EUTHANASIA, THE DIFFERENCE BETWEEN HUMAN AND ANIMAL MEDICINE
THE NEED FOR A PAINLESS METHOD OF KILLING
©1989 The Anstendig Institute
The aim of human medicine is to save lives at all cost. Great suffering and excruciating physical pain are justified if they are necessary to save a life. Euthanasia is not permitted, even in the most extreme cases. Conversely, killing is very much a part of veterinary medicine. It is often recommended to avoid prolonged suffering and pain, even when animals are in no immediate danger of dying. This basic difference between the two medicines is profound. Each type of medicine necessitates its own, fundamentally different moral and philosophical approach. But this fundamental difference has not yet been comprehended. The methods and attitudes of human medicine color those of veterinary medicine. Veterinarians still put animals to death using injections, which are both painful and frightening to the animals, causing them to have an ugly, unpleasant death rather than a tranquil, peaceful one.
There are many different beliefs about the nature and meaning of death. But, regardless of belief, most people will agree that death should occur in as calm, relaxed, peaceful, and even exquisite a manner as possible. Unfortunately that is not the way death usually occurs when animals are killed with the customary method, lethal injection.
The main problem with lethal injection does not seem to be the drugs, since they work very quickly and apparently painlessly. The problem is the pain and fright caused by the injection itself. In the standard procedure, the cat is brought into the room where it is to be euthanized. Then, because the injection is expected to hurt the animal and cause it to struggle or even break off the needle, an assistant holds it very tightly, while the vet gives it the injection. The strange room is already unsettling for any sensitive animal, especially the typical home-owned pet. But being forcibly held, as well as the sight of the needle, frightens it. The pain of the injection then makes a bad situation even worse and the drug works so quickly that the animal has no time to calm down and become tranquil. It dies in a state of fear and trepidation. Humans may take painful injections for granted, but they frighten animals out of their wits.
Our institute's own experience provides insight into the dilemma. Since they have the most sensitive hearing of all tested animals, The Anstendig Institute has been keeping cats for research purposes. But we had the misfortune of having an outbreak of FIP (Feline Infectious Peritonitis) and four cats had to be put to sleep.
The first, an exquisite blue-eyed, color-point Cornish Rex kitten, had been in intensive care before we were advised by the veterinary clinic at U.C. Davis that nothing more could be done for her. When it came time to put her to sleep, the catheters from the intravenous feedings were still attached and the fluid could be painlessly injected into the catheter. She did not have to be forcibly held still or pierced with a needle. I was able to hold her in tender communion and she had an exquisite, painless death experiencing all the love she had grown used to in her short life. In fact, it happened so gently, quietly, and quickly that the doctor had to tell me it was over. The only complaint was that the substance worked too quickly.
But the next victim, a rare Sphynx kitten had no such luck: he was not as wasted as the girl when he was diagnosed, but the vet recommended euthanasia because there is no known cure for the disease.1 At my request, the veterinarian gave the little boy a tranquilizing shot before the lethal injection. But, to my surprise, the final injection still caused the baby a great deal of fright and pain and I was just barely able to calm him down before he died in my arms. If I had not used certain yoga disciplines that allowed me to use my own breath to calm his, the poor little boy would have died in a panic of fear, agitation, and pain.
In the late twentieth century superbly complicated miracles of medicine are taken for granted. Dentists and doctors can, after an initial application of analgesic, make painless even the most excruciating procedures. It is unacceptable that the final lethal injection caused that baby any pain whatsoever. His spirit should have been able to depart his body as peacefully and exquisitely as that of the other kitten. Veterinary medicine has not yet understood the need to work out an elegant, painless, peaceful method of killing and the important question is why?
We were saved many hours of pondering this question by an incident that happened at U.C. Davis: when the doctor informed us that the girl would have to be put to sleep, I acquiesced, but requested that I be present so that she could die in my arms. U.C. Davis is a veterinary school and the doctor's students were in the examining room learning from his methods in handling real-life cases. When I said I wanted to be present when my kitten was put to sleep, the doctor launched into what obviously was meant to demonstrate the accepted method of handling such a request. He tried to discourage me, for my own sake, from being present, pointing out that many people find the experience different from, and much more unsettling than they expected. But I answered that we have a special, sensitive communication with our cats at our institute; that this kitten was used to a lot of love and that we wanted it to have that love when it departed this world.
