Thoughts on killing a dog

by Charlie Huenemann

Maggie, in memoriam

Last week we had our dog put down. It was time. She was getting old and facing some serious neurological difficulties. The tipping point was a pair of severe seizures in the middle of the night, spaced about a minute apart. I know that seizures can trigger more seizures, and as I was trying to help ease her through the second one, I was thinking “What if this is it? What if she keeps seizing until she dies?” and I wondered whether I would have the nerve to strangle her myself rather than let her die in that horrible way. Thankfully, I was not put to that test. She came out of the second seizure, and stumbled around blind for the rest of the night, trying to escape from the dark hole she thought she was in.

We visited the vet in the morning to get some advice and a “quality of life” assessment. He was very kind in examining her and then laying out our options. Yes, we could submit Maggie to tests, and find some procedures and drugs that would help mitigate her impairments. Or we could wait it out, and see how things were going in another couple of weeks or months. Or we could decide that it was time to say goodbye. He emphasized that each one of these decisions would be right, and in the end we would have to decide what felt most right to us. My daughter and I both felt the time had come. So the vet gave us some time with Maggie, administered a tranquilizer that put her into deep sleep, and then a drug that stopped her heart. It was a gentle death.

It’s an occupational hazard for a philosopher to wonder about all sorts of odd questions even in the midst of a dramatic event like this. As it happens, this was a decision made under a cloud of uncertainty, with many different interests balanced against one another in utilitarian fashion: the interests of the dog and the family, as well as how those interests were likely to change in the near future.

We felt that Maggie had had a good life, even a lucky one, for a dog. A dog’s life just doesn’t get a whole lot better than the one she had. For it to end in a deep sleep was far better than many of the other possibilities looming ahead. Some people would have chosen otherwise, and I would never say anything against those other responses. It’s a hard decision to puzzle out, and the vet was right in saying that, in the end, we all have to make the choice that feels right, all things considered.

But I wondered how different it would be if I had decided to euthanize the dog while she was in her prime – a perfectly healthy dog I had simply grown tired of. It seemed terribly wrong to me. It seems like, in taking her on as a pet, I assumed a special responsibility to give her a good life that wouldn’t be cut short for arbitrary reasons. I made no such agreement with the dog herself, of course, and I can’t think of anyone I made that agreement with. Myself? The local humane society? My fellow pet owners? It seems like such a needless and arbitrary death would be a violation of some rule or expectation, though it’s hard to say precisely where it comes from. 

It’s not clear that a healthy dog experiences a loss when its life is cut short for arbitrary reasons. Dogs and most other animals don’t make plans for the future, and their present happiness doesn’t rely in any way on what tomorrow will bring. So if a dog’s “tomorrows” are cut off, it’s not clear that any harm is being done to them. We’re not taking away anything they value. But then again: really? Isn’t it obviously a bad thing for a dog to be killed for an arbitrary reason? Kant would say that we have an indirect obligation to treat animals in respectful, decent ways, since how we treat animals might affect the way we go on to treat other human beings. But that doesn’t quite capture my feelings about the case. I feel I would be letting down the dog directly, and not just the people I might run into later. But is that just the effect of some anthropomorphic projection? Are all of the obligations we feel toward our pets the result of such projections? Does it matter if they are?

I also wondered whether the euthanasia was really as gentle as it seemed. I wondered about this because I had heard a podcast about executing humans by lethal injection, and the various ways it can go terribly wrong. I reasoned that it can’t be any harder to kill a human than to kill a dog or a horse, and so if there were problems in the human case, then maybe there were unspoken problems in the animal cases as well. I worried that maybe euthanizing a dog in fact causes great pain to the animal, pain we see no signs of because of some paralyzing effect of the drug. Had we sent our beloved pet into some horrific death?

But no, it turns out that the procedures used on animals and humans are quite different. The procedure used on animals is straightforward, and there’s no reason to think their death is anything other than going into deep sleep quickly. The procedure used on humans is more complicated. An aesthetic is administered; then a paralyzing sort of drug is given; and then a drug is given that stops the heart. The first drug, the anesthetic, is supposed to render the subject unconscious, but it may not always do so. The second drug renders the subject unable to move, speak, or do anything in protest – which, if you’re conscious, would be terrifying. The third drug, if you are conscious, feels like fire in the veins, but because of the paralysis no signs of pain are evident to any observer. The middle drug, people say, is more for the onlookers than for the subject. There’s reason to think that many executions by lethal injection have been cases of paralyzing a victim and torturing them to death.

I wondered then why on earth people would develop such a potentially cruel system, if the one used on animals is so proven and straightforward. According to an article by Ty Alper (“Anesthetizing the public conscience: lethal injection and animal euthanasia”, The Fordham Urban Law Journal, 2008), the answer is that legislators who initially proposed execution by lethal injection thought there would be public outcry if it were learned that the state was putting down humans in the same way we put down non-human animals. So, out of respect for human beings, we kill them through a more dangerously horrific procedure. 

My final philosophical question over our dog’s death concerned what to do with “the remains.” As we all know, the remains are what’s left over once all the stuff we loved is gone. Rationally, it shouldn’t matter what happens to the dead matter. But it matters nonetheless. When I thought of our dog’s body being dumped into the local landfill, next to the bags of diapers and rotten food, I felt guilt, or a that I was betraying the dog somehow, while still recognizing that feeling as irrational. In the end we donated the body to be used in the training of young vets, as we thought we could see some further good coming from this. 

I was raised by farming folk, so all of these reflections arose within a mental space whose boundaries insist stubbornly that animals are just animals, and animals die, and we move on. These are facts of life. And yet, as true and practical as that mindset may be, some of us end up deeply attached to these creatures. We see in their eyes our own potential to be loving and caring companions. We learn from their deaths the wide reach of our moral responsibilities, and the many and varied obligations of love.

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