It’s one of the hardest decisions you’ll ever have to make. So how do you know when the time is right?
In the 1960s, I knew people who, before going on vacation, would take their dogs to a shelter to be euthanised. They reasoned that it was cheaper to have a dog euthanised – and buy a new one upon returning – than pay a kennel fee.
Two decades later, I was working at a veterinary hospital when a group of distraught bikers on Harley-Davidsons pulled up carrying a sick chihuahua. The dog was intractably ill, and required euthanasia to prevent further suffering. Afterwards, the hospital’s counselors felt compelled to find the bikers a motel room: their level of grief was so profound that the staff didn’t think it was safe for them to be riding their motorcycles.
These two stories illustrate the drastic change in how animals have been perceived. For thousands of years, humans have kept animals as pets. But only during the past 40 years have they come to be viewed as family.
While it’s certainly a positive development that animals are being treated humanely, one of the downsides to better treatment mirrors some of the problems the (human) health care system faces with end-of-life care.
As with humans, in many cases the lives of pets are needlessly prolonged, which can cause undue suffering for the animals and an increased financial burden for families.
The growth of veterinary medicine and ethics.
In 1979, I began teaching veterinary medical ethics at Colorado State University’s veterinary school, the first such course ever taught anywhere in the world.
A year later, the veterinary school hired an oncologist to head up a new program on animal oncology. Soon, our clinic was applying human therapeutic modalities to animal cancer. The visionary head of the veterinary program also hired a number of counselors to help pet owners manage their grief – another first in veterinary circles.
I’d been under the impression that people would be reluctant to spend much money on animal treatments, so I was genuinely shocked when the following April, the Wall Street Journal reported individuals spending upwards of six figures on cancer treatments for their pets.
As a strong advocate for strengthening concern for animal welfare in society, I was delighted with this unprecedented turn of events. I soon learned that concern for treating the diseases of pets besides cancer had also spiked precipitously, evidenced by a significant increase in veterinary specialty practices.
One of the family.
So what’s behind the shift in how pets are perceived and treated?
For one, surveys conducted over the last two decades indicate an increasing number of pet owners who profess to view their animals as “members of the family.” In some surveys, the number is as high as 95% of respondents, but in nearly all surveys the number is higher than 80%.
In addition, the breakdown of nuclear families and the uptick of divorce rates have contributed to singles forming tighter bonds with companion animals.
Such attitudes and trends are likely to engender profound changes in societal views of euthanasia. Whereas before, many owners didn’t think twice about putting down a pet, now many are hesitant to euthanise, often going to great lengths to keep sick animals alive.