By David Haugh, Wellsford Vet Clinic
With recent discussions in the media about legalising human euthanasia, I thought I would write as someone who puts animals down as a regular part of my working week. The opinions in this article are mine alone and do not represent my employer or the greater veterinary community.
The discussion to euthanase a much loved companion animal, who is carrying considerable pain or nausea and whose quality of life is falling away, can be an agonising one. In choosing the ‘right time’, owners and their vets have to speak on behalf of the animals. As well as euthanasia, I am sometimes asked to put down animals whose owners are no longer able to look after them and, for different reasons, feel that rehoming is inappropriate. Sometimes I put down dogs that have attacked other animals or people, and sometimes it is feral cats that have been making a nuisance of themselves and have been caught.
In my 35 years in vet practice, the biggest changes have been in animal welfare. The day-to-day use of painkillers for vets’ patients has markedly increased. Regulations for painful on-farm procedures are tightening. There is a popular movement away from battery farming of chickens and pigs. Prosecutions for animal cruelty were given a slap on the wrist last century, but this century there are some serious sentences. This is all great stuff. But one element of the growing intolerance of animal pain does worry me…
A few months ago I spoke to a dairy farmer who was upset that he had been ‘spoken to’ by a Ministry for Primary Industries official responding to an animal welfare complaint made by a member of the public. The herd was a smaller one and the cow in question was an old, herd favourite who had arthritis, but she had been ‘retired’ from milking and was being allowed to live out her remaining time on the farm. She was limping around, eating grass and appeared happy to receive the pats on the neck the farmer was giving her. The politically correct thing to do was put this animal down immediately, but I struggle with zero pain tolerance in animals when thousands of people carry far worse pain, nausea and anxiety every day of their lives.
Like me, those of you who swat flies, catch fish, trap mice or eat meat are all party to animal killing. As long as any legal requirements such as ownership or humane method are met you are good to go. I believe it is inevitable that, not too many years from now, the Government you elect will legalise human euthanasia. When it comes, the legislation will be very well thought out and contain a lot of checks and balances. I anticipate it will operate as originally intended for a decade or two or three…but, in time, will society’s tolerance for human suffering slide lower, just the same way it already has lowered towards the suffering of animals?