Why Veterinarians Should Stop Calling Euthanasia a "Gift"
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Jessica Pierce, Psychology Today / Animal Emotions
November 2018

It isn’t helpful to be told that euthanasia is a gift, because “gift-giving” isn’t what it feels like to make the decision to end the life of your best friend. It feels like you are having your heart ripped from your chest.

Cat KayDee
KayDee (11/26/00-2/10/17) was as sweet as she was beautiful

One of my readers—a woman named Lauren—brought to my attention a recent article published in Veterinary Practice News called “Rethinking Euthanasia.” In “Rethinking,” the author offers various ways for veterinarians to reconceptualize euthanasia, to relieve some of the rampant moral distress associated with a daily job that involves ending the lives of companion animals. She also gives advice about how veterinarians should talk to clients about euthanasia, to make the experience less painful. The key, it seems, is to place euthanasia within a narrative of what is “natural” for animals, to simplify moral complexities, and, as much as possible, wipe away any feelings of moral discomfort, uncertainty, or guilt that pet owners might be feeling when facing end-of-life decisions for a critically or terminally ill animal.

This is exactly the wrong advice.

There are many threads to untangle, but here I want to focus on one: the insistence that euthanasia always be spoken of as a “gift” that humans bestow upon domesticated animals.

Euthanasia as gift

At the very beginning, the author of “Rethinking” advises this:

First of all, we need to avoid using negative self-talk words and phrases such as kill, take a life, put down, put to sleep, playing God, etc. Using these words contributes to ethics fatigue and compassion fatigue. Instead, we should strive to always use positive words and phrases, such as help, transition, escort, lift, give back, kindness, gift, cross over, peaceful and painless passing, etc.

What is wrong with “gift” language? It is kitschy and patronizing, for one. For another, it replaces with euphemism what is much better spoken of in plain, straightforward, honest terms (for example, “hastening death.”) Finally, it tries to reduce what is, in fact, an extraordinarily complex moral decision to a bright, simple package (“the gift of a loving euthanasia as we escort them over the Rainbow Bridge.”)

Here is what Lauren wrote. She says it more eloquently than I could have:

This article actually disturbs me in a way. I've long been bothered by the prolific use of language portraying euthanasia as a 'gift' that we not only can but are obligated to bestow upon our pets and this article does precisely that. Not only that but it elevates vets to the level of clergy administering 'last rites' of sorts to animals. As well it also encourages vet staff to use language to manipulate the decisions of pet owners.

Basically, it says: "Don't think of euthanasia as ending a life. That's depressing. Do think of it as giving the pet the gift of a peaceful passing and escorting it to the other side...that sounds much better. And it also helps you communicate to clients how it is their duty to choose euthanasia."

The “gift” approach seeks to absolve pet owners from responsibility for a hard choice—but absolution is not necessarily what they want or need. They are in the process of making one of the most difficult decisions of their lives. Many pet owners facing end-of-life choices have been agonizing for days, weeks, sometimes months about how best to love and support their companion, about whether the scales will ever tip in the direction of needing to hasten death to relieve suffering. Support for the choice pet owners make is essential—whether this choice is to opt for immediate euthanasia, to wait until tomorrow or next week to see how their animal is doing, or to support their animal with palliative measures through a natural death. Above all, pet owners need support which doesn’t obscure or gloss over the difficulty of their decisions but digs into the moral complexity.

Lauren went on to write:

I can tell you that as a pet owner, I want to have options, a set of tools with which to help my animal through end of life. Euthanasia is one of those tools and maybe it would end up being the most appropriate tool. But I want to know all of the tools available and select the one that makes the most sense. What I do not want is one of those tools to be presented in such a way that I would feel guilty if I didn't select that tool. Especially when that tool happens to be ending a life.

Because let's face it. Euthanasia *is* ending a life, regardless of whatever "uplifting" language you dress it up with. Let's not lose sight of that.

The author of “Rethinking” is suggesting ways that veterinarians can avoid moral distress, by shifting how they think and talk to clients about euthanasia. I’m not sure this is an effective response to moral distress among veterinarians. Perhaps it would be better to deal head-on with the moral difficulties of killing companion animals rather than sweep the moral issues aside, where they are likely to accumulate like dust bunnies in a neglected corner.

And veterinarians are not the only ones who suffer from moral distress. Pet owners trying to navigate end-of-life decisions for a companion animal suffer, too. Based on my many conversations with pet owners (and my own experiences), pet owners above all want support and advice as they work through the moral complexities of the decision to euthanize—when, where, whether, etc. It isn’t helpful to be told that euthanasia is a gift, because “gift-giving” isn’t what it feels like to make the decision to end the life of your best friend. It feels like you are having your heart ripped from your chest.

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