Animal Euthanasia: An act of humanity
Exploring the views of students, teachers and veterinarians on pet euthanasia
They first found him roaming the streets, completely alone.
A little while later, junior Jennifer Liu’s family took him to a shelter — only to take him back and adopt him. The dog became known as “Cody,” and he spent the following years surrounded by Liu’s loving family of four.
As if roused by Cody’s liveliness, the previously inactive family began going on family trips. Liu recalls visiting Stanford University and being heartened by Cody chasing frisbees across the grass as the family explored the campus.
During the summer of 2017, a few years after Liu’s family adopted him, Cody developed a tumor. A little while after the surgical removal of the tumor, he underwent yet another surgery for his spleen. His health grew worse in a downwards spiral, with Cody’s body becoming weaker after each medical operation.
Towards the end of his life, he developed dementia. Cody had changed drastically — The same dog that had energetically chased the frisbees at Stanford or occasionally ran after squirrels now hobbled around in circles and was unable to steer himself away from the corners of the house.
Occupied with keeping Cody comfortable — and in some cases, unstuck from furniture — the family’s love for Cody was ironically what caused them to overlook his sickness, as they focused their energy on helping him live as normal of a life as possible. In fact, the thought of euthanizing him never crossed their minds, until one day it was simply impossible for the family to continue helping him. One day, Liu took him outside to go the bathroom, and he became paralyzed, unable to rise for hours. The family finally realized what they had to do.
“The decision was mostly made to put him out of his misery,” Liu said. “Because he wouldn’t want to live a life like that, you know?”
Felix: Unpredictable Goodbyes
He was 17 as of last year; this year, he would have been 18.
Pamela Chow and her college roommate adopted Felix, a black and white kitten from a foster group. He was different from the other cats, as he could be very loving one moment but then attack the next. For the past eight years, Felix has lived with Chow’s parents in Walnut Creek after Chow and her husband decided to have kids.
“We decided it would be a little risky for him to be around the kids [due to his unpredictable nature],” Chow said. “And I think that worked better for him because he didn’t particularly like kids anyways. He would always get scared of them and get upset with them.”
Around April of last year, Chow’s parents went on a trip, leaving Felix at home under the care of Chow’s roommate who lived close by. Earlier in the week when her roommate checked up on Felix, she noticed that he was a bit scrawny, so she decided to check on him again a few days later. When she got there Felix was unable to greet her at the door, which worried her as he would normally run for the door or try to escape the house. Concerned about his unnatural behavior, Chow’s roommate decided to take him to the vet, and that’s when they discovered that Felix was suffering from kidney failure. The vets made it clear that his condition was untreatable.
“Then we had to make the decision, which I hoped I would never have to make,” Chow said.
After thoroughly discussing with the doctor, her roommate and parents, Chow came to a decision. The kidney failure would leave Felix’s last moments painful; the family decided the only humane thing they could do was to euthanize him and send him off peacefully. After coming to this conclusion, Chow debated driving up to Walnut Creek. However, there was no guarantee that Felix could make it through the night. Instead, Chow said her last goodbye to him through Facetime.
“I’m very grateful that my ex-roommate was able to take care of it [and be there],” Chow said. “If she hadn’t decided to go check on him, it would have been very hard for my parents to deal with him.”
Though Chow has three children of her own, she considers Felix to be her first baby. Chow previously had two pets, a cat and a dog who both died of natural causes. However, having taken care of Felix since he was a kitten and seeing him go was especially hard for Chow.
“Not that I had never lost a pet before, but I had never had to say goodbye to a pet knowing it was the last time I was going to see him,” Chow said.
On Jan. 5, Liu’s dog Cody was put down.
Liu’s parents took him to the vet, while she and her little brother stayed at home. According to veterinarian Sam Shone of the Homeheart Veterinary Heart Clinic, some families believe the process is too scarring for the child to see, while others may want their child to be present and understand the idea of death. For older children, Shone believes that it’s helpful to come to terms with the idea of death and the fact that life ends. Overall, the combination of family members who accompany a pet is quite variable, although it’s most common for all family members to attend, which is what sophomore Nivedita Menon’s family did when Sassy, their old rescue dog, was put down.
“Some people chose not to go in,” Menon said. “But I didn’t want her last moments to be alone with a stranger. Yeah, I wanted to be there with her. We all did.”