That apparently simple statement had a surprising effect on those in the room. The doctor and his students stopped dead in their tracks. For a good minute there was absolute silence and stillness. Everyone was frozen in deep thought. No one moved. Finally the doctor relaxed and took a deep breath, at which time, one of the students blurted out "We never thought of it that way. We never thought of it from the cat's point of view." It then came out that, because veterinarians always have to deal with the owners, who are usually more difficult to deal with than the patients, they had come to view everything, even euthanasia, from the owner's point of view and not from the point of view of what would be most humane and beautiful for the animal.
This is, by no means, an indictment of veterinarians. Vets do have to deal with the owners, as well as the pets. And it often takes a great deal of effort to convince the owners to give the animals the treatment they deserve, with the resulting emphasis on dealing with the owners and not the pets. But that is not the only reason veterinary medicine has not yet established a humane, painless method of euthanizing pets.
The dominance of human medicine in our thinking has made pain, especially the pain accompanying injections, an accepted part of our lives. Because we all have to undergo this pain rather often, we are oriented towards putting it out of our minds. Everyone develops his/her own "grin and bear it” and "be a man” form of coping with injections, as well as other painful forms of treatment. We tend to put out of our minds the fact that they do hurt.
Of course, a poor animal does not have this power to rationalize and resign itself to pain. It is simply scared by the syringe and the strange environment and shocked by the pain. It dies a fearful, agitated, unhappy death, no matter how swiftly and painlessly the solution does its work. Richard Wagner once remarked how he had no sympathy for the plight of man because man has, after all, the power of resignation. But he had great sympathy for animals because they do not have this power of resignation.
When traditional euthanasia by injection is recommended by a vet for a beloved pet, the owners are given the impression that it is a painless way of saving their animal much suffering and providing the animal with a quick beautiful death, attended by loving hospital personnel. But, even with the best-intentioned veterinarians, this is just not the case. Veterinary medicine has to rethink its approach to euthanasia. It must realize that, unlike human medicine, in which no pain and suffering is too great to inflict on the patient if it will save a life, animal medicine needs a different approach. A method must be found to put animals to sleep gently and peacefully in a loving and caring manner. And that method really should be standard procedure for all hospitals.
If such a method of euthanasia should prove too expensive or impractical for hospitals like the SPCA that euthanize thousands of strays at their own cost, it should at least be available for pets, whose owners want to pay for it. We were ready to pay any necessary costs. But a suitable method had never been worked out. We had this experience with three doctors, all of whom had to improvise. Except for the girl with the catheters, we were unable to get any doctors to perform euthanasia in a truly painless manner in a suitably calm environment. Some of the surroundings were hectic and the injections into the artery invariably caused great pain.
Even if the substances used in lethal injection are the most painless and efficient method, a way must still be found to both gently tranquilize the animal and numb the area to receive the injection beforehand, so that the final injection does not cause any pain or upset whatsoever. After the initial tranquilization, time must be left for the animal to relax and calm down before giving it the final (painless) injection. The surroundings should be quiet and peaceful and the animal should be treated with love and affection. Such an approach may take more time, but a well organized animal hospital should be able to devise an elegantly rational arrangement that allows the necessary procedures with little extra demands on the doctor's time.
The moment of death is a very important moment for any living creature. Some people consider it the most important moment. In 1989, there is no valid reason why any animal whose owners are paying for euthanasia cannot have as calm and painless a death as our little Cornish-Rex kitten. And it is hard to believe that a painless method cannot also be devised for those strays that are put to death at public expense.
1 In hindsight, we would not have euthanized this cat, since we have subsequently had success saving another cat using a steroid called prednisone.
The Anstendig Institute is a non-profit, tax-exempt, research institute founded to investigate the vibrational influences in our lives and to pursue research in the fields of sight and sound; to provide material designed to help the public become aware of and understand stressful vibrational influences; to instruct the public in how to improve the quality of those influences in their lives; and to provide the research and explanations that are necessary to understand the psychology of how we see and hear.