Putting the cat to sleep

April 5, 2010 | Viewpoints | Number 7
Melissa Miller,

Recently I took my sick cat to the vet, who diagnosed him as having a significant tumour lodged in his intestines. That explained the odd behaviour we’d observed, like him using the breadbox for a bed and the bathtub for a toilet. There were other signs of distress, including loss of weight and difficulties walking. I had prepared myself for euthanizing my cat, but it was still a hard step to take. I gave my consent to the kind veterinarian, and soon my pet had “gone to sleep,” as the euphemism goes.

Pet euthanasia is described as “a gentle death and a hard decision.” I can’t say if it’s a gentle death, although I’ve stayed with my three pets as they’ve died, and it seems to be peaceful enough. It certainly is a hard decision. On each occasion, part of what sustains me is knowing that the choice to end a painful life is preferable to seeing the pet continue to suffer.

There are a host of moral and ethical issues wrapped up in the small act of euthanizing a family pet, not the least of which is exercising the awefull choice to end a life. There’s also consideration of the significant emotional and financial resources that are tied up in such an action. And there’s a set of questions to ponder, including the different values we assign to different animals. Cats and dogs get a place of affection in the family home. Pigs and chickens become dinner.

While I give some attention to these questions, mostly I return to a belief that pets are like friends in furry coats. They’re part of God’s good and beautiful creation. The liveliness and affection of my animals has sustained me through some of the hardest times of my life, and I know I’ll continue to make a place for them in my home.

As I was preparing for my cat’s end, I was also saying goodbye to human friends dying in the early months of 2010. While some of them died suddenly, without warning, others died after months of declining health and great struggle. They and family members agonized over the steps of dying and faced questions about the quality of life: what measures to take to maintain life, and what interventions to decline. When we are walking with our loved ones who are suffering and facing the end of life, we may wonder about euthanasia. If I can humanely euthanize my pet, to end its suffering, can I humanely euthanize a loved human being?

Most Christians say no. Most Christians say that God is the giver of life, and we leave to God the timing of our deaths. To take on the role of medically causing or assisting in a human death is to usurp God’s role. And trying to be God has been a human failing since Adam and Eve tasted forbidden fruit in the garden.

Our medical technology gives us many complex choices, but we, as a human race, have not developed the same level of complexity to guide our decisions. Our technology is driven by desires to control life and death, to reduce suffering or avoid pain. We see much good in technology, but our world includes suffering and pain, and we, as Christians, confess that God is in control. Our human task is to find our way through these contradictory values and tensions, to arrive at compassionate, moral decisions.

Melissa Miller (familyties@mts.net) lives in Winnipeg, where she ponders family relationships as a pastor, counsellor and author.

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