Euthanasia: A Difficult Decision

The word euthanasia originated in ancient Greece. It is a composition of Eu and Thanatos, meaning good death. What exactly does that mean? Is death ever good?

While most of us agree that a life should never be taken casually, there are circumstances where the decision to euthanize is the right one. But what is a legitimate reason and who decides? Me? You? Society? The law?

The fundamental questions are whether taking a life is ever justifiable, and whether death can ever be preferable to life, no matter what that particular life looks like. This is exactly where we reach the great divide, the Grand Canyon that separates different attitudes, beliefs, and convictions.

Does every living thing have an inherent right to live? Can we decide who lives and who dies? If so, on what basis? Objective science or subjective opinion? Ask the patient? This is possible in human medicine, yet impossible when we face members of the animal kingdom.

We cannot talk to our pets to find out what they consider a good quality of life. We are unable to ask them whether or not they are still enjoying their life if they cannot move around freely, cannot play, are incontinent, blind, and deaf. We can only try to assess their quality of life by watching them. Yes, in the end, based on our own experiences and our knowledge of what they enjoyed throughout their lives, we do make quality of life judgements for them. Then we make a decision that is, hopefully, based on empathy and compassion.

No one wants their pets to suffer and yet this is another dilemma. Just as quality of life is something different for everyone, so is suffering. In addition to physical suffering, mental suffering should also be considered.

On the physical level, we can all agree that uncontrollable pain qualifies as causing suffering. However, with enough drugs patients can be made pain free. They are unconscious and unresponsive, but they are still alive. Or are they? What about animals who are slowly suffocating and gasping for breath?

In regards to mental suffering, how distraught is a dog who was housetrained and suddenly loses the ability to let her owner know when nature calls and begins messing in her house, one she was trained to keep clean? We can’t know. And we never will.

When is euthanasia an option? I don’t have a universal answer. Actually, in this case, I don’t believe there is one. We all have to find our comfort zone within our own framework of philosophical attitudes, moral values, and ethical belief systems.

As pet owners we should not shy away from this decision and our pet’s best interests should guide us.

The decision to euthanize an animal, especially one we have shared our life with for years, is one of the most difficult decisions there is. I believe that in the end we owe them a good death. Just as we have provided them with the best possible life.

In my opinion, euthanasia is a viable end-of-life option. It is acceptable, and yes, even preferable if the alternative would be an unacceptable quality of life. As a veterinarian, if I cannot help my patients in any other way, I am very proud and, yes even happy, to at least be able to provide them with a good death.

Article submitted by Dr. Sandra Neumann