Animal euthanasia

So I arrived at the clinic yesterday morning, it was my Saturday for the month (there are four of us, we take turns). Saturday mornings usually extend well into the afternoon, with non-stop appointments. The two young techs immediately informed me that Bad Things were waiting in the cages at the back. Namely, a very sick but still powerful and aggressive Bernese Mountain Dog, and two abandoned cats plus six kittens scheduled for euthanasia because no one would even consider taking them in: they had fleas, ear mites and cat flu.

Great. Just when I had been reflecting that the ratio of euthanasias for unwanted and generally healthy versus terminally ill patients had been noticeably decreasing over the nearly 10 years I’ve been working as a vet, this happens. I like to think I’m in a transitional position as a member of the class of 2000: I’m just old enough to remember the bad old days when the general public considered pets to be infinitely disposable, young enough to see the shift in attitude, and yet not quite young and unburdened enough by experience to act as if such disposal is completely unacceptable. I’m also in a rural region where we have only the barest of resources to take care of abandoned animals: municipalities still rely on the vet clinic to dispose of found animals, and I’m always afraid that one day we will euthanise someone’s animal before it can be traced. It’s happened, I’m sure. Everyone who works at the clinic has adopted at least one found animal in recent years. This past year, I’ve taken in two fosters, but only managed to have one of them adopted out. So besides my three house cats, there are now five cats in the barn competing for affection and warm spaces. Sometimes, too, we will let a particularly appealing stray kitten or cat wander around the offices or lie in a sunbeam in the waiting room, and if we’re lucky, someone will adopt it on the spot.

Well, by the time I’d examined the big bad sick dog and counted the cats and kittens (do not look too long, that is the rule), and called the dog’s owner with the desultory news, the waiting room was starting to fill up, so I put off the euthanasias till the end of the morning, and told the techs to call a small independent shelter about the cats, promising I would supply the flea and mite treatments.

In the middle of the morning, my boss and colleague arrived. He’s 10 years older than me, which puts him in that class of vets who are very seasoned, seen-it-all types who are adjusting like everyone else to a changing economic climate and increasing demand for sophisticated care and diagnosis. He can remember when all we had to do was say “your dog has a tumour” and that was enough for people to request euthanasia on the spot, no questions asked. Today, we have veterinary oncologists who seem to have a never-ending supply of updates for us plodding generalists on sophisticated staging techniques for tumours, MRIs, and the best combination of drugs, radiation therapy and surgical approaches to treat every single type of tumour. I really appreciate their work for many reasons, among them is that I now have more information to give people when they ask questions about prognosis, treatment and symptoms. Even though they usually request euthanasia, though maybe not right away, at least we’re all less in the dark about what we’re dealing with.

So as I waded though the usual Saturday morning caseload of major and minor crises, my boss proceeded with the euthanasia of the eight cats, and the poor sick dog. I was vaguely aware of what he was doing, and, I will admit, grateful (note to self: tell him that on Monday). Before he arrived, I had started to imagine myself responsible for at least seven of those eight lives (one of the cats was really very sick), and was trying to get my head around the impossibility of lodging them during the two months of flea and mite treatment, because the independent shelter had refused to take them right away for that reason. It didn’t compute; I don’t have the space or the inclination to become a seat-of-my-pants animal shelter.

But a day later, it still bothers me that it had to be done, and what bothers me most is that I can’t quite put words to my thoughts on how wrong it feels to erase a few lives just like that. They weren’t hurting or inconveniencing anybody, and with some efforts, or perhaps in a different place or with different people, it could have had a very different ending. Yes, I know – urban shelters struggle with this all the time, it’s their daily bread and butter. I’m considering taking on shelter work in the city, but I’m not sure I’m the right person at the right time for it, and I’m honestly not sure that I’ll be able to come to any better practices or thoughts about it all, no better than what anybody else has come up with so far.

Still, there’s been progress. After all, I’m old enough to remember a time when companion animals were disposable – that’s what they “were”, even if they were loved – but that attitude doesn’t have the same popular consensus it once did.

A few years back, I read Coetzee’s Disgrace, set in rural South Africa. Some of the best parts of that book include his philosophical descriptions of animal euthanasia and shelter work. At that time, it helped me to come to terms with euthanasias, but I think the effect has worn off. I hope to come back to that sometime, maybe I’ll have to read it again.

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23 Comments on “Animal euthanasia”

  1. That’s sad. And it’s a good thing to be able to feel sad about it, to know that there aren’t any good solutions, but that these animals had a life and ending their lives is a sad thing. That is respect for their existence.

