Companion Animals: Ethology, Ethics, End-of-Life Decisions

An interview with bioethicist Jessica Pierce about difficult choices for pets.

Posted Jul 05, 2018

"It’s essential that when people decide to offer a home—and hopefully their hearts--to another animal they realize the enormity of their responsibility." 

Dr. Jessica Pierce is a bioethicist who has turned much of her professional life toward giving companion animals of sorts the very best lives they can have in an increasing human dominated world. She has been very influential in crossing disciplines among unlikely bedfellows, including ethologists, psychologists, philosophers, veterinarians, and shelter and hospice workers (also see her Psychology Today essays and some by Adam Clark). Dr. Pierce has greatly influenced my own thinking about the lives of companion and other nonhuman animals (animals) and it’s been my pleasure to work with her on a number of different projects, ranging from the cognitive, emotional, and moral lives of other animals to the best ways to give companion animals (aka "pets") and other nonhumans all they want and need throughout their lives (please see for example, Wild Justice: The Moral Lives of Animals and The Animals' Agenda: Freedom, Compassion, and Coexistence in the Human Age). She comes to her work from a number of different directions that seem to some to be unrelated — as you'll see below, they're not — and I wanted to share her wide-ranging views with a broad academic and popular audience. Gladly, Dr. Pierce was able to answer a few questions about her on-going and widely influential work, and our interview went as follows.

You were trained in religious studies and philosophy, but you also studied animal behavior/ethology. Why do you think it's important for people who choose to live with companion animals as well as those who care for them (veterinarians, shelter workers, trainers) to learn about the behavior of the animals with whom they share their homes?

My doctoral degree is in bioethics, which sits at the intersection of a humanistic field (moral philosophy and theology) and a scientific field (medicine). As part of my training, I was taught that I needed to become competent in biomedical science, otherwise my ability to understand the ethical issues would remain superficial. Bioethicists who specialize in the ethics of stem cell research must work hard to understand as much stem cell science as they possibly can, so that they can speak intelligently about the issues. Likewise, bioethicists whose research focuses on palliative care need to understand the background and current landscape of palliative medicine, including the range of treatment options available. 

When I started to shift my focus onto human-animal relations, my first and on-going task was to become as competent as I could in animal behavior/ethology and biology. I wanted to write about how humans could better respect and respond to the needs of animals—particularly companion dogs and cats. To do this well requires, in my opinion, a solid understanding of the natural history, biology, and behavior of our companion animals. Knowledge about who animals are provides an essential foundation for providing them good care and a good life from cradle to grave. 

Jessica Pierce
Source: Jessica Pierce

How and why did you develop your own interests in hospice and end-of-life decisions for companion animals? Did your background in medical ethics play a role in your going in this direction and how are they related?

I was writing a large college-level textbook called Contemporary Bioethics: A Reader With CasesThe longest section of the book focused on ethical issues in death and dying (e.g., physician assisted suicide, the right to die, hospice care, making quality of life judgments for nonverbal patients), as these are the core issues in my field. At the same time, my elderly dog, Odysseus, was facing an increasing number of health challenges and I worried about his quality of life and whether it would be ethical, at some point, to hasten his death. Through the difficult year of Ody’s decline and death, I realized how challenging and ethically rich animal death and dying was, and how many parallels there were between conversations about human loved ones and about our companion animals. I decided, then, to write a book about my experiences with Ody.  

Can you please tell us a bit about your two books The Last Walk: Reflections on Our Pets at the End of Their Lives and Run, Spot, Run: The Ethics of Keeping Pets?

The Last Walk is Ody’s book. It is part memoir about his life and decline, and part exploration of the bioethics of animal end of life care. [I knew Ody very well and had many conversations about him and other dogs who were in the same situation.]

Run, Spot, Run stays on the theme of human-animal relationships and focuses on the same question,  “What are our ethical obligations to our animal companions?” It also broadens these queries from end of life care to considerations to pet-keeping practices more generally. For example, is it ethical to even keep pets at all? Are some animals better adapted to being pets than others? What constitutes “good enough care” for a pet?

What are some surprises that you discovered as you delved into this area of care for sick and elderly nonhumans among people who lived with companion animals as well as those who care for them?

When I first started researching end of life care for companion animals more than 10 years ago, I was surprised to find that “hospice care” for pets was becoming a reality. I got involved with an organization called the International Association for Animal Hospice and Palliative Care, which at the time was a very small group of veterinarians trying to provide a smoother, more compassionate end of life experience for animals and their human companions. The group now has over 500 members. 

