinking about herself and what she wants and what’s good for her. Making a decision about euthanising your cat or dog is about what is right for your cat or dog. I’m not saying that her decision is wrong. Nambo may be enjoying life. In which case her decision is the right one.

Sometimes a decision is easier to make. When it is clear to an observant caregiver that their cat is suffering because of chronic pain and/or disability limiting life, the decision to euthanise can be made with a clear conscience. You need a good veterinarian who you can rely on to help you make an objective decision. It has to be a business decision divorced from your emotional connection.

One other problem is that, in the UK and countries, humans can’t euthanise other humans even when they are in chronic pain and terminally ill. So were not used to making these decisions. The mentality is to extend life as long as possible. Increasingly, however, humankind is beginning to understand and accept that a carefully controlled freedom to euthanise another human is the right course of action.

With pets there is no regulations to stop people euthanising their animals carelessly or for the wrong reasons. It does happen perhaps more than people want to know. It’s down to the individual owner to stand back, think objectively, think about the welfare of their companion animal, put aside their desire to extend the relationship and make that tortuous decision.

The last duty is to be there when the deed is done.

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