DEAR DR. FOX: Your recent column, "A Time for Compassion," is one of several I have read recently regarding painless deaths for aged or ill animals. I am beginning to wonder if euthanasia is always humane and would welcome your guidelines.
We have had cats for many years. We had a veterinarian perform the life-ending procedure several times. One cat had ingested leaked vehicle coolant, and another had chronic incontinence. One cat was hit by a car and died after surgery.
Three other pets, however, were simply old, though they were not in any discernible distress. They lived out their lives with us and died in their sleep. Where possible, isn't this the perfect method?
Pets grow old, as do we. I worry that our throwaway society may inappropriately shorten their valuable lives. -- W.S.S., Easton, Md.
DEAR W.S.S.: You raise an important ethical question that can also be applied to humans. When an elderly human or other animal is starting to shut down or is terminally ill -- without intractable physical pain, fear or other emotional distress -- caregivers aim for optimizing the patient's comfort. That means basic hygiene, hydration, nutrients and appropriate analgesics. Light massage therapy, which helps hospitalized human patients from sinking into "hospital psychosis," is helpful when coupled with interaction with loved ones and caring helpers.
Similar provisions should be made for companion animals under in-home hospice care. Some may die in their sleep, but others linger. Then the question of any foreseeable recovery must be weighed against the increasing exhaustion of the caregivers, which can mean letting go -- cutting off intravenous and nasogastric tube fluid and nutrient support. An intravenous injection with a barbiturate-based euthanasia solution is the choice for companion animals. But if an animal is showing fear or distress, an intramuscular tranquilizer may be given first. Where there is intractable pain and no likelihood of recovery or any reasonable quality of life, prolonging life by any and all means (a not uncommon practice with terminally ill humans) is highly unethical, albeit highly profitable for the providers.
DEAR DR. FOX: I have a German schnauzer, Doogan, who is 13 years old. He is larger than most miniatures in height, but he is not overweight at 20 to 21 pounds. He has always been in good health -- until May 2011.
He ate very little, was sick when he did eat and was lethargic for two days. He was diagnosed with pancreatitis and hospitalized for three days for dehydration. He was put on Hills Prescription Diet w/d and is back to his old self.
My concern is that before he was ill, his eyesight was failing. He has since developed cataracts. He still tracks fairly well, but not consistently. His favorite treats are carrot and celery bites -- he can usually catch the carrots, or if he misses, he can find them easily, but he misses the celery bites and it takes a long time to locate them.
He has no problems in the house or outside during daylight, and is OK in the house at night with lights on. But at night outside, even with the yard light on, he has difficulty. Many times when I call him to come inside, he will stand to the side of the door, and I have to go out and lead him in so he won't hurt himself.
I know there is surgery for cataracts, but I don't know how successful it's been, the recovery time or precautions that need to be taken. Is it a once-in-a-lifetime procedure? I've been told that it's very expensive, and I wonder if it's still feasible considering his age. -- J.W., Lexington, N.C.
DEAR J.W.: Having your old dog's opaque lenses surgically removed would be expensive, but since Doogan might enjoy some years with improved vision, I think it is worth consideration.
Consult with a veterinary ophthalmologist who will see if your dog's loss of vision can be corrected by simply removing the lenses or if there are other issues for which there is no surgical corrective.
With the history of acute pancreatitis, now resolved, the eye specialist will be mindful of the potential risks of general anesthesia -- risks associated with poor kidney, liver, pancreas and heart functions, which tests may reveal.
If Doogan is not a good candidate for eye surgery, you may be surprised how well he adjusts to loss of vision. Dogs with good hearing and sense of smell adapt remarkably well, provided they are handled with understanding and are not fearful or panicked.
'LITTLE BOY BLUE' BOOK REVIEW
"Little Boy Blue: A Puppy's Rescue From Death Row and His Owner's Journey of Truth" is an excellent new book by journalist Kim Kavin and published by Barron's Educational Services. Who wants to read a book exposing the horrors of unwanted cat and dog euthanasia in publicly supported animal shelters? Who wants to read about animals being crammed together in abject terror inside gas chambers, struggling to escape and fighting one another before the gas kills them -- though not always. Everyone with a cat or dog, or who cares for animals and sees the link between saving animals and our own humanity, should get this book and learn what must and can be done to address this shame of America and end such inhumanity. Go to Petfinder.com to find a dog like Blue!
(Send all mail to firstname.lastname@example.org or to Dr. Michael Fox in care of Universal Uclick, 1130 Walnut St., Kansas City, MO 64106. The volume of mail received prohibits personal replies, but questions and comments of general interest will be discussed in future columns.
Visit Dr. Fox's website at DrFoxVet.com.)