Shone believes that the decision is extremely personal and entirely up to the family. Some owners can’t handle the “intensity of the moment,” while others opt for the middle: they will accompany the pet as it falls asleep, but don’t stay to see the animal pass away. Or, like Liu and her brother, they prefer to say their goodbyes before the appointment. However, Liu’s parents, who accompanied Cody, later described the process to Liu.
“When they took him there, for some reason, right when he got to the hospital, he was wagging his tail and walking around, which he usually didn’t do because he usually wasn’t able to walk,” Liu said.
According to Liu’s parents, all the veterinarians were extremely kind. They’d taken him for checkups before, and now called him by his nickname and petted his fur.
Before and during the euthanasia process, Shone says there are often tears from the owners, with most people “crying all the way” and sharing memories about their pets. However, there are exceptions: a handful of people will keep their emotions inside and refrain from crying.
Shone’s job is not only to perform the procedure, but to also provide some semblance of comfort to both the pet and owner, the latter of whom is given time to say goodbye before the injection is administered.
“That’s the whole point,” Shone said. “To try and help the people with saying goodbye and to help the animal be as comfortable as possible.”
At Shone’s clinic, the vet first gives the pet a vaccination — which also includes pain medicine — to make them fall asleep. Typically, the owner is holding the pet as he or she slowly falls asleep, saying their last goodbyes. The animal gradually begins to relax, and any pain they may feel subsides. The owner, too, feels the same relief in this peaceful moment as they no longer have to see their pet in pain. As the goodbyes come to an end, the vets give the pet a final injection of an anesthetic overdose, which is what allows the pet to pass away peacefully and quickly. There is no vocalization or movement from the animal.
“It’s very hard though because they’re saying goodbye, and as the vet, you feel sad too because you can see how much love there is for the animal,” Shone said. “It’s a moment to say goodbye to, essentially, a family member.”
The concept of euthanasia poses a moral question: is taking a life truly justified if it ends suffering? Or is it still murder?
Shone firmly believes that if used appropriately, euthanasia is entirely justified. She explains that the clinic she works for doesn’t perform convenience euthanasia procedures, in which animals are put down as caring for them is “inconvenient” for their owners. Every euthanasia procedure Shone has performed has been a way of ending inescapable suffering.
“The euthanasia process is and our job as a veterinarian is [intended] to reduce any suffering and do nothing to cause harm to any animal,” Shone said. “The point of euthanasia is for a humane passing of a pet and a peaceful end.”
And yet, even after over 20 years of putting down pets, Shone still finds performing euthanasia emotionally challenging. She finds it impossible to remain emotionless and stoic and explains that she still finds herself grieving with the owner.
“I’m so emotionally involved,’ Shone said. “I think that I’m very sensitive to the fact that a life is ending and I think I cry just as much as the owners. It’s not something that’s voluntary or I don’t try to cry or anything to seem empathetic;it’s just a very genuine feeling and animals are such a big part of my life.”
Despite the emotional toll euthanasia takes on Shone, she still continues this line of work as she understands that by ending a life, she is ending the suffering of the pet and the pain of the owner. She bears the burden of taking lives to ease their pain.
“It’s just trying to help them have an easy path,” Shone said. “I feel like helping them gives my life meaning. It’s definitely all comes from a very deep, sympathetic place. It doesn’t get easier, it probably gets harder actually, but I do it because I feel that it’s making things easier. It’s a very deep, heartfelt moment.”
Shone stresses that euthanasia is oftentimes the most humane choice, as a natural death can be brutal.
“[Euthanasia] is a very intense moment to be a part of because it’s a life that’s passing away but it’s definitely an honor to be able to help people have a very peaceful experience and say goodbye,” Shone said. “Because nature’s way of letting the body pass isn’t always so easy, it can be a little bit difficult without the euthanasia process.”
Sophomore Nivedita Menon agrees that euthanasia isn’t immoral — in fact she believes that it’s immoral to allow an animal to suffer when the pain can be prevented. Like Shone, she believes that if euthanasia is used as a last resort, rather than for the sake of convenience, it is entirely justified. While putting down her own dog was heart-wrenching and mentally debilitating for her, she explains that she gladly bears the loss of her pet, knowing that her suffering wasn’t prolonged.
“We didn’t [put our dog down] because we weren’t willing to take care of her anymore, or that it was just too much work,” Menon said. “It was because she was in agonizing pain every day, it hurt her, too, she could barely sleep with how much pain she was in. It would be more inhumane to keep her alive just because we didn’t want to put her down. She’s not in pain anymore. There really is nothing we could do. We could have given her chemotherapy, but she was so old and weak that it would have been like a cruel thing to carry out on her.”
