'Convenience euthanasia' for pets and the incremental power of veterinary denial
Whatever your line of work, the normal course of your daily life will occasionally drag you to places you’d rather not go. And yet you must confront the stress and the dread if you’re to do your job right. Such is the case with respect to "euthanizing" healthy pets. Otherwise known as "convenience euthanasia," this practice is a hot button topic in companion animal vet medicine.
Let me set the scene:
Older couple comes in with an eleven-year-old large-breed mix, which I’ve been treating for five years for his chronic liver disease and osteoarthritis. Typical old dog stuff. He’s a happy, waggy thing otherwise.
Problem is, this older couple claims ownership on the basis of my client’s (this dog’s true owner) early morning death. This struggling geriatric is now effectively on his own, after a lifetime with a loving owner who happens to have been the victim of a sudden death. And they want him euthanized before the owner’s body is even cold.
D-pressing. Such a nice guy — the dog’s owner was. Such a crappy situation. And what kind of people would be knocking on my door with the expectation that I would just kill my long-time patient at their request, anyway?
In protest, I resolve not to even speak with these people who claim to be immediate relatives of the deceased. But my staff convinces me otherwise. "Look," they say, "if you have the chance to get them to see things differently, then you should go in that room and make your case. Sitting back here on your butt is NOT doing this dog any favors."
Wise words, I conclude. Still, I do not relish the prospect of a confrontation, but I get one anyway.
The couple lays out their case: This is a very sick dog; a very old dog. He’s bereft and lost without his owner. He’s pacing and upset and stressed and incapable of adapting to a life without his beloved owner.
Me: "OK, I get it. But this is a wonderful dog who’s no sicker than the average geriatric dog. After all his owner proved he was willing to do for him, can’t we find him a new, loving home?"
Them: "Doc, we’ve tried. We’ve exhausted our resources."
Me: "But as I understand it, it’s only been hours since this news. Can’t we give him a chance?"
Them: "We live far away. We’re leaving this afternoon, and we’ve asked everyone we know. No one wants him. Anyway, this is what his owner would have wanted."
Me: "Do you happen to have that in writing? And do you have a death certificate? I can’t just euthanize a dog without knowing the circumstances. Do you have power of attorney?"
Them: "No, but it’s what we’re going to do, whether you help us or not."
Which is when I had to stop myself and breathe. Because in my estimation, this dog’s owner had worked too hard to keep his aged dog healthy, just to have two people — who obviously couldn’t get rid of the dog fast enough — making this final decision on his behalf.
I explained to them that I could help find the dog a home. That I would write travel certificates for free if they would take him with them. That this dog would be happy anywhere for the rest of his natural life as long as he was granted time to adjust.
To no avail. Though I didn’t euthanize him, I’m sure someone else, somewhere, did.
Were these bad people? Not necessarily. Actually, they seemed pretty upset about the situation. I felt badly for them. They're basically nice people who find themselves in an uncomfortable, inconvenient situation they just aren't equipped to deal with, right? But I wasn’t about to back down, either. In fact, after trying to get them to reconsider (and failing miserably), I think I might even have taken a perverse pleasure in inflicting some extra guilt on them. Some of you might consider that gratuitous and unduly cruel, especially considering the tragic human loss these people had just suffered.
So you know, plenty of veterinarians in private practice feel just as I do. We will not euthanize healthy animals, ever. Sometimes, some of us will make exceptions, but only after lengthy discussions with owners regarding the personal issues that led to their decision. Others among us have no qualms about putting healthy animals to death, citing pet overpopulation and poor adoptability, among other common concerns.
And anyway, "owners" like this will almost always go somewhere else for the kill. Somewhere where the dog isn't known and loved and where he might not get the special care a private hospital can provide. So maybe I shouldn't have stuck so slavishly to my guns.
Still, I can’t help thinking that if more veterinarians would decline to offer "euthanasia" for "inconvenient" pets, there’d be a whole lot less of these cases for us to wring our hands over.
Dr. Patty Khuly