Why the option of euthanasia has stunted palliative care's development in the animal world

Should the veterinary profession’s justification for euthanasia ever apply to human beings?

Should the veterinary profession’s justification for euthanasia ever apply to human beings?

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My beloved Labrador was almost 15 years old when, in the last few weeks of her life, her back legs began to give way.

Having once been the most devious and gluttonous food thief, she had become painfully thin.

She spent much of her time drinking copiously and, in addition to the effects of old age, we suspected kidney failure and malignancy.

But despite her appearance I never thought she was suffering, at least until her last days. If I produced a ball, she shook off 14 of her 15 years and played like a puppy again.

During her final six months many people, including family members, asked me if I thought it was cruel to keep her going.

Even our trusted vet had tentatively suggested euthanasia, but I said she had a decent quality of life, even if it was not the fun life she once knew.

She was old, not suffering, and should we practice euthanasia just because an animal gets old? 


Then, things changed. While out in the woods one day, her back legs failed her and we had to carry her home. For the first time, she had not objected to being picked up.

I took her to the vet – a personal friend and a kindly man, who was thinking of the dog’s welfare – who was ready to put her to sleep there and then.

I came close to agreeing, but then asked him if it was worth trying her on some steroids.

He had never heard of this trick that most of us who work in human palliative care know well, but he agreed – after all, we had little to lose.

So we gave her steroids and the next day, she woke up. Her legs were working, she ate her breakfast and came for a walk.

This respite lasted for only a few days, but they were good days.

One argument made by people who are pro-euthanasia – ‘We don’t let dogs suffer, why should humans suffer?’ – makes me uneasy.

I agree with the sentiment, but only up to a point.

It’s true that we don’t let dogs suffer, but nor do we explore good palliative care for them.

Palliative care

Old age and a potentially terminal illness are good reasons to end the life of an animal. And, because such euthanasia is acceptable, there is no drive to explore palliation and end of life care.

What if euthanasia became as acceptable for humans as it has become for animals? Would families be accused of cruelty for keeping their relatives alive?

When would life be considered futile? When a terminal diagnosis has been made or in great old age?

Most worrying of all, would the great strides we have made in specialist palliative care become redundant as our dependence on them lessens?

I have the greatest respect for the veterinary profession, but had I listened to them when my dog got old, thin, slow and a bit wobbly, she and I would have missed out on some happy, special moments.

I feel strongly that the option of euthanasia has stunted the development of palliative care in the animal world.

I would be interested to know the views of our readers.

About the author

Nicola_JamesNicola James is a nurse consultant at Morriston Hospital in Swansea, Wales

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