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.