Janet Stevens column: Deciding about the end for an animal

Janet Stevens /

A group of us got to talking about horses the other day, specifically old or ill animals that clearly were suffering. Those animals, we agreed, would be better off — out of pain — if their owner made the decision to have them euthanized.

Too often, people don’t.

For some, it’s a matter of philosophy: Killing is wrong, no matter what the circumstances.

Others may be less high minded in their decision-making — they’re moving or simply sick of taking care of what was once a cute puppy and now is a 60-pound kibble-consuming dog who sheds nine months a year.

Those reasons ring false.

Putting an animal to sleep because it’s become an inconvenience is about as selfish an act as I can imagine. When we bring animals into our lives, we do so with conditions, I believe.

Chief among them is the recognition that they’re living, breathing beings and as such are entitled not to be treated like old shoes, disposed of when they’re no longer convenient or needed. I do recognize that there are times when an animal and its owner must separate. However, separation and euthanasia are not the same thing.

The responsible pet owners I know work first to place a pet they cannot keep into an appropriate home with an owner who will feed, care for and, yes, love the animal as long as it lives. If no such home exists immediately, responsible owners may resort to taking their pets to a rescue organization that will take on the task of finding an appropriate new home for those pets.

What they do not do is dump the cat in the desert or take the dog to the vet to have it euthanized. The former is cruel — cats may have nine lives, but if they’ve spent 10 years indoors, they’re probably not adept hunters, for one thing — and both show a disdain for the living that is troublesome at best.

It’s just as bad, I think, to refuse to euthanize an animal out of some belief that doing so is morally wrong.

There’s considerable research being done these days about dogs and their emotional lives, and the findings only serve to confirm what pet lovers have known all along.

Dogs do have feelings, it turns out. That might come as a surprise to some, who still cling to the old-fashioned view that pets are little more than living machines, wound up for whatever their lifespan but unable to feel “real” pain or attach to anyone (you can thank the French philosopher Rene Descartes for that outdated idea).

Their minds are, researchers say, like those of a 2½-year-old child, both in intellect and emotion. They understand simple commands, and they do love, though in a more limited way than a 30-year-old woman might. They feel affection, joy, suspicion, contentment, distress, disgust, shyness, anger, pain … but not guilt, contempt, pride or shame.

Researchers say cats have feelings, too, though because they’re relatively new members of human households (domesticated about 5,000 years ago, compared to 12,000 years ago for dogs) and because breeding is difficult to control, studying them can be tricky.

What neither cats nor dogs, nor horses, for that matter, have is freedom of choice. As companion animals, they live as their owners wish. They eat when a human feeds them what the human believes they should be fed. We, not they, choose when they’re indoors or outside, on a walk or looking for a place to hide from noisy small human guests.

And that puts a huge responsibility on pet owners, it seems to me. More even than all but the youngest children, our pets rely on us to be humane caretakers. We must feed, shelter and otherwise tend to our animals, or find someone who will do so if we no longer can.

And, most difficult, we too often must decide when they will die. Making that decision hurts, no doubt about it. But failing to make it should hurt worse. Neither my geezer dog nor aged cat can tell me in no uncertain terms that it’s time to let them go, but to miss that time by much allows them to suffer in ways I don’t think they should. They give us too much to put them through that at the end.

— Janet Stevens is deputy editor of The Bulletin. Contact: 541-617-7821 or jstevens@bendbulletin.com.