Till Death Do Us Part – Pet Edition

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.

pixabay.com; SydneyB

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.

pixabay.com; Myriams-Fotos

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!

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  1. I loved this article! As an animal-lover, I thoroughly enjoyed all of the ideas it presented. All of the questions were well thought out and produced interesting answers. There were a few spelling mistakes in the introduction and there were a few sentences that could be reworded for a better flow, but overall the article was very well done!

  2. Really great article! In my 17 years on this earth, I’ve only spent 2 of them without a dog. The first dogs I remember were the two labs (Brooke and Hogan) and terrier mix (Jake) that they had had since before I was even a thought. I remember when the passed away ( about 2 years between each) that it hit me really hard. My dad swore we were never getting dogs again. Two years later, in 2012, we brought home two lab puppies (Luke and Daisy) and my dad- even though he will deny it- loves them but that we were sticking with two. On July 4th, 2014 my mom brought home a stray from work and said we were only keeping her over the holiday weekend and then she was taking her to find her owner. She looked like a boarder collie but was a reddish gold color, with cataracts in both eyes, the worst breath in the world, and the hearing level of 97 year old. The love child of a fox and a boarder collie. She was the sweetest dog I’d ever met and I fell in love instantly. It didn’t take more than an hour for the nickname Angel to stick. Well, my mom never did take her to find her home. And from that day on, Angel and I were just about inseparable. She slept on my bed most nights and when she started having trouble getting into it, I put an extra mattress on the floor and she had a whole bed to herself. At 1:37 pm on March 30th, 2016, Angel became an angel. I remember my dad telling me later that day that she was gone and I cried for about two days straight. I never thought I’d be happy again, but a year later I’m getting there. Sometimes little things still remind me of her, like the stuffed fox my friend bought me in Angel’s memory or the blanket that my mom’s co-worker sent home with Angel. The moral of my sob story is that dogs really do brighten your life, even if they do leave in the end. I wouldn’t trade my pet-related memories for the world. Don’t let the sadness over-shadow the love.

    1. Hey, thank you so much for sharing, I think your touching story really adds to the message this interview tries to send!

  3. I would be interested in knowing more about why Pierce thought that owning pets might be unethical, because I’ve never questioned how ethical it was to own pets.

  4. I really enjoyed the brief introductory and lack of ‘I’ statements in the article from you as the author. The background on Dr. Pierce was thorough yet compact and was not overly filled with opinionated statements. Your questions were thorough and insightful and I appreciated that you refrained from leading Dr. Pierce to certain answers. My only criticism would be to perhaps refrain from including statements such as “By the way…” or, “Hi Jessica!…” since they appear to read more like a blurb in a tabloid rather than in a serious article. Great piece, and keep writing!

  5. As a lover of dogs this article drew me in. The question about the traits of animal lovers and non animal lovers made me curious about what Pierce would think of service animals or other animals such as K9’s. Everyday outside my job I see two labs on duty with security. One day I got close enough to really make eye contact and smile at the dog. His ears perked up in excitement and he stepped forward to approach me only to get yanked back by security. I know not to approach dogs on duty and I felt bad for even initiating something as small as a smile that resulted in punishment. This interaction really made me reconsider and question if I think it’s morally okay to train dogs for such duties.

  6. Wow. As someone who has had a pet dog and just recently lost him, I could relate to many of the things mentioned above. But I am curious as to what adopting another puppy would mean. Does it mean that my first one is being replaced? Or just the need to have a new member in the family?

    1. Thank you for the comment, and sorry for your loss!

      I like to refer to this piece of the interview; “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.”

      As long as you accept that every animal has its own personality (so you don’t expect your new pet to be a clone of your deceased pet), I think everything will turn out fine 🙂

  7. “am I holding these animals captive to serve my own interests in having companionship and entertainment? And is this morally acceptable? ” this statement is really make me question myself; is it really ethical to have a pet or not. I’m really curious with Pierce’s position on this matter.

  8. This was a very interesting read. I have many different opinions from Pierce, but it was good to hear her side and many of the questions she posed caused me to stop and think.

    At one point in the interview, Pierce says “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.” What are the actual statistics on this? How often are animals euthanized when they wouldn’t need to be? And specifically to Pierce: How do you define euthanasia? Is it the intentional killing of animals, or is it also simply not taking action to help save an animal’s life? I have taken a bioethics course, and while we posed this question in reference to humans, I think it also applies here.

    1. Thanks for your comment! Well I don’t have the statistics, but one of the opinions on the ethical side of this is that we have to remember that other animals don’t really have the same self-awareness and understanding as humans, I think. So in some cases it might be better to euthanize a pet “too soon” instead of choosing painful/stressful treatment.


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