The magazine’s Ethicist columnist on how to do right by our pets as they reach the end of life.
July 26, 2022
I am a 65-year-old single retired woman who has sufficient means to take care of herself, though I need to watch my budget. My 15-year-old dog has been largely healthy for much of his life. I really love him, but I can see that in the next year or two there will be hard choices about how much money to spend on his care as he ages.
I grew up in a farm environment with parents of limited means. We were always kind to our animals, but they were not family members. My entire family believes in quality of life over quantity — so much so that my mom and her sisters chose quality over quantity at the ends of their lives. I also have a strong practical bent, which is why I saved enough for a comfortable retirement during 35 years of working and despite some less happy events like divorce and serious medical issues. But I know the practical doesn’t always carry the day in terms of doing the right thing.
My concern is not just the cost of treatment for my dog but also gauging when his suffering is too much. I can afford to spend a fair amount, in that it won’t impair my lifestyle, but I am not comfortable allocating many thousands of dollars to treatments for my aging dog. However, I am concerned with what I ethically owe this very devoted pet. What do you think is the right thing to do? Name Withheld
Many people think of their relationships with their pets on the model of their relationships with people. They speak of loyalty, gratitude, duty and, as you do, devotion. But there’s a range of opinion, among philosophers and animal researchers, about whether animals are moral creatures in this way, with some notion of reciprocal obligations. Some researchers make the case that there’s a continuity of moral sentiments between human beings and other animals. If you can be good, though, you can be bad. And is a “bad dog” — the dog who chewed your Jimmy Choos and scarfed down your scaloppine — truly bad, morally speaking?
In “Fellow Creatures,” the philosopher Christine Korsgaard maintains that our treatment of other animals is a “moral atrocity,” but she also argues that nonhuman animals are not moral beings; that people are distinctive in being able to reflect upon their moral reasons and considerations and those of others. We’re not just aware of things; we’re aware that we’re aware of them. We’re uniquely aware too that others have independent interests and perspectives that may be worth respecting. So some philosophers will say that people who ascribe moralized emotions to their pets are indulging a sort of fiction.
What’s plainly not a fiction is that animals can suffer. The quality of the life of a dog or a cat is a matter of the quality of its moment-to-moment experiences. They have no projects to complete; their lives have no narrative arc that matters to them. They do not fear death in the way we do: As far as we can tell, they do not have the concept of death. That’s why the sorts of reasons a person might have for going on even after existence has become a source of pain don’t apply to them. We can ask people whether they want to undergo an arduous treatment that might prolong their days by some amount or whether, say, they prefer to enter hospice care. Your mother and her sisters evidently faced a decision like that. That’s not a question you can pose to your dog.
What you owe your dog is a life worth living by the standards that are appropriate to a canine existence, attentive to what matters to a dog. So you shouldn’t organize treatments that will simply extend a period of suffering, even if you can afford to do so without jeopardizing your own quality of life. Some people, hoping against hope, subject their animals to excruciating courses of radiation and chemotherapy in an effort to buy a few more months of companionship. They ought to do what human beings are capable of doing but often fail to do: reflect on their actions. They should think about whom they’re really helping, about whether this costly form of care amounts to cruelty.
If your dog is entering a final decline, marked by debility and suffering, and, out of concern for his welfare, you choose euthanasia, you will not be letting him down. He has no expectations to disappoint. There are no promises you have made to him. His loss will matter a great deal to you. Don’t make the experience worse by thinking that you have done him wrong.