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'The Last Walk' helps pet owners cope with choosing euthanasia for ailing pets

Cover of the book
Cover of the book "The Last Walk: Reflections on Our Pets at the End of Their Lives."
University of Chicago Press
Cover of the book
Jessica Pierce, author of the book "The Last Walk: Reflections on Our Pets at the End of Their Lives."
University of Chicago Press

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While euthanasia for humans is illegal in most states, it is perfectly legal to put animals to sleep. About a 1.5 million dogs and 1.8 million cats are euthanized each year at shelters across the country. Many more are put to sleep at vet's offices and homes each day.

But deciding when and how to end the life of an ailing pet raises some tremendously difficult questions.

Those are questions bioethicist Jessica Pierce had to face when her dog, a Vischla named Ody, became old and seriously ill. She wrote about her experiences in a new book called "the Last Walk." 

Pierce says that Ody completely upended everything she had studied and written about in her professional life. She was writing an undergraduate textbook in bioethics, at the time when she began to really take notice of Ody’s aging process. Pierce asked herself, “Why aren’t we applying these same sorts of ethical analysis to our animals? Because the ends of their lives are equally important.”

As a culture, we are engulfed by continual ethical debates of end of life procedures, but it seems we aren’t so easily at odds when it comes to our pets. “We have this kind of cultural narrative when it comes to pet-keeping,” Pierce adds, “and euthanasia is just deeply entrenched in that narrative.”  

Pierce believes that there is a more humane choice for pet owners as a step in between or to possibly even prevent euthanasia practices, which will hopefully lead to lower euthanasia rates of pets annually. She says that animal hospice is, “a growing movement. More and more veterinarians are getting interested in hospice.”

Pierce goes on to explain that when “you are given a diagnosis of a terminal disease, you don’t have to euthanize immediately.” Similar to human hospice, animal hospice will provide care while maintaining a level of comfort for a animal. 

Some may be lead to believe that animal hospice could possibly deduct care from the already limited resources for humans. Yet, Pierce assures that she doesn’t think we, “have to forego resources spent on humans in order to spend them on our animals.” However, she does admit that as more and more options are made readily available for pet owners and their waning animals, tougher decisions will have to be made.

Many people who are on a fixed income may not be able to provide animal hospice or be able to afford other possible options as their own personal health concerns will likely come first. 

Keeping the animal interests at the forefront, Pierce explains, will allow pet owners to make these life-altering decisions. She uses something called the Pawspice Scale, which looks at where your pets lie on the quality of life scale. So to answer questions like, “Are they eating, are they able to drink, are they able to move around, are they able to go to the bathroom, are they having more good days than bad days, and do they seem to be happy?” will help people ultimately make wiser decisions in determining the fate of their animals. 

Even though things such as animal hospice and the pawspice scale have led pet owners to be more informed and to make less hasty decisions, Pierce says she still dreads the day she will have to make the decision about the future of her pet's lives.