“Natural Death” in Pets – A Painful Myth

In nearly six decades of sharing my life and home with non-human animals, I have yet to experience the passing of a pet who simply went to sleep and never woke up. I have, of course, read of these miraculously peaceful passings many times, and if they do, in fact, occur, they are not the intended topic of this essay.

I much more frequently encounter pleas on pet-related forums asking for advice regarding end-of-life decisions for companion animals. Distraught caretakers struggle with this final, irrevocable resolution. They seek out and cling to any justification to avoid enacting euthanasia. And why wouldn’t they? The responsibility for ending a beloved life is, and should be, profound, solemn, and emotionally consuming. And so, the oft asked question when one is faced with a pet nearing death:

Should I euthanize or just let nature take its course?

This question, frankly, makes me crazy. It suggests that there is a way to avoid assuming responsibility for the manner in which our companion animals pass from this life, when, in fact, such responsibility is unavoidable. The first time we feed, shelter, vaccinate, or treat an animal for illness or injury, we effectively cut “nature” out of the equation. In practical terms, we spend the lifetime of the animal doing everything in our power to minimize or eliminate the effects of nature on that animal’s life.

Nature does not allow animals to linger through old age or prolonged illness or injury. Nature culls animals as soon as such infirmities occur, and that culling is often violent or painful. But that is not the fate of most companion animals under the care of humans. We go to extraordinary lengths and expense to provide our companions with extended happy and healthy lives that no wild animal will ever be likely to experience. Our pets are fed and maintained even when they wouldn’t be able to provide successfully for themselves in a natural state. Our pets, in effect, lead entirely unnatural lives.

It is therefore unrealistic and, in many cases, erringly cruel to expect nature to step in at the end of a wholly unnatural life to provide any sort of humane end. There is no natural death for companion animals. Death in companion animals is likely to be as extended a process as is life. And so, the question realistically asks:

Should I provide an assisted death, or should I withhold assistance?

When we assume responsibility for an animal’s life, we also assume responsibility for that animal’s death. We can opt to provide a quick, humane euthanasia when the animal’s physical condition is no longer compatible with an acceptable quality of life, or we can choose to do nothing and wait for our companion’s body to deteriorate to the point of death. If we remove the convenient scapegoat, “nature”, from the conversation, the choice becomes more clear, though no less heart-wrenching. An assisted, humane passing is our ultimate responsibility and final compensation for a lifetime of devoted companionship.

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3 Responses to “Natural Death” in Pets – A Painful Myth

  1. Pingback: Hi, I really need guidance - Cat Forum : Cat Discussion Forums

  2. Charles Huss says:

    My wife and I had to face that problem four times in less than four years. It is difficult. My cat Abbey got sick almost a year ago. The doctor said she had liver failure. She lost weight but she did not “act” sick. She even seemed more active than usual. My wife thought I was being selfish but I did not want to put her “out of her misery” until she started showing some signs that there was any misery. Eventually it became clear that she was eating just fine but her body was not processing the nutrients. She was effectively starving so we made that painful decision to say goodby.

    I agree with you about domestication. By taking them out of nature’s care we than become their caretakers. We give them things that nature can’t like comfortable shelter and plenty of easy food, but we also take away their freedom and, in most cases, proper nutrition. I wish nature had an end of life plan, but she is more concerned with reproduction so a little help from humans, weather it is for domesticated or feral, wouldn’t hurt.

    • lfrazer says:

      I’m so sorry that you’ve lost so many beloveds over the last four years. I lost two last year myself. It is horribly difficult, I know, esp. when the cat isn’t obviously ready to move on. My Noddy developed Feline Oral Squamous Cell Carcinoma last summer. Although his mouth was too painful at the end for him to eat, and the tumor was growing quickly, he wasn’t ready to call it quits. Like your Abbey, he was losing weight quickly and looking at death by starvation. I couldn’t let that happen, no matter how stoically he held on. It was a decision that tore out a huge part of my heart. What is left of my heart goes out to you.

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