"Natural death"

The subject of “Natural death” has gained some popularity in recent years.  Some people have become fierce advocates of letting pets die naturally.  This concept may unfortunately lead to untold suffering for pets if their owners are not adequately informed and educated in the subject of End of Life Care management and if veterinary care is not actively provided.  

Many people are afraid of “Playing God” when taking in their hands the life or death of a pet.  However, this line was crossed thousands of years ago in the first domestication of animals.  Pets no longer belong to the realm of wild animals.  We, as humans, started “playing God” with animals the moment we domesticated them.  They can no longer fend for themselves.  We provide them with food, shelter, medical care and this happens to a more and more technologically advanced degree in this day in age.  

Therefore, our pets live way beyond the natural life expectancy of a wild animal.  Is this wrong?  Of course not!  We give and take so much joy, love and companionship when we enter into a relationship with a pet!  There is no way that this would be a wrong action.  

However, nature has a way of taking care of its own and when we take this away, we have to replace it by humane intervention or it becomes cruel.  When an animal ages, weakens or becomes ill, nature remedies this very quickly and animal suffering does not drag on and on.  The old and weak animal will die rather rapidly.  Brutally, yes, but quickly!  This is the way of nature.  When we look at pets in their old days, they do not die rapidly anymore.  Yet, their survival instincts still dictates to hide pain and weakness!  They will carefully hide their symptoms until they no longer can bear it and then and only then will they display weakness and pain (see “understanding pain”).  

“Nature’s way” may seem cruel to us “civilized beings”, but it is kind in that it does not allow for suffering for too long.  A predator or even a pack leader will terminate a fellow pack member’s suffering.  When it comes to our pets, it is up to us to recognize suffering and to remedy it either by active medical intervention or by euthanasia.  

And so we come to the reason why I surround “Natural Death” by quotation marks.  Letting a pet die “naturally” is not really natural.  In some cases, it may happen rapidly and more or less painlessly.  This is what many people hope for.  This the rare instance of true natural death.  Many pet owners hope that the pet will die “in their sleep”.  And what a blessing it is when death happens rapidly and gently without a lot of prior suffering. But the more we know about animal pain and signs of suffering, the more we realize that this is a rare event.  

Have you had a family member or friend die of cancer?  Has it been painless despite the best pain management?  How about congestive heart failure?  Does one not suffer when desperately trying to get oxygen to one’s lungs and feel like one is asphyxiating?   What about arthritis?  Very seldom is death not drawn out and painful in this domesticated society.  Food and shelter are easily obtainable.  When we take pets under our wing, care for them, feed them, provide them with shelter, all the comforts of home and medical care, we artificially prolong their lives.  It is NOT the way of nature.  Again, I certainly do not think that this is wrong.  I love pets and I became a veterinarian because I wanted to help pets and as best as I could, prevent them from suffering.  I have nothing against domestication.  

But “Natural Death” can be a misguided concept.  Death, for pets, without euthanasia intervention, in order not to be cruel, has to be accompanied with active medical intervention, aggressive pain management, wound care, oxygen supplementation, hygiene, etc...  This can be done at home in the settings of hospice care as long as it is supervised by a competent veterinarian, knowledgeable in End of Life care.  These latter interventions are far from being natural.  

Having a pet is a big responsibility throughout the life of the pet.  It also comes with the responsibility of stepping into the shoes of the pack leader when the pet is suffering.  And if, one’s personal spiritual beliefs preclude euthanasia, even for animals, then the pet must be under active hospice care when a terminal condition or old age brings about suffering which would be alleviated quickly in the true natural environment of the wild.  It can be a very rewarding experience, but one must be prepared for the investment in time, money and energy resources that it will involve.  This is a very personal choice.