Should Vets Ever Euthanize a Healthy Pet?

Last Will and Testament

“I am a veterinarian, and one of my clients is an elderly woman who loves her 8-year-old Pomeranian dearly but has no family or friends who might inherit it. She wants me to sign a legal document stating that I will euthanize it if she dies before the dog does. What should I do?” NAME WITHHELD, BOSTON

So begins this past Sunday's ethical conundrums column in The New York Times Magazine. The paper's “ethicist,” Ariel Kaminer, is always looking for new moral morasses, and this one is familiar ground for me.

I’ve had at least three clients ask me to help make their final wishes legally binding on behalf of their pets. In all three case, in the event of an untimely death, the owners wanted euthanasia for their pets — my patients.

These individuals — trusted clients whose commitment to their pets was beyond reproach — had come to the same conclusion. Each said, "If my pet can't find a loving forever home within X amount of time after my demise, then I want my pet to be euthanized, so he doesn’t have to suffer the loss of his lifelong companion (me) and be subjected to the vagaries of the shelter or rescue system."

I understand well, as all veterinarians must, how difficult it is to find homes for even the most attractive of pets (much less middle-aged, foul-tempered Pomeranians), which is why I can get behind this kind of end-of-life decision-making — albeit uncomfortably.

I actually applaud owners who can rise to this level of selfless commitment on behalf of their pets — it has to be terrifying to come to terms with what your mortality means for those you’re responsible for in your life.

However, the vast majority of the pet-loving populace appears to be opposed to this seemingly draconian approach to animals whose people have up and died on them. Why does the animal deserve to die? If he can go on enjoying life, who are we to ask our pets to pay the final price?

Kaminer presented this very argument in her Sunday column, “A Dog’s Right to Life.” After consulting with animal liberation advocate Peter Singer, she concluded that pet owners who ask veterinarians to help them in this way are condemning their pets to the most “capricious of death sentences,” that these owners are merely “trying, however misguidedly, to get [their] affairs in order.”

After effectively judging these owners as people who can't possibly have their pets’ best interests at heart, Kaminer offers the following advice to vets who find themselves in this ethically uncomfortable scenario: “If you want to give her peace of mind, guarantee that Pomeranian a loving adoption, rather than an untimely demise.”

She might as well have said, “Let them eat cake.”

My reply: I commend these pet owners for taking the time to really consider in advance who will be responsible for their pets upon their deaths. The reality is that there are no guarantees; a beloved dog or cat can still end up in a shelter. And while we're on the topic, here's another side to this ethics debate: Should it really be the veterinarian’s role to find these pets homes just because it’s wrong to euthanize animals who could theoretically live happy lives? How many animals can we be responsible for?

What do you think? Do you have a plan for who would care for you pet if you died? Would you ever ask your vet to euthanize your dog or cat at a last resort if the pet was going to be homeless? Please leave a comment!

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