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October 23rd, 2012
October 23rd, 2012

How pets feel pain - and when to say goodbye

When, if ever, is the right time?

Image: Janie Airey/Getty
Image: Janie Airey/Getty
Caroline Williams - Contributor

Jessica Pierce is very much my kind of dog person. The kind who will happily scatter an odd-looking assortment of rugs around the house to stop her elderly dog from slipping on the wooden floor, and who will - slightly less happily - get up several times each night for a year to let him in and out of the garden. All the while worrying about when and how she will know itīs time to let him go.

There is no shortage of books chronicling the lives of much-loved dogs, but The Last Walk is different in that, as well as being a memoir of the final year of Pierceīs dog Ody, it asks difficult questions about when, if ever, it is right to “put an animal out of its misery”. A bioethicist, Pierce asks what misery truly looks like to an animal. How do they experience pain and suffering? What, if anything, do they know about death? And what constitutes a good death for an animal?

For me, this book couldnīt have come at a better time. Having discovered that my beloved 13-year-old dog, Molly, has cancer, we made the heart-wrenching decision to stop the chemotherapy because the side effects proved too much for her. Now we are on a countdown of weeks to months and - like most people in our position - are determined to make it as free of pain and suffering as possible.

Unfortunately, as Pierce discovers, there are few clear answers. Animal pain is still hotly debated in science. Some argue that while animals definitely sense pain, they donīt suffer it the way we do because they donīt share our emotional responses. Pierce shares some shocking anecdotes from the days when this view was widespread, including tales of veterinary students operating on dogs with sedation but no pain relief. Thankfully my own vet reassures me that, at least for the past 20 years in the UK, pain relief has been top of the agenda, based on the assumption that however animals experience pain, itīs probably not nice.

Of course, weighing up when an animal has had enough is not just about the pain. Is an animal that has become incontinent really “ashamed” of lying in its own mess? And is that reason enough to call the vet? Again, there are no clear answers, save for a not-particularly-scientific "Quality of Life" measure that rates the petīs life on scales of 1-10 for such things as "mobility", "happiness" and "more good days than bad". Itīs helpful, but clearly not objective: I rate Molly as lower on the mobility scale than Pierce does for Ody, even though Molly can still (stiffly) chase squirrels and Ody, by this stage of the book, can barely stand.

Still, I found The Last Walk to be a useful tool for gauging my feelings about euthanasia and the only alternative - a natural but probably lingering death. The Animal Hospice movement in the US seems, to me, a step too far, especially the kind that "treat" dying pets with homeopathy and aromatherapy and a tickle behind the ears, while they admire the animalīs "evolved spirit". I can almost see Molly rolling her eyes - why the hell would a dog need aromatherapy? What would it even involve? Sausage oil massage? Chicken scented baths?

Having decided that death by needle is probably kinder, I read the chapters about Odyīs death with tears running down my face. I still canīt bear the thought of it but at least I now know that science canīt tell me the "right time" any more than my instincts can, and no matter what I do I will probably feel guilty anyway.

The Last Walk is a book that all loving pet owners should read. Nothing will make the prospect of ending a good friendīs life any easier, but at least it can help those awful decisions feel less of a stab in the dark.

Note from Pet Loss Care:
Please take advantage of our Comments section and share your thoughts on this very emotional topic. Palliative Care Hospices for pets have recently taken off in the USA in big numbers, and with it lots of debate on when 'enough is enough.'  Having gone through 2 home euthanasias, one in July 2010 and one as recently as Oct 2012, hearing your experiences or stories may be helpful to those facing this decision.

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