An example of something that pleases me: certain human caregivers of ailing animals are extremely well-attuned to their animal’s needs and go to great lengths to help the animal make adaptations to disease or disability. A woman in my neighborhood has a wheelchair for her little Chihuahua mix dog who has lost use of his back legs. The little guy scoots around the neighborhood looking as happy as can be. 

On the less happy side, I am continually surprised and horrified by the number of people who abandon a dog or cat to a shelter because the animal is “too old.” I don’t have any statistics on how often this happens—no one has tried to quantify, as far as I know. But anecdotally, it seems to happen pretty often. I’m also dismayed by people who fail to provide even basic pain medications for ill or elderly animals. By one estimate, about 12 million dogs in the US suffer from untreated or undertreated osteoarthritis—which can be very painful and debilitating. Providing diagnosis and treatment for pain is a basic responsibility of each and every person who lives with an animal companion. 

What are some of the most difficult decisions humans have to make about the well-being of their nonhuman companions?

I think the decision about hastening death through euthanasia (or deciding not to euthanize, in some cases) is probably the hardest decision facing human caregivers. Actually, in my experience it isn’t a single decision, but a whole series of decisions—agonizing decisions—made over the course of days or weeks or months. You are faced with this overwhelming life-and-death decision, based on incomplete and constantly changing information, for an animal who feels like part of your soul. It is the hardest thing you’ll have to do, if you join hearts with an animal. And it’s essential that when people decide to offer a home—and hopefully their hearts--to another animal they realize the enormity of their responsibility. 

Do you feel there's hope that people who choose to take on the responsibility of living with and/or caring for a companion animal will change their ways so the individuals have the best and longest lives possible? 

I think so. It seems as though there is increasing interest in the science of dog and cat behavior and cognition, and hopefully we’ll also see an increased interest in how knowledge of animal emotions and experiences can help us provide better end of life care. In Canine Confidential: Why Dogs Do What They Do you discuss numerous such studies for dogs and also how important it is for people who bring a dog or another companion animal into their homes to become fluent in dog. 

What are some of your current and future projects?

"A common refrain in human medical education is reminding students that the patient they are going to see is a person, not a diagnosis. In other words, the patient is a unique individual, a whole being, not just a cancer in room 5 or a hip fracture in room 6."

I’m working on a book about the animal as patient, which will explore practical ways in which veterinary ethology and canine/feline science can help us provide better care. A common refrain in human medical education is reminding students that the patient they are going to see is a person, not a diagnosis. In other words, the patient is a unique individual, a whole being, not just a cancer in room 5 or a hip fracture in room 6. There is a certain depersonalizing that can occur, and this is especially problematic with the elderly and the dying, who may be less interactive, more remote. In my experience, animals are often depersonalized, too—we fail to really see them as three-dimensional beings. I’d like to change this because they, too, need to be given the same amount of deep reflection and concern as humans.

Veterinary students are not exposed to very much ethology, nor are they given much training in end of life care. I would like to see more discussion about animal emotions and subjective experiences in the veterinary curriculum, and better training in helping support animals and their people at the end of life. And I’d like human caregivers, for their part, to get educated about behavioral signs of pain and distress, how to make informed judgments about an animal’s quality of life, and, perhaps most important, how to support their animal companions through their sunset years and, ultimately, on that last walk together. [For more discussion on some of these points please see "Special Needs and Senior Dogs Rock: They, Too, Need Love," "New Study Shows Importance of Understanding Dog Behavior," "Dog Smarts: The Science of What They Think About and Know," "Living With a Dog Is Good, If It's Good for You and the Dog," "Dogs Want and Need Much More Than They Usually Get From Us," and "How Well Do You Know What Dogs Do, Think, and Feel?" for a crash course on how to study dog behavior."] 

Thank you, Jessica, for such an informative and wide ranging interview. I agree, it's essential for people who choose to share their homes and hearts with nonhuman companions to become literate in what constitutes typical or normal behavior of the animal with whom they're sharing their lives, and also to learn about the ethics of what follows from this incredibly important decision. We do this for other humans and there's no reason why we shouldn't do this for other animals. 

We need to do all we can to give our companions the very best lives possible because while it may surprise many people, a large number of companion animals don't get what they want and need from their humans not only near the end of their lives, but also throughout their cohabitation with humans. We are the lifelines for other animals, and they, each and every individual, totally depend on us for our goodwill and concern for their well-being for as long as we are responsible for them. When they're doing well it's also good for us, and it's a win-win for all. However, even when we have to leave our comfort zones to give them the respect and dignity they deserve as living beings, we are obliged to do so from the moment we become their caregiver

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