Meditation: Euthanasia

Euthanasia is defined as the painless killing of a patient suffering from an incurable and painful disease or in an irreversible coma. The practice is illegal in most countries. When I read this, I did not realize that there may be some countries that have legal euthanasia. While there are a lot of countries that have laws that allow assisted suicide, there are only 3 that have legalized euthanasia. They are Luxembourg, Norway, and Belgium, with Norway being the first to do so, in 2002. Euthanasia at first glance seems like a straightforward process. If someone is having extreme pain and suffering, and it is due to a terminal illness, then the kindest most humane thing to do would be to terminate their life. What about a person that has extreme senility due to Alzheimer disease or aging, how much pain and suffering is going on there? It doesn’t take much of one’s imagination, to see how this is a very controversial subject. Being a veterinarian, I had firsthand experience in being the administrator of drugs to euthanize dogs and cats. Over a 44-year veterinary career, I euthanized well over 5000 dogs and cats, for various reasons. Of course, it was the owners of these animals that made the final decision, sometimes with or without my guidance. Even though euthanasia in theory sounds like a kind and gentle thing to do, I would not support making human euthanasia legal. Let’s look more closely at my experience in veterinary medicine.

This is just one veterinarian’s opinion, when it came to the decision-making process of putting their beloved pet to sleep, I grouped people into three areas. I felt 50% of people euthanized their pet too soon, 25% waited too long, and 25% did it at the right time. This did not include people that put their pet to sleep for non-medical reasons. Some of these reasons I felt were legitimate, like financial restraints, the owner not being able to take care of the dog, and the owner’s death, where the owner wanted the pet euthanized, rather than go to another home or shelter. Sometimes, and fortunately, this did not happen often, but the reason would be rather ridiculous. I would have somebody want to put their pet to sleep because it had fleas, or they were moving, or the kids, who wanted the dog in the first place, had moved out, and would not take the dog. Naturally, I would refuse these requests, even knowing that another veterinarian might do it, or they would just take the pet to a shelter. I did not include people that because of the religious beliefs, would not euthanize a pet under any circumstances. Most people would come to the decision to euthanize their pet too soon. They came to this decision for various reasons. They overestimated how much the pet is suffering. If the dog or cat is eating and drinking and seemingly moving around ok, and still enjoys interactions with the owner, then the pet must not be doing too badly. I think that some people just got tired of taking care of the pet’s problem, or it may have become too costly. These people agonized over their decision but decided to euthanize, when the pet probably had at least a few good months left. I know some people waited too long for the simple fact they could not bring themselves to do it, until it became unbearable to see the condition that the pet was in. Here is the main reason I think that euthanasia can be sometimes, just too convenient. Over the years of practice, I saw many clients with their pets, that other veterinarians had recommended euthanasia. In well over 80% of those cases through a more thorough examination and tests, and relatively inexpensive treatments, those animals’ lives were prolonged at least 1 year or more. The quality of life for those pets were from good to excellent. In my view a year is very significant when you are talking about a dog or cat. There was no question in my mind that euthanasia was taking the easy way out for those veterinarians.

Now I know euthanasia for humans is different than what it is in veterinary medicine. The biggest is that a person is making the decision for his or herself. That does not mean however, that other people cannot be an influence on that decision. Relatives and close family members could put undue pressure on someone that they feel is having extreme pain and suffering. The opposite could be true where family members could influence a person to continue the pain and suffering, just because they do not want to lose them forever. There is no question that deciding to end one’s life can be extremely difficult but should be made with no outside influence whatsoever, other than the person’s physician. Each and every case is so unique, that it is impossible to make some general recommendation on when it is time euthanize an individual. I have watched many people agonize over that decision, when it comes to their pets, and that decision may have lifelong consequences. Those consequences may be even more so, when a loved one is involved. It does seem like a great way to alleviate much pain and suffering, and maybe someday, as a society we might progress where that decision will be allowed to be made solely by the individual involved. I do not think we have reached that point yet. We should allow the natural progression of disease take place, until that day comes.

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