The term euthanasia is derived from the Greek terms eu meaning good and thanatos meaning death. A 'good death' would be one that occurs with minimal pain and distress.
The moral value of euthanasia is complex in relation to animals and, like selective abortion in humans, often fraught with emotive implications. Individuals vary in their religious and moral outlook regarding this issue and this is critical in approaching euthanasia in companion animals. There is no right or wrong answer, but veterinarians in general approach euthanasia from the perspective of quality of life factors - when there is no immediate or future prospect of reasonable quality of life, euthanasia is usually recommended. A reasonable quality of life must take into account the five freedoms which all animals have a legal right to achieve.
Ethics of euthanasia
Although any discussion of ethics regarding euthanasia can be prolonged and complex, a circle of truths relevant to veterinary life appear to be self-evident;
- physical and emotional pain do not resonate with 'a good life'
- physical pain can be commuted in animals through drugs, and emotional pain through enrichment and bonding
- emotional pain, produced by long-term physical pain or acute psychological stress, is more traumatic than acute physical pain
- to avoid alleviating pain is incorrect, regardless of the animal species
- any act that alleviates physical or emotional pain is compassionate
- compassion can range from prescribing aspirin for pain relief or euthanasing a terminal life
- the motivation behind a compassionate act determines its ethical value
- proper ethical values are self-resonating (i.e. feel correct)
- a 'good life' must be to alleviate physical and/or emotional pain.
Correctness versus immorality
In a fast-growing secular society, ethical opinions are quickly being replaced by a sense of 'correctness' of action.
Thus, if alleviating suffering involves giving aspirin, then this is a morally correct act. This of course avoids the argument of inducing pain (e.g. surgical procedure to correct a broken limb) in order to achieve a more painless state.
To kill an animal is ethically correct when the animal is suffering a terminal disease (e.g. cancer) and done with respect for the animal's wellbeing. It is ethically neutral when done accidentally (e.g. car accident) and ethically incorrect when pleasure is derived from the act.
Concern mounts when an animal caregiver (i.e. pet owner) is fully aware of an animal's plight (e.g. dying) and is reluctant to euthanase due to personal grief over losing the pet. To allow an animal in such a situation to die 'naturally' cannot be condoned by the veterinary profession. To be indiferent to the welfare of an animal when intevention is available is morally incorrect.
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.
- Webster’s ninth new collegiate dictionary. Springfield: Merriam-Webster Inc, 1990
- Hart LA, Hart BL, Mader B. (1990) Humane euthanasia and companion animal death: caring for the animal, the client, and the veterinarian. J Am Vet Med Assoc 197:1292–1299
- Neiburg HA, Fischer A. (1982) Pet loss, a thoughtful guide for adults and children. New York: Harper & Row
- AMVA recommednations