Monday, 15 August 2022
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Stuart Allison: Lingering thoughts from a difficult choice

As any dog lover will tell you, the most unfortunate thing about dogs is that they don’t live long enough. We recently said our final good-byes to our elderly springer spaniel, Sherman. He came to us as a 10-year-old rescue dog who was in such bad shape that I didn’t think he would last another year. He was with us for four and a half years. We never learned his actual birthday, but he was probably between 14 and a half and 15 years old.

In his time with us Sherman proved himself to be a rather droll companion. He was often comical (although I suspect that was unintentional), frequently stubborn, and at times exasperating — in other words a classic dog. In the end his liver was failing him and he was in rapid decline. I have seen other dogs go through liver failure and if it goes on too long it can be an extremely painful time for the dog. I didn’t want Sherman to suffer so I scheduled a final appointment with the veterinarian, and I took him in one last time. It is a terrible thing to do, a terrible decision to make, and the last ride was exceedingly painful for me. Sherman seemed blissfully unaware of what was going on, which was a bit of a blessing for me. I was with him to the very end — I owed him that much.

The fact that we can make the decision to have our pets put down leads to the question of whether it is the right thing for us to do. Yes we can make this choice, but should we? Many years ago the best dog I have ever owned, my border collie Sasha the wonder dog, was suffering from liver and kidney failure. Sasha was with me during a difficult time in my life — a period when I finished up graduate school, spent about nine months doing odd jobs as I struggled to find a position in my field, finally found a position in New Jersey (and then for many reasons was extremely unhappy living there), and went through a painful breakup with a long time fiancé. I often feel that Sasha is the one thing, the one person in some ways, who kept me going during that time. She was always happy to see me, loved to walk and run with me, and never cared whether I was gainfully employed or not, where I lived, whether I was single or not. I couldn’t bring myself to say goodbye to her and she was truly miserable during her last month. I didn’t want Sherman to suffer the same way, so I took him to the vet before he too became truly miserable. And I wonder — did I act too quickly? Did I rob him of good days and weeks? Or was it better to make sure he didn’t suffer? I don’t think there is a right answer to those questions, yet I will be working through them for a long time.

I also wonder what my dogs would do if our roles were reversed, if I was the one terminally ill and they had to make a decision about whether or not I should be allowed to go on, to decide when is the right time to step in and end suffering? I am anthropomorphizing terribly and imagining my dogs have qualities they almost certainly lack, but in my imagination, Sasha would do everything in her power to keep me going and would hang on as long as possible. On the other hand, I imagine that Sherman would be oblivious to my situation, and if for some reason we were living alone and I died at home, he wouldn’t notice anything was amiss until I had been dead for a few days. Then, in a fit of hunger, like the dogs and cats of urban myth, he would probably eat my body. After all, he really liked eating dead things — the smellier the better.

Rene Descartes claimed that animals simply respond to stimuli and have no higher mental functions (he was wrong — although we may never know what animal consciousness is like for any one species or individual). He sometimes thought that perhaps we would be better off if we were like horses in the field — enjoying the sun and our hay and not thinking about the future, unaware of our looming mortality. There are some advantages to being less conscious of what the future may hold. But the advantages come with a cost — our pets implicitly trust us to make the right decisions for them and some of the decisions we make are irrevocably final. Being supplied with food and a home is a big cost to pay for placing your trust and faith in another. And I will forever struggle with wondering whether I truly deserve their trust.

Stuart Allison is the Watson Bartlett Professor of Biology and Conservation at Knox College.


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