There is nothing natural about letting your sick pet pass away at home.
Pets are indoor companion animals. They provide a very unique type of companionship for us. We develop emotional bonds with them and want to provide healthy enjoyable lives for them.
To accomplish this, we protect them from common highly contagious diseases by immunization. We give them medicine when needed. We shelter them and feed them well.
Because of our efforts, pets live safer, higher-quality lives with us. And they live much, much longer lives. Many pets live so long now that the most common causes of death are cancer and chronic kidney failure. Pets are able to live with many medical conditions that modern veterinary medicine can manage and still allow for good quality of life.
Dying gently without prolonged suffering is something virtually all of us want, but only some of us will get. But it is something we can give to our pets.
But we must recognize that this extension of life is not natural. It is a human-created phenomenon. In most cases, it isn't natural for pets to live so long that they develop cancer, severe dental disease, debilitating arthritis or chronic organ failure. And it certainly isn't natural to continue living with those things, often for several years.
Modern medicine is able to treat and improve pets' lives but sometimes only to a point. When a pet's condition is beyond further help and his or her quality of life is deteriorating, believing that he or she can simply drift away peacefully is wishful thinking.
Wild animals that suffer injury or disease weaken and become prey for larger predators. They do not tend to suffer long. Even an apex predator that is severely ill or injured will likely die quickly. The vast majority of pets no longer have this quick death. When we domesticate animals, keep them indoors, and provide for them in other ways, we eliminate their truly natural deaths in almost all cases.
A pet with an advanced illness is living in a state that nature would never allow. A pet who is severely ill may feel too sick to eat and be too weak to drink. He or she likely won't die directly of his or her disease but, instead, will curl up somewhere and dehydrate to death over a few days. That isn't an easy or comfortable death. We can do better than this. As a veterinarian and a pet owner with compassion for animals, I beg you to do better than this.
We make up for this lack of swift natural death in our pets by providing euthanasia. We are capable of curing and managing many medical conditions in pets. We are also capable of giving them an easy, gentle death when further help isn't wanted or possible.
If you are afraid that pet euthanasia hurts or is scary, please talk to your veterinarian. If you've witnessed a euthanasia that was anything but peaceful and gentle, it was done badly. Heavy sedation prior to a final injection during euthanasia eliminates pets' fear and tendency to wiggle or appear to struggle. It is easier on the pet, as well as the owner and staff.
Part of having a pet is being responsible for his or her well-being throughout life. This includes the end of life. Dying gently without prolonged suffering is something virtually all of us want, but only some of us will get. But it is something we can give to our pets.
Dr. Kelly Kasum is an associate veterinarian at East Towne Veterinary Clinic. Dr. Kelly has practiced general small animal medicine and surgery in Illinois, Iowa, and Wisconsin.