Why Do We Put Sick Pets to Sleep?

Joel Eisenberg

While it is a common and socially accepted practice to help your pet cross "the rainbow bridge," a human in extreme pain wishing for the equivalent confronts opposition fraught with political and moral argument.

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“Dog”Pixabay

If you do not own a pet, or have never owned a pet, the meaning and the heart of this article may elude you. "A pet is not the same as a human," you may say. And you would be right, of course.

Nonetheless, a pet is indeed a child for those of us who are childless, or for those of us who are still children, or even for those of us who simply consider their pet as "one of the family" and treat them as they would any other family member.

Again, if you have never owned a pet, the above may come across as banal, if not outright ridiculous. Fair. I understand. This article, then, may not be for you.

To everyone else ...

So many of us have gone through the trauma. Your pet loses its strength, perhaps it begins crying in pain. Maybe it has lost considerable weight of late. Your pet is your baby, regardless of age. You bring your pet to the vet, who orders a full blood panel following an exam. The bloodwork shows evidence of cancer, diabetes, or another serious ailment. You as the concerned owner will likely ask how much time your pet has left, or if there is anything at all the vet can do.

The doctor may tell you, like humans the dog or cat can go on until they expire ... or you can do the humane thing and put them to sleep so as to spare their pain.

You make the difficult decision. You schedule the date and time to say "goodbye" to your pet.

For further information on this process, Vets Now is a comprehensive, and sensitive, resource.

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Let us now explore the idea of "putting to sleep" an ill parent, or loved one. Assisted suicide remains one of the most controversial of all moral issues in the United States today, as it has for decades.

A personal story. My father passed away over ten years ago, a victim of biliary liver disease. It should be noted he was not a drinker, as he only sipped a glass of wine on the annual Jewish holiday of Passover. Symptoms of his illness mimicked those of Alzheimer's Disease when his ammonia levels were raised, and some substantial pain when his vitals began the long process of failing. The impact this had on his close-knit family -- myself, my two brothers and our mother -- was devastating. I wanted to give my dad a piece of my liver, but he refused, not wanting to risk his son's health. Besides, the doctor said, it was too late.

I asked for second and third opinions and received the same response.

My father, in a rare moment of lucidity in the throes of his illness, asked my mom to sign a DNR -- Do Not Resuscitate. He did not want to kept alive by artificial means.

My father had taken great pains for his family not to suffer when he was gone. Though he did not ask us for an assisted suicide, it would have been illegal anyway.

Would I have advocated for it, being that we were so close, if he had asked for it? Despite my grief, I sense I would not have been able to turn him down. But, I cannot be wholly sincere and write a definitive answer here; my action of acceptance or rejection would have to be in the real moment. That said, I see nothing morally wrong with dying with dignity, and my answer veers towards "yes."

To be clear, comparing a dog or a cat to one's parent, especially if one has been close to that parent, is a stretch for many including myself. That comment, however, does not mean I love my pet any less; I love her differently, and with as full a heart as I am capable. I love her as much as I would if I was single and alone. I consider my pet -- a rescued boxer-pit named KOKO -- to be my four-legged hairy daughter. KOKO is the apple of my eye, as well as my wife's. We take her on walks several times a day, we take her to parks ... we spend a great deal of time with her and shower her with attention and affection. And she eats it up.

I recently posted this article, to further display that affection: My Wife and I Did Not Rescue a Dog. She Rescued Us. I meant every word then as now.

Last week, KOKO had a health scare, which prompted this article. Thankfully, she is fine.

My dad, on the other hand, was my lifelong hero and best friend. No one or no thing could ever replace him, or the love I've held, and continue to hold, for him. However, the idea of putting to sleep 'any' family member -- using the term deliberately, and which for many indeed includes pets -- can represent every bit the equivalent of the pain and also the desire of wanting to put a loved one out of their misery.

I did not want my father to suffer. I could not abide seeing him suffer. Watching him descend from a strong, highly-intelligent man to a relative helpless child was not only horrible to watch but hopelessly cruel, utterly and singularly heartbreaking.

He had never mentioned, unlike some others who shared his circumstance, any thought of ending his life on his own accord.

As my family and I began the slow process of recovery following my dad's eventual passing, I considered those children of parents around the world who did not have the type of relationship I was fortunate to have with my own dad.

And that is when my mind turned to thoughts of assisted suicide, specifically of all the mothers and fathers, and sons and daughters in the world who are suffering and only want to be free of pain.

Perhaps the children of these parents were single, perhaps not. If they owned pets ... for them losing their 'child' (regardless of a parent's battle) may well have equated to the pain some of us feel when we lose biological family. For many others the same thing applies. Familial love for a pet is not exclusive to any group.

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In many states, assisted suicide, also known as "dying with dignity," is illegal. For information on assisted suicide, and state-by-state guidelines, visit DeathWithDignity.org, and for a well-rounded view of the notoriety of one man in particular who paved the way for global attention on the matter, see this Wikipedia entry on Dr. Jack Kevorkian.

My question is: Why is the matter still controversial? If a man or woman chooses to be free of pain, why should they be kept alive against their will? Further, if DNRs are common medical practice, is not the release of artificial means, also common, to keep one alive hypocritical?

These are matters of morality for some, and religion for others. But where then where fits the personal? If a person is suffering and in unbearable pain, should others have the right to determine if he or she lives or dies?

My own mind veers toward support of dying with dignity, and I believe the questions asked are questions we all need to ask moving forward.

If we put pets to sleep over illness and unbearable pain, why is doing so with a human so different? Many of those ill are single, and have no family members or friends to lean on for support.

What then?

Photo Credit: Unsplash

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I am an award-winning author, screenwriter for film and television, and producer. My mission on News Break is to share socially important perspectives on both culture and pop-culture. Member of PEN America, and the WGA.

Northridge, CA
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