When To Let Go

Do pets gain from heroic measures?

As with humans, the toughest and most expensive health-care issues arise when an animal nears the end of its life. Rather than opting for euthanasia, once seen as the most humane way to put pets out of their misery, more owners are choosing painkillers, chemotherapy, feeding tubes, extensive surgery, and even hospice care. "Vets used to be into practical care of animals, but now they recognize pets as the special companions that they are," says Alice Villalobos, an animal oncologist and founder of Pawspice, which specializes in providing end-of-life palliative services. "People really value their pets' existence and want to make their last months comfortable."

The costs of care during those last months can add up fast. Michael Tam of Seattle admits spending thousands on cancer treatments for his 17-year-old cat, Cleo, because "I just wasn't ready to let her go." Mari-Lou Powell of Brampton, Ont., paid $2,000 to buy Spuds, a four-month-old bull terrier, only to discover he had kidney disease. Too attached to pursue a refund, she tapped her retirement savings to pay more than $7,000 in medication and other expenses before finally deciding to end Spuds' life. "I wouldn't change any of it," she says. None of the vets who tended to the terminally ill puppy ever suggested it might be kinder to let him die. When she did, Powell says, "they all cried, too."

Projecting human needs onto pets in matters of clothing or therapy is one thing. Prolonging their lives through extensive surgery and drugs is another. Arthur Caplan, director of the Center for Bioethics at the University of Pennsylvania, says pets shouldn't be subjected to extraordinary measures that give owners a few extra months of companionship. "What I worry about is the ability of vets to guilt people into spending a lot of money for marginal benefits," says Caplan. He dismisses analogies to old people with terminal illnesses. "Grandma can be self-reflective and enjoy a birthday. A cat just suffers," he says. "They're still pets. They're not the moral equivalent of children."

Even those who devote their lives to animals say such treatments should be used judiciously. "It may not always be in the best welfare of the animal to extend its life," notes Roger Mahr, president of the American Veterinary Medical Assn. If an animal is suffering, if it ceases to take joy in being a dog or cat (or even a hamster or rabbit), it may be time to let it go. Daphna Nachminovitch, a senior executive at People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals says: "A lot of good people are now putting pets through procedures that just subject the animal to more pain." The only one who ends up feeling better, if poorer, is the owner.

By Diane Brady

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