  2. LMA Says:

    I have encountered many stray animals in my many years, some riddled with disease and nothing but skin and bones. Yes, euthansia is a sad thing, particularly when the animals are young. Even sadder is the fate of the strays that no one even bothers to take to a shelter. Death from disease and starvation is slow and painful, and these small animals are not likely to thrive on their own. Perhaps euthanasia is also an act of caring, a way to stop suffering.

  3. sassy Says:

    Thank you for this post.

  4. JJ Says:

    Thanks for posting your thoughts about this, brebis.

    We sometimes don’t think about the people who assist us in that hardest of decisions, giving our old or ill pets gentle and compassionate release: they are just there, helping us do what needs to be done. It usually doesn’t occur to us how this affects them, and it’s good to know.

    Thanks again.

  5. janfromthebruce Says:

    The vast majority of our pets are strays (cats) and our dogs have come from the animal shelter. It’s very hard what you do, and I have been at the vets when our pets have been put to sleep, due to age & illness. Thank you.

  6. brebis noire Says:

    Lilian, what you describe is the essence of what I remember from Disgrace. Being sad, solemn and respectful about the animals’ lives and deaths made him think very differently about a lot of things, including his own life. Of course, it was all very depressing – but some things just are and there’s not much you can do about it.

  7. brebis noire Says:

    (By “him”, I mean the main character from the novel.)

    thanks, Lilian.

  8. brebis noire Says:

    JJ – I actually don’t mind doing euthanasias on old and ill patients, in fact I take a bit of pride in being able to do it well and explain the process if that’s what people would like. I don’t enjoy doing euthanasias, because it’s always an emotionally charged and sobering moment, but all too often it’s the only sane solution to problems that are way beyond anyone’s ability to fix.

    I just don’t enjoy euthanising animals that are eminenently curable, for a few dollars of care (and many years of companionship), and then have to turn around to see people spend hundreds or even thousands of dollars on cases that only a few short decades ago we wouldn’t have considered treating.

  9. brebis noire Says:

    LMA – yes, it is an act of caring, but I still hate euthanising healthy animals and will never be reconciled with it. We literally send animals into such a deep sleep that they never wake up. I can’t imagine a gentler way to go (and I can’t resist pointing out that veterinary euthanasias are nothing like the painful and often severely botched lethal injections they give to death row inmates in the US).

    jan- I always appreciate it when people stick around to accompany their animal to the end. It creates a bit more “performance pressure” for me, but I think it’s the best thing to do. (Though I totally understand when people feel unable to be there till the end.)

  10. mouthyorange Says:

    I always have to think about your posts for a few days before I’m able to respond. That’s because they’re so rich.

    I know a vet in Toronto who’s been at it for over 40 years. He sees euthanasia as a kindness when suffering is so severe that remaining alive is torture for the animal. But he has also come to the view that people too often have old or sick animals euthanized not because the animal is in dire straights but because they are afraid of, or unfamiliar with, the natural process of dying. So they euthanize so that they can avoid facing the process or else are afraid to allow the animal to go through the process. He has come to feel that it’s not right for us to take an animal’s life if that animal still seems to be getting something out of life, however minimal what they’re getting may appear to us. He talks about how animals dying naturally experience, just before the end, a great relief from stress and a final surge of life and of consciousness — some people think of it as bliss, in reference to the human experience — and he is concerned that we really don’t have the right to deprive them of this. He actually has come to the point of thinking that where there is not severe suffering but we euthanize anyway, it is a form of animal abuse.

    I have only respect for those of you who must deal with these issues every day and must somehow come to terms with the many different circumstances out of which they arise.

    I didn’t always, but now, when I choose euthanasia, I always stay with my pets while it’s done. And I hold them and tell them I love them. And better yet, see if a local vet will come and do it in my house, in my animal’s own home where they feel safe and familiar instead of at the clinic where they don’t understand the place or what it’s about, and in some cases are very afraid of being there to begin with. I have no doubt at all about how much my animals have appreciated my presence, especially during euthanasia.

    I don’t have the generosity you do toward people who want their animals euthanized but don’t want to be there for it. I know it’s very hard, but our pets take care of us emotionally and serve us their whole lives, and the way I see it, we owe them. We’ve got no business abandoning them at the last moment. I don’t know cats’ minds as well, but I believe that dogs would experience being abandoned at that time as having been cast out of the pack because they have disappointed their people — the thing that dogs fear the most in life. What a thing to do to a dog in its final moment of life. And I’m sure that for cats the situation must be similarly difficult, even if in somewhat different terms. Our pets would never abandon us in this way.

