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The Daily Vet by petMD

The Daily Vet is a blog featuring veterinarians from all walks of life. Every week they will tackle entertaining, interesting, and sometimes difficult topics in the world of animal medicine – all in the hopes that their unique insights and personal experiences will help you to understand your pets.

Euthanasia is No Longer the Only Choice for Dying Pets

There are two views about a doctor’s role in death in our country, and they couldn’t be more diametrically opposed.


If you are an MD, you live and work in a world where natural death is the norm. Assisted suicide is still an option in its infancy, legal in only four states up to this week, when California became the fifth. The role of the doctor is to preserve life at all cost, even, some might say, at the expense of its quality. Helping a patient end his or her life is, many say, cruel and unnatural.


But as a veterinarian, euthanasia is the norm. It is so far in the opposite direction that I have read some of the most well-respected names in the field state publicly that no pet should ever experience a natural death. The role of the doctor here is to preserve quality of life at all cost, even its length. Prolonging a suffering pet’s life is, many say, cruel and unnatural.


So who’s right?


The answer, of course, is neither and both. Where MDs and DVMs once stood at opposite ends of the rope, both sides are now moving towards the middle. While coroners in Los Angeles were shaking their heads at the role physicians may now play in the death of a patient, I was sitting in a packed lecture hall at the International Association of Animal Hospice and Palliative Care listening to a veterinarian discuss how she supports clients who wish their pets to have a natural death.


Up till now, many clients who do not want euthanasia for any number of reasons were given one of two options: accept it and all the moral discomfort that may accompany it; or go home and let the pet die on his or her own, with little palliative support from the veterinarian.


When veterinarians talk about the cruelty of a natural death, we’re thinking of a situation where there is no support whatsoever. Dying, despite what some people may tell you, can be a messy business. Yes, some living beings may drift off gently into that good night. On the other hand, they may suffer from tremendous nausea, gut-wrenching pain, soiling oneself, the agony of trouble breathing.


Fortunately for us, we have a great model on how to manage all of that: human hospice. A hospice-supported natural death is kind of the opposite of doing nothing; it can be intense. Parenteral fluids. Tube feeding. Round the clock nursing care. Meticulous observation of pain symptoms. It is not an easy path to walk, and many clients who elect to try for a natural death in their pets eventually choose euthanasia. But at least they do so with a clear heart.


And those who do not, have done their duty in providing an ethical death for their pets.


I live for the day when the conversations we have are open and honest enough to determine what is right for each patient and each family, the day when the death of a pet and the death of a person are not so very different. The day we all can make educated choices rationally, and feel, if not good about it, at least at peace.


Because we sure aren’t there yet. But we are on our way.



Dr. Jessica Vogelsang

Comments  6

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  • HHHmmmm.
    10/15/2015 09:06pm

    Fascinating topic.

    I still feel a great deal of guilt over one that passed away on the way to the emergency clinic.

    I've long been of the opinion that allowing a pet to pass away naturally is cruel. I can see it in their eyes saying, "Please let me go." I cannot imagine allowing a pet to suffer a "natural" death.

    From the content of your post, I wonder if I'll ever change my mind.

  • 10/17/2015 03:06pm

    And I don't necessarily know that the word "natural" is really the right term either, because to me it still implies no medical/drug intervention (like natural birth). Provision of comfort care is still key.

    That being said, I am still very supportive of euthanasia and it is the choice I have made for all of my pets. I don't see that changing.

  • Respect
    10/30/2015 11:02am

    Euthanasia is one of the most difficult decisions a pet parent makes. From the first realization that the end is in sight for an old friend, to that last poignant ride together, we search for a sign that "it's time." I'm guilty of giving up too soon and of hanging on too long.

    Zoe had breast cancer. Faced with that today I would insist the mass be removed with aggressive margins, followed by appropriate palliative care. In retrospect, simply letting the tumor grow until it ruptured seems insane even if that was veterinary advice.

    Gretel was found to have hip dysplasia at seven. Pain medication and soft beds kept her going for five more years, until at the end she was on three or four different medications and the pain was still uncontrolled. Letting go a year earlier would have been more humane.

    Cancer would have taken Zoe, with terrible pain, in a few more months anyway, but I couldn't bear to watch that so Zoe died because of my cowardice. Gretel might have lived several more years in chronic, uncontrolled pain that probably would have ended with an accidental overdose; managing pain at the edge of hell is tricky when a patient can talk, and in a mute old friend every dose is a conflicted guess. When it's over, though, it's over. Animal or human, we all lose this one eventually and there's no virtue in being too stubborn.

  • Thank you so much!
    10/30/2015 12:59pm

    I am currently fospicing a WONDERFUL senior poodle-chihuahua mix that was about to be euthanized - last JANUARY!! He is one of the happiest dogs I've ever met, notwithstanding the fact that he has multiple physical conditions: Blind, going deaf, only 3 legs, only 1 tooth left & congestive heart disease...

    We have a medication regimen for his heart and my vet has allowed me a small supply of analgesics at home for pain (infrequent, as yet.) He's on a good diet, gets enough exercise bossing around my standard poodle and wakes up ever day wagging the stub of his tail.

    This precious pup literally kept me going when I lost my husband in September - he has been a real inspiration to me to just keep putting one foot in front of the other.

    So, you see, the benefits of kindness come back to you in spades. Nic is still happy & enjoying his life and is helping me through a difficult time in mine - a double blessing all the way around.

    Lil McD

  • Meet in the middle.
    12/02/2015 07:42pm

    I am glad you wrote this article and that there are other options for people and pet owners. I remember asking my mom why if it was ok to put your pet to sleep why could you not put humans to sleep too. There are many humans who at the end their life, because of diseases have no more sense about why they are in pain or sick then an animal does. I told her if you can put an animals to sleep you should be able to put a humane with the same spence to sleep as well. I am Christian and you know Thou shalt not kill, so I am very glad there are starting to be more natural death options. I got lucky with my dog Heidi. She died the day before my mom was going to take her to get put down. I don't believe in euthanasia for anyone or any animal, but if it is going to be an option for humane reasons then it needs to be an option for both people and animals.

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