To learn a bit more about the ethics of keeping animals as pets – particularly the process of grief and handling the end of a beloved pet’s life – Jessica Pierce, PhD, was willing to answer some questions about her work as a writer and bioethicist. She works on some diverse project with fellow specialist such as biologists and veterinarians. You can follow her work on her website: www.jessicapierce.net
Hi Jessica! So what inspired you to get into the topic of the ethics of keeping pets, and in addition, the processes of death and grief?
As a bioethicist, I had thought a lot about the ethics of death and dying (in humans). When my own dog, Ody, became ill toward the end of his life, I realized how similar the ethical issues were with animals – how do we judge quality of life in someone who cannot communicate in words? does quality of life ever become so compromised that death is preferable? What is a “good death”? I wrote The Last Walk, which was about the final year of Ody’s life and the decisions we had to make in caring for him (including some painful mistakes). Since writing that book, I’ve been actively involved in promoting the field of animal hospice and palliative care. (Check out the International Association for Animal Hospice and Palliative Care: www.iaahpc.org
I had also thought a lot about ethics and animals throughout my career, but didn’t think a whole lot about the ethics of pet keeping until I had a child and she started wanting to bring various pets into our home. I love animals and wanted to encourage her interest, but over time it started to make me more and more uncomfortable. I started to worry about the small critters like geckos and snakes, who have very impoverished lives in a glass tank in a child’s bedroom. And this got me thinking more deeply about my relationships with my dogs and cat: am I holding these animals captive to serve my own interests in having companionship and entertainment? And is this morally acceptable?
By the way, sometimes there seems to be a distinction between animal-lovers and non-animals-lovers (in the sense of associated personality traits), what is your opinion on this?
Well, I think each and every one of us likely has very complicated feelings and beliefs about animals and our responsibilities toward them. As a quick example, a person might love his dog and treat his dog with respect and kindness and at the same time think nothing of eating a pig who lived a short miserable life on an industrial farm. Is he an animal lover? Or a non-animal-lover? Another person might love cats, but perhaps loves them so much that she collects strays and accumulates so many that she cannot care for any of them properly. Is she an animal lover?
What are you currently working on? And what are your plans for the future?
I am working on another collaborative book project with my friend Dr. Marc Bekoff. The book is an exploration of the idea of freedom in relation to companion dogs, and some simple interventions people who live with dogs can make to enrich their dog’s life (for example, allowing dogs time off leash when possible, and allowing dogs ample time to sniff while out on walks). I’m also working on some research related to end of life care for animals, including a comparison of protocols used to hasten death in humans and animals and a comparison of ethical reasoning used to justify human medical aid in dying and animal euthanasia. My next book project, after “Unleashing the Dogs”, will (I think!) be on death – related behavior in animals – what we know, what we don’t know, and why it matters.
Could you say animals (besides humans) experience grief? How does this show?
Without a doubt, yes. Animals experience feelings of loss and sadness when someone they love dies. We have evidence from a broad range of species (chimpanzees, gorillas, orcas, camels, donkeys, dogs, magpies, and on and on). Behavioral signs of grieving and social loss include searching for the deceased, touching the body, “funeral” practices such as grooming or burial. Dog owners and veterinarians have reported dogs appearing depressed and eating less than usual after the death of a companion. Others report no observable change in behavior. So, we need to remember that reactions to death are very individual.
What is your opinion on euthanasia? Does the opinion differ between pets and humans? Or even, let’s say, between a fish and a dog?
The same basic principles applies across species (human and animal): we should respect life. Each individual life has infinite value to the being in possession of it. We have an obligation to address suffering, where possible, through attention to physical and emotional pain. When suffering becomes protracted and cannot be adequately treated, then sometimes the most compassionate response is to hasten death.
In general, I think we (as a culture) euthanize animals too often, too soon, and often without first trying to address treatable forms of suffering. I would like to see the expansion of access to high quality palliative and hospice care for animals. As for humans, I am in favor of allowing people to have control over how they die and I support medical aid-in-dying.
Are there (psychological and/or biological) benefits to feelings of grief and sadness?
Grief and sadness are both evolutionary adaptations, perhaps serving to cement feelings of social connectedness and bonding. In this sense, these feelings are entirely natural and serve an important function.
Why would people adopt pets when It’s quite certain you have to say goodbye to them after a few years?
We are able to form intense and positive bonds with animals over a very short period of time. This is perhaps because we integrate them into our lives in a way that goes even beyond other family members – unlike our children, our pets never grow up and leave; they are fully dependent upon us and providing this level of continuous care creates a strong feeling of attachment. Saying goodbye to my dog Ody was one of the most painful experiences I’ve had, but I wouldn’t change having shared 14 years of my life with him, and it hasn’t stopped me from bringing another dog into my life – because I know, first hand, how much love and joy dogs bring to us.
Do you have some comforting words for people who might be dealing with loss of their pets?
It sounds very cliché, but it is also true: it will get better over time. The pain will soften (though I don’t think it ever goes away completely – nor would we want it to). I also think people are very quick to judge themselves harshly, and to worry that they didn’t make the right series of decisions, particularly when euthanasia has been the end point. There is no such thing as a perfect decision and we need to be compassionate toward ourselves.
Hopefully this interview gave you something to think about, as it did for me. I think it is important to stay aware of these topics such as “quality of life”, especially for animals (and fellow humans that might be vulnerable, for that matter). If you are interested to learn more, please check out Jessica’s books, her blog-series on Psychology Today called “All Dogs Go to Heaven“, or just ask and talk about these topics!