    I do have generosity toward people who are struggling to deal with their own attitudes toward this, though. I know it takes time and the process and issues that come up may be different for everybody. I just don’t want to let people off the hook that if they have an animal they have a responsibility to face and struggle to deal with this issue. I think, if we have taken animals in to be our emotional caretakers, which I think is the main part of the work they do for us today, we cannot be off that hook. We are not free to sweep the issue of thinking about what their death experience should be like and what our own emotional issues are about it under the rug. That’s the thing that I do not feel generosity towards.

    I know you’re a vet and you have to deal with people carefully from your position, a position I don’t have to deal with, or from, in my life. And I respect that and grant you total room to handle things as you must. So I honestly don’t mean my comments to be pressure on you. But I myself, as a lay person, as a member of the culture, don’t want to be one of the quiet ones. I want to urge people to look at what we ask of our companion animals all their lives, and contrast that with how we, out of lack of knowledge, cultural habit, or outright fear then abandon them at their time of death. And I want to urge this cultural practice to change.

    Hope I’m making sense here. I feel so strongly about this that I have a concern about coming off judgemental, which won’t help anyone or anything.

  11. brebis noire Says:

    mouthyorange, I always learn a lot from your responses and I appreciate them more than you know! Thanks for the story about the vet from Toronto. He’s voiced what I instinctively thought about natural death, but I also think it takes time for a person to arrive at a conclusion like that, because of the variety of experiences involved. That is my ideal approach to end-of-life issues in animals – in fact, I quite prefer to find out that an animal has died quietly at home – but my experience is that only a certain (variable) percentage of people are receptive to thinking about it that way.

    And unfortunately: one of the biggest problems is incontinence. If you have an animal whose death is not necessarily imminent, but has become incontinent, or doubly incontinent (fecal + urinary), and maybe even polyuric-polydipsic (drinks and pees constantly)it becomes very difficult for most people to deal with, especially if the animal is a large dog. Or, what if they have other pressing obligations – such as work, travel, family, or their own illnesses? It’s good not to be judgemental, and anyways I think there have already been good changes in attitude toward something more positive – even when it comes to strays, though the “problem” remains.

    At-home euthanasias are definitely preferable, I agree.

  12. mouthyorange Says:

    Yes, I do understand and agree that difficult issues such as incontinence, especially double incontinence, as well as one’s own life pressures, which we can so often do little or nothing about, factor into people’s decisions. It’s so good that some things are changing toward something more positive! I want to be one of the lay people who helps to feed that kind of change. And it’s so important not to be judgemental — and sometimes so difficult, especially when one cares a lot. I’d think in your line of work you’d be faced with opportunities to practice holding your own while remaining compassionate every single day. Just think what an amazing person you’ll become because of it! Not that you aren’t already! ; ) I’m not up against the complications and subtleties of real-life situations every single day; it’s perhaps easier to sit back and react from a distance. Anyway, I’m always working to find my own balance between expressing my heartfelt passion and concern and not denying my true feelings while not crossing that line into making other people feel bad about where they’re at. I’m not sure I’m always as good at that as I’d like to be. But that’s because I’m not perfect either and I’m still growing too, same as everyone else!

    The Toronto vet has a book coming out in the Fall, published by Celestial Arts, that contains a chapter expressing his views about death and euthanasia. It’s called, “The New Holistic Way for Dogs and Cats: The Stress-Health Connection.” I’m betting you’ll find other stuff in it interesting, as well.

  13. brebis noire Says:

    mouthyorange – what is that vet’s name? I will be on the lookout for the book, thanks!

  14. mouthyorange Says:

    The New Holistic Way for Dogs and Cats: The Stress-Health Connection, by Paul McCutcheon, DVM and Susan Weinstein.

    Paul McCutcheon is the founder and owner of East York Animal Clinic (since 1962). He is probably Canada’s longest-practicing holistic vet, unless there’s someone in the French-language realm who he isn’t aware of! Susan Weinstein is a freelance writer with a special interest in animals and holistic health care. She is a long-time client of Dr. McCutcheon’s.

    It’s already up on the Amazon and Chapters sites for pre-order. You can google it. But not all the promo info written about it there is up to date yet. The dates should be right, though.

    His clinic’s website is

    brebis, if at any time you should want to discuss with me things that don’t seem of general interest enough for blog-talk, please feel free to email me personally if you’re so inclined.

  15. LMA Says:

    I have difficulty believing that a “natural death” is always desireable for our pets. My dear companion Siamese cat developed kidney failure in his 21st year. Loving him so much, I tried to keep him with me as long as possible. It was necessary to have him rehydrated on two occasions. He was extremely weak and couldn’t eat or drink. He couldn’t communicate to me any pain he was experiencing. In the end, he was euthanized, and my regret to this day is that I waited so long.

  16. Suzanne Says:

    I didn’t know you could find strays at the vet’s.

