Euthanasia literally means 'gentle death'. Other terms you may hear are 'put to sleep', 'put down', 'put out of its misery' or, less kindly, 'destroy'. Veterinary staff may use the term 'humane destruction' which is simply a technical term for putting an animal to sleep. Veterinary euthanasia can be conducted actively, passively (withdrawal of life support or medication) or forced (legal requirement, e.g. dog savaging a human).
The simple moral edict of most veterinarians is to alleviate suffering and not inflicting harm, as commensurate with upholding the veterinary oath. Euthanasia is thus an aspect of alleviating suffering, albeit in a permanent measure. Some believe that to kill an animal is immoral, but most veterinarians believe that to ignore suffering when it can be alleviated is immoral. Thus, the decision is a secular one drawn from Western experiences that may conflict with individual's personal customs, beliefs or traditions. As occurs in passive euthanasia with human patients, the need for good communication is critical when any matter relating to the euthanasia is being considered.
Ideally we would like our cats to die peacefully in their sleep, and indeed many do. We are also familiar with the idea that injured, sick or very old cats 'go off to die', but often they die from dehydration, starvation or self-neglect because they are unable or unwilling to drink, eat or even seek attention. Sadly some cats do go missing, never to return, and this makes it hard to let go because there is always hope, however faint, that he will one day return. Equally sadly, others die suddenly for no apparent reason or meet an untimely end in an accident such as a road traffic accident. The disappearance or sudden death of a well-loved pet causes much anguish because the owner has had no time to prepare for this and may be unable to say goodbye in the way that they would have wished.
With recent advancements in cat care and medical knowledge, most pet cats have long and healthy lives, but some will also reach a point when life is no longer enjoyable. When a cat reaches such a point in his life, the owner must decide whether it would be kinder for the cat to be put to sleep to prevent further suffering. Euthanasia is an act of love towards a cat which is no longer able to enjoy life.
The decision to end a life is never easy. It is a personal, loving decision to euthanase a pet for which the quality of life has deteriorated. It takes courage to assume this last duty and it is our last responsibility to a pet which has given us love and companionship. There is also no easy human comparison. The bond between cat and owner is a very special one. It is easy to become emotionally caught up in keeping your cat alive when you know that there is no hope of him regaining his health.
Timing of euthanasia
The decision almost always causes much soul-searching, especially if you and your cat have been companions for several years. What matters to the cat is quality of life not length of life since a cat has little concept of future time. An illness may be treatable for a period of time, but there eventually comes a point when the cat no longer enjoys life. He may be in visible distress or withdrawn.
Having seen your cat when he is happy and healthy, most owners recognise the signs given by a cat which is miserable. Your vet will be able to tell you whether the cat has a treatable ailment or is approaching the end of his life.
Warning signs are:
- Not eating or drinking
- Withdrawn or lethargic
- Neglecting himself
- Signs of pain - he may cry out if touched
Unable to hold head up when at rest A known terminal illness
Since some of these can also be symptoms of treatable illness, you need to discuss your cat's welfare with your vet. He will be able to advise you and help you to make the right decision for your cat, but he cannot make the decision for you.
When to postpone
Sometimes it is possible to delay euthanasia for a day without causing suffering for example where he has a terminal illness or is extremely old and the euthanasia is planned in advance. You may wish to give your cat a last night of pampering, his favourite foods or foods which were normally forbidden. This is a time in which to say goodbye and reassure him that he is very much loved. However, if he is suffering, or is already under anaesthetic, he will not enjoy having his misery prolonged.
The morality of euthanasia
A number of truths appear to be self-evident;
- pain is an inevitable aspect of all life, but avoidable
- to not alleviate pain is inhumane, regardless of the species which is suffering
- compassion is any act that helps alleviate suffering
- alleviating suffering can range from giving aspirin for pain relief or terminating life.
- it is the motivation behind alleviating suffering that determines the moral value of the act
- It is morally better to euthanase too late than too early.
If alleviating suffering involves giving aspirin, then this is a morally good act. This of course assumes that pain is 'bad' and alleviating pain is 'good'. After all, most moral giants (Ghandi, Christ, Buddha, Mohammed) dedicated their lives to helping others and thus relieving their suffering (whether physical or emotional). To kill an animal is morally acceptable when done with respect and love for the animal's wellbeing, morally neutral when done accidentally (e.g. car accident) and morally reprehensible when pleasure is derived from the act (i.e. cruelty).
If in doubt as to whether or not to euthanase, it better to give more pain relief and await more obvious clinical signs that suggest death is inevitable.
- Vadász G (2010) Euthanasia and other decisions at the end of life (Proposal for a more lucid terminology and some thoughts on the legal framework of medical treatment). Orv Hetil 151(43):1769-1775
- Denier Y et al (2010) Communication in nursing care for patients requesting euthanasia: a qualitative study. J Clin Nurs doi: 10.1111/j.1365-2702.2010.03367.x