You probably don’t want to read this post. It’s not warm and fuzzy. Fair warning.
There are a few topics that routinely rattle around my brain, day in and day out, because I’m not just punching the clock here, I’m trying to change the world for the better. Financing veterinary care is one of them, euthanasia is another.
Both topics plague me daily because they speak to the core of what veterinarians do.
We received a phone call recently, a “new client” who had inherited a cat. Realizing I could not get both sides of this story, and will only ever know the client’s viewpoint, this is what we were told:
The client had taken this cat to another local veterinary clinic because it was peeing all over her house. The other clinic failed to get blood and urine samples from the cat, because it was too aggressive to handle. That was fine with the client, though, because she didn’t have the money to pay for tests and treatments anyway. She asked the other clinic to euthanize the cat, and they refused on the grounds of a self-made policy that prohibited “convenience euthanasia”.
Where do we draw the line on “convenience”?
Some animal lovers insist you don’t truly “love” pets unless you’re willing to accept a certain level of discomfort. If you don’t like cat pee, you shouldn’t be allowed to get a cat in the first place, because some day, the cat may pee on your stuff, and if it does, you’d darn well be willing to suffer through it. If the cat is peeing because he’s developed diabetes, you darn well be willing to pay to treat him, give him shots twice a day, force syringe feed him if he stops eating, etc. etc. etc. ad nauseum.
If you can’t immediately afford treatment for your pets, you must be willing to rack up any available form of credit, and sell everything you own, to get your pet treated.
I mean, either you take care of them forever no matter what, or… maybe not. Where’s the line?
Perhaps a little extreme, but you get the idea. It’s easy to say “you took on the responsibility, so you ought to see it through” when you’re judging someone else. Not so easy when the cat is peeing on YOUR kitchen counter. Or your couch. Or your kid’s bedroom carpet.
Or when it’s your money on the table.
Pets are forever. Aren’t they?
Should this woman be forced to take care of an animal she did not seek to bring into her home?
Let’s recognize for the moment, that this woman, perhaps foolishly, agreed to take in someone else’s cat; obviously unable to predict today’s pee issue. She didn’t go out there to get a cat, she thought she was “rescuing” one and doing a good deed.
“Pets are forever” is all well and good, and a pious stance, but it doesn’t always work.
(This is an incredibly common, heartbreaking consequence of the overuse, and misuse, of the term “rescue”. I’m not sure it’s so wise to push pet lovers to believe that the only acceptable method of bringing a pet into your home is to remove an unwanted animal from an uncomfortable situation. Or that every. single. pet. adopted from the shelter, or “bought from a bad breeder to get it out of there”, or “rescued” off of Craigslist, qualifies as a “rescue”. But that’s a blog for another day.)
Someone else’s problem
Given the opportunity, would you adopt this exact cat knowing it may pee all over your house?
Assuming this cat has a treatable medical condition, are you willing to foot the bill?
Perhaps your first instinct is to say “if unwilling to rehome the cat herself, this woman should at the very least take him to the animal shelter and let them find him a home.”
It’s easy to insist someone else should take care of problems, that we ourselves are unwilling to take on.
The cold reality is, all the animal shelters are full. Full of healthy, young, vibrant, non-peeing cats who need a couple bucks worth of cat food every week and a clean litter box, and not much more. How much of the shelter system’s resources should be put into animals who had a chance and found themselves unwanted, when there are so many euthanized every day who never even get that first chance?
An inconvenient truth
Buying a cat (or a dog) from a breeder means a cat in the shelter, who might have otherwise been adopted into your home, must be euthanized. Makes sense, right? It’s simple math. Stopping yourself from getting cat “A” allows you to get cat “B”. Therefore, don’t shop, adopt. It’s an easy, catchy catch phrase.
If your conscience is happy with that, try this logical corollary: keeping your old, sick dog, or your unhappy, peeing cat, even if you don’t want them anymore, means a perfectly healthy and well-adjusted dog or cat at the shelter, who might otherwise have been adopted into your home, must be euthanized.
Not so easy to jump on that bandwagon, is it? But is that question really so different from “don’t shop, adopt”? Where is the line?
The logic is uncomfortably consistent. Filling your home with pet “A” instead of pet “B” means pet “B” will be euthanized. Who deserves to die more? Who ought to have the right to choose? Perhaps the person willing to give either “A” or “B” a home, but not both, should be allowed to choose which they prefer? Or should we, as society, tell them which pet they must keep, until (natural, of old age) death do they part?
Consider a (different) owner, who actually wants a cat. What if she gets one extremely grumpy or peeing cat, who cannot tolerate others and apparently is too scared to live? Should that owner keep that cat, or trade it in and open her home to five from the shelter who all get along, saving those five from euthanasia?
You may not like this question, and you may wish to push it from your mind. But please recognize that veterinarians are forced to have discussions like this with clients every day.
Does constant fear qualify as suffering?
What’s best for the cat?
Perhaps rather than jumping on the “pets are forever” bandwagon, or the “someone else’s problem” bandwagon, you default to asking yourself what is best for the animal. After all, shouldn’t veterinarians be advocates for the pet first?
That’s true, we should. But our conclusions as to what is best for the cat, may not necessarily match yours.
What if this unwanted cat is peeing on this woman’s stuff because he’s living in constant fear, and he misses his original mommy and daddy, and he doesn’t understand why he’s in this strange woman’s home? What if he is forever doomed to live a life of constant anxiety, every day peeing from sheer panic, his little heart racing? Anxiety is clearly far and away the most common cause of inappropriate urination, as we have discussed before. Is it better to insist this woman force the forever-scared cat to live in fear, or should she end his emotional suffering?
There is no magic pill that will take all this cat’s problems away. No magical place where scared animals can free themselves of Earthly woes and live a life of paradise. Well, OK, depending on your religious views, there is this one place…
If a veterinary clinic doesn’t euthanize the cat, who will?
The most uncomfortable aspect of this situation, for me at least, is knowing that if we don’t put this woman’s unwanted cat to sleep, she’ll either toss him outside or take him to the shelter. I realize we have some excellent shelters in Indianapolis, and there is a fine chance he will find a lovely home, but… maybe not. If his primary problem is anxiety, is it better to send him to yet another facility, this time lined wall to wall with other cats, and no certain future of ever leaving?
Some days, advocating for our patients means helping them die young, rather than live a long and unhappy life.
One final thought
I don’t have any answers to these questions, but this is the kind of thing a veterinarian is forced to think about all day, every day.
So the next time you hear a story of the pet owner who wants to euthanize an unwanted animal, I’d ask that you put yourself in their shoes before passing judgment.
If something in this post strikes a chord, please feel free to leave your comments below. The world can’t change if we’re not willing to discuss and brainstorm alternative answers to uncomfortable questions.