The decision to end a pet dog’s, cat’s, or other animal’s life is never an easy one. Different ethical value systems give individuals slightly different rules for making this decision. Here, for what they’re worth, are mine.
1. If the animal is going to die and is likely to infect other animals, obviously you want to destroy it at once. Animals don’t recover from rabies, distemper, or viral leukemia. Nor do they lie down and die quietly. Put them out of their misery before they put anyone else into the same kind of misery.
2. If there is a chance that the animal may recover, obviously you want to help it recover. “Lifeboat decisions” are irrelevant and silly. Of course there’s a healthy animal somewhere who would appreciate your love as much as an injured animal does. So? Maybe you can adopt the healthy one too.
3. If the animal is likely to survive, but with a disability, I’d recommend not being too hasty to decide what the animal can and can’t live with. Some animals, as well as some humans, live productively and contentedly with disabilities.
4. If the animal seems likely to benefit from a simple surgical procedure, like correcting a broken bone or removing a skin tumor, I’d incline toward trying it.
5. If the animal’s condition seems to suggest something analogous to “heroic medical measures” performed for humans, I’d think long and hard. Many humans refuse “heroic measures,” life-support machinery, open-heart surgery, organ transplants, etc., because they suspect that the pain and danger involved in these procedures may outweigh any possible benefit the procedures can bring. This can easily be the case for animals, whose lives are shorter and who have more undiagnosed disease conditions. Humans rarely go back to work, or live even five years, after dialysis is recommended; I wouldn’t be inclined to experiment with dialysis for a dog.
6. If the animal’s condition seems to suggest that it would be in pain, I’d try to let the animal tell me how bad it thought the pain was. Cats’ neurological systems are structurally similar to humans, but cats, dogs, horses, and other animals are very different from humans. In humans, we know that reactions to comparable types and degrees of pain vary drastically. After initially feeling the pain of an injury much as we would, other species may have more efficient access to their bodies’ “natural painkillers.” If an animal screams, twitches, bites itself, or attacks others, it probably does need either pain medication or euthanasia. If it walks stiffly, limps, makes certain movements differently, recoils when touched in certain places, but otherwise seems content, it can probably handle whatever pain it’s feeling.
7. If the animal’s situation seems likely to cause stress, I would never blame the animal for acting stressed. Some animal shelters try to identify the sweet-tempered, lovable animals by torture-testing each “rescued” animal’s personality. Animals who growl when they’re slapped, when food is offered to them and then yanked away, etc., are euthanized. Funnily enough, although most of the cats who’ve stayed at the Cat Sanctuary more than three months have become cuddly pets, run to me when called, followed me about, sat on my knees for as long as they had the chance, never seriously scratched or bitten any human, never harmed other cats, and generally been about as sweet-tempered as I could stand, I think all of them would have growled, and most of them would have bitten, if they’d been slapped. However...
8. If an animal has deliberately killed a human, I wouldn’t try the hands-off approach to rehabilitating that animal. A few years ago, we all saw a well-known television tiger maim its human companion. The man actually wanted to salvage his relationship with that tiger, saying that it was just having a bad day! Exceptions might be made for guard dogs who obey their humans’ orders to protect their humans from violent attacks...but the professionals who train police dogs for that purpose have not forced the law to recognize these exceptions.
9. Animals can have psychotic disorders, just like humans. I personally am not convinced that we know enough about diagnosing and treating psychotic disorders in humans to start trying this with animals. I once knew a small dog who had either spasms of lingering pain from nerve damage, or flashbacks of post-traumatic stress disorder, after being beaten. I personally would not have chosen to live with that dog, although humans I respected did. I would not have wanted to risk aggravating that dog’s obvious distress with tardive dyskinesia or Prozac-type dementia or similar painful side effects. If she'd been my dog, I would have had her euthanized.
10. Sometimes it seems that animals can live with horrific diagnoses because they don’t know what the labels applied to their symptoms mean. When my cat Mogwai was five months old, she went spastic, and her eyes seemed to lose focus; her squirrelliness was diagnosed as a likely symptom of a brain tumor. “CAT scans” aren’t done on cats, so we didn't really know whether it was a tumor or just a neurological symptom of an infection. Although Mogwai was a Listening Cat, if the words “brain tumor” meant anything to her, it must have been “How can I squeeze as much enjoyment into every minute of life as possible?”Or, “So I get dizzy sometimes, so I fall down sometimes, so I have a tremor now and then, so what? I’m still the cutest kitten you ever saw.” So I paid for a course of antibiotics, aware that they might only aggravate the pain of Mogwai's last days if she had a brain tumor...and she recovered.
Most cats don't seem to understand human words at all. Many cats are deaf. Mogwai was exceptional. She definitely did understand labels like "funny-looking." She also understood the nonverbal nuances with which humans express the different meanings of "funny." She would do, and call attention to, and repeat behavior that humans considered funny/amusing/cute, like folding herself up in an empty take-out box the cats had been allowed to lick clean, or lowering herself from a tree or stepladder onto my shoulder. But once, when an old, grumpy, censorious volunteer said things like "There's something not right about that kitten" and "Isn't 'Mogwai' some kind of devil name?", she growled and sank her claws into his skin.
When I wrote the first draft of this article (meant for Yahoo, never posted there), Mogwai's condition still seemed a bit precarious. Although she responded well to the first dose of the antibiotic, her hind legs remained slightly spastic for weeks afterward. She pushed herself to build strength and coordination, though, and by the time she grew into her legs she was a strong, bold, and graceful cat.
"Should you let that poor kitten suffer so?" Let's just say I'm glad I did. During the three years she stayed at the Cat Sanctuary Mogwai was a real pet. I have to admit that, although I care about animals in general, I don't really bond with most of the cats who've lived with me. With Mogwai I did. She was the most affectionate cat on the place; she took over her uncle Mackerel's job of listening to human words and communicating them to other animals, so she really was a friend and partner as well as a cuddly pet. And even as an awkward kitten with long, stiff, spastic legs, she didn't seem to be "suffering" unbearably; as a mature cat she seems, so far as we can know these things, to be healthy and happy.