Chow agrees that euthanasia is the a selfless decision — however, it is still difficult to endure. She explains that putting down her cat wasn’t a solo decision; she had consulted both her roommate and her family. It was the first time she had to make this kind of decision, as her two previous pets had passed away in their sleep.
“Yeah, [the decision] was difficult, but at the same time, I think I had to tell myself that I couldn’t just say, “Well, I need you to suffer because I don’t want to say goodbye, you know, it’s like it didn’t seem fair [to do so].” Chow said.
Initially, she had stressfully thought of the situation as being a ‘Catch-22,” with her being unable to make a proper decision because someone was going to unhappy no matter the turnout. Her mother, for example, is Catholic, and at the time, Chow was worried she might not have been open to the more ‘unnatural’ option of euthanasia. Fortunately, her mother was extremely supportive, which Chow is grateful for.
Menon sums up her thoughts about euthanasia in a simple phrase: It’s not about you, it’s about your pet.
“If you’re considering it, you should think about how your pet is feeling,” Menon said “Not just how you will feel. It should be about them.”
Shone never imagined herself performing euthanasia as her career. But she had always known that her career would be centered around animals. She had gravitated to animals her entire life. She always found more comfortable in the company of animals rather than people. This is why she doesn’t truly think she had a choice in becoming a vet — it was just what felt most natural to her.
“I’ve not really chosen to be vet, it was something that I just felt the need to do as much as I could with animals,” Shone said. “From as young as I can remember, I always wanted to be with animals or play with the dogs, rather than talk to the people, I wanted to talk to the pets. As soon as it was time to choose a job, I knew I wanted to work with animals and as a vet, you can do the most and help them the most.
Shone’s love for animals extends far past her profession — she has two dogs, a parrot, two cats and a horse. One of Shone’s favorite past-times is riding her horse in the mountains along with her dogs — she explains that these moments of pure freedom are what give her an escape from her emotionally-taxing job.
“I’m riding the horse and they’re running alongside,” Shone said. “That feeling sort of gives me a bit of relief from the intensity that I have to work with. Just getting into nature with the animals, that’s what it’s all about with me.”
The first time Shone had to deal with euthanasia was with her own pet rabbit when she was younger. After experiencing the heart-wrenching grief first-hand, she could never imagine being the one administering euthanasia at the time.
“[It] was very surreal, it just feels like you’re in this dream and it hit me afterwards, when I came back home, I felt so, so sad,” Shone said.
Shone explains that the first time she performed euthanasia was on an old cat with many health complications. She explains that although she had initially been dreading the moment when she would have to administer the injection and take her first life, after the procedure, she only felt relief at being able to release the animal from its pain.
“[The cat] was barely moving when the owner brought her in,” Shone said. “She was very close to passing away so I felt a huge relief being able to help the pet not feel so sick anymore. Taking a life isn’t something people do everyday, I just remember it feeling very profound and also very grateful that I had the ability to stop the suffering.”
According to Menon, the first couple of days after euthanasia are the hardest. She explains that she went through the stages of grief: denial, helplessness, desperation, a dark period of depression and then finally acceptance.
“I was really depressed for a long time after that, like several months,” Menon said. “I slowly accepted it after quite a while, probably the next year or so. I was happy that she wasn’t in pain anymore. It’s tough though. My parents also cried, and I’d never seen them cry that much before. So it was hard.”
Liu explains that her family’s initial response was isolation, all trying to handle the pain on their own or even trying to bury their grief. However, she explains that true recovery didn’t start until they were able to have a vulnerable conversation.
“I think we were all crying individually; we kind of like locked ourselves up [in] different rooms,” Liu said. “Then, later, after we all came to dinner, we discussed our emotions. Sometimes I’ll hear sounds in the house and automatically, I’ll think ‘Oh, is that Cody?’ Then, I remember that he’s gone. But, yeah, it feels empty without him.”
Shone explains that after spending two decades putting down animals and having lost many of her own pets, she has realized that just because a pet is no longer physically with her, doesn’t mean they’ve abandoned her.
“It’s really important [to understand that] it’s not goodbye forever,” Shone said. “It’s just the body that’s gone, the soul and spirit is still always in your heart.”