Timing euthanasia

IT struck me, too, that the 5.4 metre Burmese python caught in the everglades of Florida and pictured in this paper a week ago was, we were told, euthanised.

You may have read that the huge snake weighed 74 kilograms and was carrying 87 eggs, and you may have read also a couple of days later in Short Takes Cardiff South’s Jason Kibble being absolutely appalled that the government employees who found the snake had killed it.

I don’t share Mr Kibble’s distress. Indeed, I’d have killed it myself without a pang, because Burmese pythons don’t belong in Florida, and lest you be uncertain, I’d run over for the very same reason the boa constrictor spotted recently on roads near Shortland wetlands.

However, like Mr Kibble I was interested in the use of the word euthanise as a euphemism for kill. Euthanise means, or did when my dictionary was published a few years ago, ‘‘the bringing about of a gentle and easy death in the case of incurable and painful disease’’, and that Oxford description, too, seems to be at pains to avoid the word kill.

The notion of euthanasia has always troubled me. And it troubles me more for animals than it does for people, because the person makes the decision we make for an animal.

We try to make it easier with such euphemisms as put to sleep, put down and give him a needle, and it seems to me that euthanasia itself is a euphemism even when used correctly.

None of my family’s dogs has died naturally, and I’ve not been able to see the euthanasia as more than killing. And even when the poor old dog was panting his last I’d question why he should not die naturally.

Because, almost everybody will say, it is an unkind end, and cruel when I have the capacity to spare the suffering. Then, I ask, why is it different for people? Many people will say, these days, that it should not be different for people.

I wonder what the dog would say about being killed if it had the opportunity? Often enough I’ve heard that ‘‘the dog will let you know when the time is right’’, but while I’ve not been aware of such communication a possible reason for that is in a study by a Newcastle vet, Kim Kelly.

Ms Kelly, whose veterinary practice is in Cooks Hill’s Darby Street, wrote of stoicism in dogs suffering considerable pain, and the three dogs in her examples had bone cancer. Most observers, she wrote, would have believed from the dogs’ behaviour with their owners that the dogs were not in pain even though the pain associated with that cancer is known to be severe.

When with their owners the dogs – a border collie, a golden retriever and a mixed breed – appeared to be happy and engaged, but Ms Kelly noticed that their behaviour changed to reflect pain when they were not with their owners.

Noting that animals can be trained to tolerate pain, Ms Kelly argued in her paper as part of a degree in animal behaviour medicine that the owners of the three much-loved dogs had unintentionally trained them to be stoic, to resist expressing pain, by rewarding them for cheerful, enthusiastic behaviour.

The mixed-breed dog, for example, continued to behave enthusiastically when with her owner right up until she collapsed in distress and died as he owner arrived with her at a veterinary emergency centre.

Last month, three years after she wrote that paper, Ms Kelly euthanised her beloved wolfhound, which had been diagnosed with bone cancer. After getting the timing wrong with a previous dog, a Rottweiler she knew had cancer, when she arrived home one day to find the dog dying, Ms Kelly looked for an earlier indication. That was when the wolfhound became less interested in his usual routine, and one notable indication came when he was no longer keen to check that everything was where it should be in the yard each morning.

It was a tough day.

I see the sense of Ms Kelly’s argument, but I would find picking the time too early too distressing. I suppose, though, it is not the owner’s distress that should matter.

Are you troubled by the euthanasia of animals? Does that matter? And, err, would you run over the boa constrictor?

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