    I don’t have pets, but if I did, I would hate to have an animal die in my house. I would hate to have to dispose of the body– I’m talking about cats and dogs and other larger creatures. What do you do with a dead dog, especially if you live in a condo?

    I just couldn’t kill a perfectly good animal. I remember when I was 15, my friends gave me a stray kitten, a striped tabby. The kitten was being taken by its owner to the pet store to see if the store would take him in. The kitten escaped and my friends caught the kitten, and the owner let him have it. None of my friends could keep the kitten, so they gave the kitten to me because I already had a cat. I took the kitten home.

    My mother tried to make me “give the animal away” to an animal shelter. But I knew that if the kitten wasn’t adopted soon, she’d be euthanized, which was its likely fate. I couldn’t do it. I cried my eyes out for a couple of days. Just couldn’t get rid of the kitty.

    In the meanwhile, my parents developed a fondness for the cat, and my mother felt sorry for me. So we kept the cat, and we had two cats.

    Later on, my mother had to get rid of our cats because my young nephew was allergic. I’ve always wondered about my cats’ fates. My Siamese cross only had one tooth (her front fang), but she was de-clawed and very affectionate. A perfectly good cat, in other words– although somewhat elderly. My striped tabby had issues with clumped fur, but she was also very affectionate and lovable.

    I suspect they were probably euthanized within 48 hours. What a waste.

  17. Antonia Says:

    I think that, one reason that veterinarians suffer so much from depression and have such high suicide rates is that they see so much death and sadness.

  18. brebis noire Says:

    LMA, in the case of kidney disease, I’m pretty sure it’s not a question of painful suffering as much as the suffering of feeling progressively ill and weak, which will be the lot of many of us as we approach the end, and I’m not ready to judge if that is something that must absolutely be avoided. Kidney disease takes years to develop in cats, but the best we can do is to stave off the worst symptoms at whatever stage it’s detected. My 15-yr-old Tonkinese has the disease, was diagnosed two years ago, and is not really showing signs at this point except for slight weight loss. The only treatment at this point has been a change of diet.

    I’ve euthanised many elderly cats at the end stage of kidney disease, and many times I’ve told people to not feel guilty about waiting for so long, because sometimes cats can do reasonably well for a long time with kidney disease and then unexpectedly “crash” when there isn’t enough healthy kidney tissue left to carry out vital functions. A lot of people have the impression their cat is just aging, until the end comes suddenly. Actually, that’s what most elderly cats die from, in the same way that many elderly humans die of strokes.

  19. brebis noire Says:

    Suzanne, I think there’s always a measure of guilt about owning animals, because their fate depends entirely on us. I can understand people who don’t want an animal in their life even though they love animals generally – they just don’t want the responsibility.
    A few times people have confessed to me their relief (which didn’t cancel out their sadness and grief) when their ill animal died or was euthanised, because the burden of caring for it – even when the animal was healthy – was sometimes too much.

  20. brebis noire Says:

    Antonia, I am not aware of those stats, re depression and suicide rates. I know there’s a high rate of professional burnout, but I thought that was related more to the driven and perfectionist personality types in vet medicine, the juggling of personal and professional responsibilities, and the low salaries combined with heavy responsibilities. (Speaking from personal experience, anyways.)

  21. mouthyorange Says:

    brebis – I assume that you noticed that I gave you the name of the book, as you asked — I just want to make sure.

  22. LMA Says:

    Your kind, considerate responses tell me you must be a wonderful vet indeed. Thank goodness for skilled, compassionate professionals such as yourself who are so dedicated to animal welfare. Hope your little Tonkinese has many happy years to come.

  23. JF Says:

    I have recently rescued a 1 month old stray kitten who had severe at flu and conjunctivitis. When I took her to the vet, they said she had 70% chances to survive the week, and 50% chances to recover her sight in at least 1 eye. 3 days later, I found her sister: her eyes were so infected and dirty that she looked like 2 dirty almonds had been stuck over her eyes. She was very weak that at first she could barely lift her head off the ground, and there were many flies, moskitoes and ants on and around her. I was shocked and wasn’t used to dealing with ill animals, so took her to a vet to have her euthanized at once. I thought this was the right thing to do as I doubted I could save her, let alone her sight, as I was already working so hard on her sister who was already much better when I found her. Now my kitten is nearly 3 months old and has lost sight in one eye, but she is in perfect health, and I deeply regret having had her sister euthanized without a medical consultation (I just asked for euthanasia, so they didn’t assess her condition or anything). I keep thinking that I should at least have checked out her eyes and given her a chance too: her 5 to 6 weeks on planet earth have been so meaningless. Do you know of any ethical protocol I could refer to when facing such dilemma?

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