Euthanasia of animals

During my usual weekly visits to my local vet practice, I witnessed something unlike anything I had previously witnessed during work experience. It was the euthanasia of a cat; of course I have seen many, but never one quite as bizarre (in my opinion) as this.

What made it stand out was the owner’s attitude to the prospect of putting her cat down. Just to give you an idea of the situation, a woman came in with her 12 year old black cat who had lost a bit of weight thus was looking rather unhealthily skinny, was not eating but drinking excessively and was making strange rumbly or rather groany noises quite incessantly. The owner did say that he had “always had strange vocal chords”, but the vet reckoned that the loss of weight was probably the cause of the strange noises, or at least worsened the sound.

So, clearly, this was not a necessarily detrimental or emergency case; cats often come into practice with such symptoms, excluding the strange noises  but these did not seem to be pointing to a particularly more serious diagnosis. As expected, the vet suggested several differentials: Renal failure, some sort of virus or at worst a tumour. However, despite the fact that a simple blood test could have determined the cause of the symptoms, the decision to put the cat down was made surprisingly quickly, suggested by the vet himself in fact, which really surprised me. Never had I experienced a decision so easy with regards to the life of a much-loved animal! The owner repeatedly said, “I just don’t want him to suffer” then claimed that he had collapsed by the back door a few days ago during the heat and said that she didn’t want “a repeat situation”. So she requested to go out front and not to witness another of her cats’ deaths because it upsets her, a squirt of pentobarbital to the liver and that was it. Dead cat.

You may be wondering why this situation surprised me so much seeing as euthanasia is a accepted and necessary practice in veterinary medicine that I should really be accustomed to. The fact is that there was a high probability that this cat’s condition would have been curable; the vet said so himself when I asked him on his opinion on the situation as he was putting the cat to sleep. I asked “Do you agree with her decision?” to which he replied (more or less), “It doesn’t matter whether I agree or not. You see, that is what makes a good vet- you can be a boff, know all the cures and have all the meds, but your worthless if you can’t relate to your client. Did you see what I did? I assessed her mood. I could tell that she had made the decision, so there was no point in me saying, ‘but I can cure this, you know?’ because I suggested a blood test, which was my role, but she wasn’t having any of it. And over and above all, it’s the client’s decision. She wants to feel as if her decision is approved by the vet, like we’re on the same team; that’s what it is my job to do.”

So, in effect, he never even gave me his opinion. Thinking about it now, the fact of the matter is that he could not have said what he would have done in her situation, because he  does not know her exact position. Clearly finance may have come into it, although she would have been looking at £100, max £200 for such a test, as my estimation (that may well be inaccurate!). That would have been very understandable. However what shocked me is that she was so quick to decide; the cat had only been ill a few days and this was not a chronic condition which had surfaced previously; the practice had not seen this cat in years.

The question playing on my mind since the incident is how can someone so easily throw away the life of a pet? She said, “I don’t want him to suffer” knowing that the vet could cease the suffering, or at least attempt to see if it would be possible. It was just utterly contrasting to anything I had ever seen. Where were the tears? She was just too accepting, which I found discerning, especially after 12 years of your life spent with an animal. As the vet mentioned, there are clients who would rather not pay for the treatment of an animal, but would prefer to replace it with a new and healthy one. This rather angered me, to be honest. Domestic animals should not be disposable or replaceable in that way. If it were a major operation which would be very costly I would totally understand, but she would end up spending that £100 on a new cat over time (through food, insurance or whatever it might be) were she to replace the one she owned, therefore allowing him to die without investigation, in my view, is simply not justifiable.

The incident cast my mind back to the book I have been reading for my extended essay, ‘Animal Liberation’ by Peter Singer (I would really recommend his books for anyone interested in the moral position of animals within society, they’re really fascinating!) in which he talks about the replaceability of animals. Keeping animals for consumption, he states, according to a branch of utilitarianism, is moral. This is because (PROVIDED THAT they are kept in conditions which allow for their happiness on a daily basis) breeding these animals adds happiness to the world (the aim of utilitarianism), so as long as the animal killed is replaced by another in the same conditions, there is no net unhappiness. However, surely this can only be held for farm animals? This is my opinion because domestic animals are considered much like humans; they live with them, we name them and grow fond of them, they are often like a member of the family, and kept to increase our happiness and for the purpose of them living, not for being slaughtered for consumption. Debatably, humans are also brought into being for the same purpose. So, as the ‘purpose’, so to speak, of humans and domestic animals are similar, what is there to justify killing an animal who is sick without knowing their condition yet having the ability to verify it? In my opinion, it is difficult to find such a justification. If I had a baby who was sick (I chose a baby to illustrate my point as they, like animals, have little ability to express themselves) I would not wish that the baby die and that I have another who is healthy. I would wish for the survival of my current baby. In my opinion this logically should have been the situation with the cat.

It just seems unfair to me that the cat did not have a say in this. Obviously, cats never have a say, but sometimes it is much more obvious as to what they would wish to happen. If a cat is lying on the consultant room table looking seriously sick, and has been so for weeks, then it is highly reasonable to suggest that it may be the best option to end its life. Contrastly, sick as this cat probably was, it was walking around (between its odd noises) and enjoying the affection I was giving it as it rubbed its face against my hand. That, in my view, is not a total lack of happiness. There may still have been the will to live in that cat. Therefore (and I stress) if the reason was not mainly financial as it seemed to not be in the aforementioned case, then it does not seem justifiable to have put the cat down.

But I suppose there really is no objective answer to euthanasia cases such as these; ultimately it is the client’s decision… I just believe that an owner should take more care as to when and why their cat’s life is ended.

I must just outline that I have nothing against this owner at all, and fully appreciate that there may have been many other reasons behind her decision of which I am unaware; this was mainly a discursive and reflective discussion for interest only. I do not by any means believe that my view is necessarily the right or absolute one, and do not intend to offend any animal owners with my comments so am sorry if I have done so. I was just itching to talk about this because animal welfare is something I am really passionate about and it really made me consider how we should value our pets! It has also shown me the importance of people skills in practice, which all the unis stress but which can only really be understood in situations like these. So I thank the vet for that :)