Euthanasia: A Difficult Decision

Euthanasia has been at the forefront of public discussions lately. While it has always been an emotionally charged topic within the animal welfare community, ever since human medicine began looking into end of life decisions and physician assisted death, euthanasia has been pushed further into the spotlight.

The word euthanasia originated in ancient Greece. It is a composition of Eu and Thanatos, meaning good death. What exactly does that mean? Is death ever good?

While most of us agree that a life should never be taken casually, there are circumstances where the decision to euthanize is the right one. But what is a legitimate reason and who decides? Me? You? Society? The law?

The fundamental questions are whether taking a life is ever justifiable, and whether death can ever be preferable to life, no matter what that particular life looks like. This is exactly where we reach the great divide, the Grand Canyon that separates different attitudes, beliefs, and convictions.

Does every living thing have an inherent right to live? Can we decide who lives and who dies? If so, on what basis? Objective science or subjective opinion? Ask the patient? This is possible in human medicine, yet impossible when we face members of the animal kingdom.

We cannot talk to our pets to find out what they consider a good quality of life. We are unable to ask them whether or not they are still enjoying their life if they cannot move around freely, cannot play, are incontinent, blind, and deaf. We can only try to assess their quality of life by watching them. Yes, in the end, based on our own experiences and our knowledge of what they enjoyed throughout their lives, we do make quality of life judgements for them. Then we make a decision that is, hopefully, based on empathy and compassion.

No one wants their pets to suffer and yet this is another dilemma. Just as quality of life is something different for everyone, so is suffering. In addition to physical suffering, mental suffering should also be considered.

On the physical level, we can all agree that uncontrollable pain qualifies as causing suffering. However, with enough drugs patients can be made pain free. They are unconscious and unresponsive, but they are still alive. Or are they? What about animals who are slowly suffocating and gasping for breath?

In regards to mental suffering, how distraught is a dog who was housetrained and suddenly loses the ability to let her owner know when nature calls and begins messing in her house, one she was trained to keep clean? We can’t know. And we never will.

When is euthanasia an option? I don’t have a universal answer. Actually, in this case, I don’t believe there is one. We all have to find our comfort zone within our own framework of philosophical attitudes, moral values, and ethical belief systems.

As pet owners we should not shy away from this decision and our pet’s best interests should guide us.

The decision to euthanize an animal, especially one we have shared our life with for years, is one of the most difficult decisions there is. I believe that in the end we owe them a good death. Just as we have provided them with the best possible life.

In my opinion, euthanasia is a viable end-of-life option. It is acceptable, and yes, even preferable if the alternative would be an unacceptable quality of life. As a veterinarian, if I cannot help my patients in any other way, I am very proud and, yes even happy, to at least be able to provide them with a good death.

Article submitted by Dr. Sandra Neumann

Pet Allergies and the Myth of the Hypoallergenic Pet

Submitted by Meaghan West, RVT

The prevalence of pet related allergies has risen dramatically in recent years, with most reported sensitivities related to cats and dogs. These allergic reactions can range from mild discomfort to anaphylaxis; hair, dander, saliva, and urine can all be sources of allergens. The misconception of “hypoallergenic” and “non-shedding” pets may seem to provide hope to those who love the company of cats and dogs, but this is nothing more than a lucrative marketing ploy.

Allergens are proteins that cause an immune system response. An allergic response may result from the ingestion or inhalation of these proteins, as well as direct skin contact. The immune system is not static and the severity of reactions may decrease over time from regular exposure; however, it is also possible for allergic reactions to become more severe from continued exposure.

Unfortunately, when it comes to pets, “hypoallergenic” does not mean the animal is allergen free. Rather, it means fewer than average allergens are produced by the animal. The concept of a “non-shedding” animal is a clever marketing ploy, as all animals with hair, fur, and feathers must shed. However, this does not mean that those who suffer from pet allergies are out of luck, only that finding the right pet may take some time, effort, and out of the box thinking.

Prior to getting a dog or cat consider a breed with hair rather than fur, as these breeds tend to shed less and have shorter coats. Dogs (e.g., Poodles, Bichon Frises, and Portuguese Water Dogs) and cats (e.g., Cornish Rex and Devon Rex) with hair also lack the dense undercoat that is often shed seasonally in other breeds. Mixes of these breeds also tend to have fewer allergens than average as well. It is important to note that genetics and breeding are not simple equations; keep in mind that every puppy or kitten in a litter is neither a copy of their siblings nor their parents. A pet may not trigger an allergic response, while a littermate or parent could produce a very different effect.

Younger animals produce fewer allergens than adult animals, which could result in an increase in allergic symptoms as the animal ages. Adopting an adult animal decreases the chance of causing an unexpected reaction. Surprisingly, female cats and dogs, and males who have been neutered, also produce fewer allergens; another excellent reason to spay and neuter!

Daily brushing and routine bathing can help minimize allergens in the home by removing dust, pollen, dead hair, and dander from your pet, while also promoting a healthy coat. Proper hygiene after handling pets (e.g., routine handwashing) can eliminate many allergens from being transported to the eyes and nose. Limiting a pet’s access to human sleeping areas, using HEPA filters, and regular vacuuming will also reduce allergens. Keeping cats inside also ensures that they are not bringing in extra dust and pollen, which may trigger additional allergic responses. Antihistamines and medication may also alleviate the symptoms of pet allergies.

While cats and dogs may be the most common source of allergens for potential pet owners, there are many species other than cats and dogs that can make wonderful companions. Rabbits, guinea pigs, and birds are all social animals that enjoy human interaction (e.g., cuddling, grooming, agility, and learning tricks), and may be an alternative for those with specific allergies to cats and dogs. Hand friendly reptiles such as bearded dragons, leopard geckos, and crested geckos can be a great alternative to pets with fur or feathers. It is important to remember that those animals marketed as 100% allergen free are marketing scams aimed to take advantage of you and the animal. Do not fall victim to these clever marketing schemes and false claims; a wonderful pet is waiting for you whether it has fur, feathers, or scales.