Animal Emotions

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Dogs: Their Last Walk at the End of Their Lives

Deep reflections on companion animals nearing death

A new book that will surely be of great interest to people around the world is Psychology Today writer Jessica Pierce's The Last Walk: Reflections on Our Pets at the End of Their LIves. Dogs play a very special role in the lives of millions upon millions of people around the world and trust that we will have their best interests in mind because we are essentially their life-line, their oxygen. This trust is especially so at the end of their life. I've been through these heart-wrenching times with many wonderful dog beings as I know many of you have as well. Here's what I wrote for my last companion dog, the amazing Jethro as we said our goodbyes. The teaser image accompanying this essay is of one of his best friends he continually carried around and slept with, a stuffed polar bear, and Jethro's collar. 

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The Last Walk is about the journey we take with our companion animals as they grow old and infirm and as we usher them toward death. Dr. Pierce weaves together a chronicle of the final year of her dog Ody’s life with an in-depth consideration of the practical and moral issues facing pet owners at the end of a companion animal’s life. Through a combination of anecdotes, interviews, scientific research, and personal reflection, Pierce considers a broad range of questions about animal death, aging, end of life care, and aftercare. 

Some of the difficult questions Pierce ponders include, Are animals aware of death? What changes might we expect as our companions grow old, and how can we help them adapt to their changing physical and mental capabilities? How do we know when an animal is in pain, and what should be done to help? When, if ever, is euthanasia appropriate? How can we honor the lives of our animals, both while they're alive and after they've died?

The material in the book is seamlessly brought to life through the story of Ody, a dog of immense appetite, supreme powers of destruction, and a capacity for love as big as the Wyoming sky. When Jessica and I worked together to write our book Wild Justice: The Moral Lives of Animals I had the pleasure of hanging out with Ody and really enjoyed his company and slobber as we munched apples and peanut butter.

The main topics of The Last Walk include what are the lives of old animals like; death awareness in animals; animal hospice; understanding and treating animal pain; quality of life assessments; euthanasia (as a gift and as a tool of violence against animals), grief, and aftercare for animals (funerals and wakes, how to handle the body). This engaging book will make you laugh, will likely make you cry, and will most certainly make you think. When I talked with Jessica about her book just yesterday I got teary and fetched Jethro's collar and favorite toy. 

Saying goodbye with peace, dignity, and love

Among the many rich and deep points Pierce raises remains an abstract question - when and whether we should euthanize our pets. She places her answers to this daunting question within the specifics of the life and times of Ody. Pierce's important and informed discussion clearly illustrates that there is no single answer, but a whole bunch of considerations arising from the unique needs of an animal and her or his human family. Each case is different and deserves careful discussion and scrutiny. In my own life, what worked for Jethro would not have worked for some of the other amazing dogs with whom I shared my home and my life, including Moses, Inuk, and Mishka. 

The Last Walk is a wide-ranging and time book and has implications not only for individual pet owners but also more broadly for those interested in animal well-being. Many people recognize what are commonly referred to as Roger Bramble's Five Freedoms for animals (freedom from hunger and thirst; from pain, injury and disease; from discomfort; to express normal behavior; from fear and distress) to which Pierce adds a Sixth Freedom, the freedom to die a good death.

There are so many gems in this book I could write another book about them. Among the innumerable sentences that continually catches my eye is, “It would be nice to live in a world where ‘dying like an animal’ signified a peaceful, respectful, and meaningful death.”

My simple suggestion is to read this book, perhaps read it with your companion animal(s), and share it widely. I know I'll be going back to it time and time again. It is that important. The Last Walk is one of the best, if not the best book, ever written about this difficult subject. Bring out the tissues. 

 

Marc Bekoff, Ph.D., is Professor Emeritus of Ecology and Evolutionary Biology at the University of Colorado, Boulder.

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