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opinion | Jerry Cianciolo

When is pet euthanasia unkind?

An Indiana woman left instructions that her German Shepard Bela be buried alongside her if a proper home couldn’t be found for her.Partners for Animal Welfare Society of Dearborn County

You stipulate in your will that when you die you want your dog put down.

Legally, you have the right, as she is your property.


Connie Lay didn’t think so.

When the Indiana native died last November, she left instructions that her German Shepard Bela be buried alongside her if a proper home couldn’t be found for her.

Lay perhaps knew that millions of animals are abandoned each year — many to languish in shelter cages or face inhumane treatment — and felt euthanasia was the more compassionate choice.

Her case underscores that for a pet’s last days, our obligations can be agonizingly nuanced.

In cases of a terminal illness or hideous accident, things are clear . . . or at least clearer.


Many who have clutched a paw as sodium pentobarbital was injected will, with watery eyes, say it’s the humane thing to do.

But when conditions are less severe, when our faithful friend is afflicted “only” with the assaults of age, what is our responsibility then? What are we to do, for instance, when her everyday existence is one of chronic misery?

Short of alleviating the pain, many will recoil at the thought of doing anything. “Well, I hope you won’t kill me when I’m old and gray,” they’ll say to those who would entertain an alternative course. But the analogy isn’t snug.

As humans, we play the central role in our health care. We decide what treatment, if any, we want. And even when incapacitated, life support can’t be withdrawn unless our wishes are spelled out in a living will.

With pets, of course, we make all the decisions.

Any vet will acknowledge that the lives of domesticated animals have been extended with medical advances. Practically every treatment available to humans is available now to animals, from MRIs to ultrasound, even laser surgery.

As one team of veterinarians states on its website: “There really is no limit to the available uses of these new 21st-century scalpel blades.”


On the Web, you’ll also find a University of Kansas newsletter touting advances in chemotherapy: “These modes of treatment can prolong an animal’s life by six months to a year or more.”

We applaud the breakthroughs. When our stricken pet rebounds, we’re overjoyed for the added years accorded by new therapies.

But remove these interventions for a moment — assume your pet is in the wild.

According to the ASPCA, the lifespan of a feral cat is under two years. Even a relatively long-lived African wild dog is lucky to reach its 11th birthday.

By contrast, with a chest of drugs and a litany of surgeries, we keep our canine and feline friends alive, if not frisky, for 15, even 20 years or more.

The consequence — and the price our animals pay — is old age with its omnipresent and degenerative afflictions.

Comes the day and a once-playful dog or cat isolates herself, legs too arthritic to move. She eats as if by habit and makes her presence known mostly by incontinence and low-grade moans.

At this stage, she has become an organism with vital signs and little else — thanks to us.

What is our responsibility now?

On the one hand, it’s abhorrent to consider ending her life. She’s a member of the family. She’s pictured on our Christmas cards. She’s a heartbeat at our feet, as Edith Wharton put it.

On the other hand, have we unnaturally lengthened her stay, overtaxed her organs and joints, and burdened her with an amalgam of old-age infirmities she wasn’t built for?


If so, does that put the onus on us to terminate a life that appears to be nothing but habitual pain?

“Appears to be” is, of course, the rub.

Other than distress, we don’t know how our loyal friend is feeling. And it’s near-impossible for us as humans to accept that any living creature, absent intolerable hurt, would choose death over life.

So, except in the severest of cases, we wait, using narcotics, anti-depressants even, to deaden the pain, consoling ourselves we can’t play God.

But is that compassionate — or unkind?

Some vets — a minority perhaps — would argue for euthanasia. Most others, abiding by their professional oath to prevent and relieve suffering, would continue to treat.

Regardless, to a person each would agree it’s an excruciatingly personal and emotionally fraught decision only the owner can make.

And never without anguish.


Nathaniel Morris: A dog’s lessons for one medical student

Tamed/Untamed: Psychological effects of pets are profound

Jerry Cianciolo is chief editor at Emerson & Church, Publishers. He can be reached at jerryjcianciolo@gmail.com.