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.
When animals must be euthanatized, moral and ethical concerns dictate that humane practices be observed. Human psychologic responses to euthanasia of animals need to be considered, with grief at the loss of a life as the most common reaction.
Although many pet owners rely heavily on their veterinarian’s judgment, others may have misgivings about making their own decision regarding euthanasia. This is particularly likely if an owner feels responsible for allowing an animal’s medical or behavioral problem to go unattended so that euthanasia becomes necessary. When owners choose to be present during euthanasia, they should be prepared for what will happen. What drugs are being used and how the animal could respond should be discussed. Behaviors such as vocalization, muscle twitches, failure of the eyelids to close, urination, or defecation can be distressing. Counseling services for grieving owners are now available in some communities and telephone counseling is available through some veterinary schools. Owners are not the only people affected by euthanasia of animals. Veterinarians and their staffs may also become attached to patients they have known and treated for many years and may continue to struggle with the ethical implications of ending an animal’s life.
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