Should we euthanize the Yorkie?

My grandmother is ill and cannot care for her aging Yorkshire terrier.

Published November 28, 2007 12:15PM (EST)

Dear Cary,

I am stressed and wrestling with an ethical dilemma: Would it be right to put down the 11-year-old dog of my grandmother, who has middle-onset Alzheimer's disease?

It's the eve of Thanksgiving and my grandparents are both here, with this dog, a tiny, whiny Yorkshire terrier who has learned to beg constantly. It's not her fault; my grandmother forgets that she has just fed her, hears her whine (oh the sound of that whine!) and gives her another largish helping of steak or chicken or cookies, or whatever anyone happens to be eating at the time. As a result, the dog is overweight, out of shape (she will not walk more than five feet before stopping and dragging her feet), largely incontinent (I just wiped up hot dog pee 10 minutes ago), and the most annoying creature on the planet. I mean, I don't have kids yet (I'm 24), but if this were my kid I would send it straight to boarding school.

Unfortunately, though, this dog is the center of my grandmother's small and dimming world, along with my grandfather, who is in fine mental condition but has some cardiac problems -- I think she likes to feel that the dog needs her and isn't judging her for mental lapses (not that the rest of the family is, I think we're doing a good job of stimulating and caring for her). My mom asked her once whether she would be more upset if she (her daughter) died or if the dog died, and she indicated that the death of the dog would make her more upset.

But that's what I'm writing to you about. This dog is seriously damaging the fragile universe of care my grandmother has -- its incontinence and whininess grate on my poor grandfather, along with the fact that my grandmother refuses to walk the dog or take it outside to go to the bathroom or clean up after it, so it all falls on him. It bothers my aunt, who is the primary caretaker of my grandmother, for mostly the same reasons. They get in screaming fights with my grandmother about it. I know it sounds horrid, but when you combine the stress of caring for an Alzheimer's patient with the stress of caring for a dog who is similarly incapable and needy/whiny, it breaks down the patience and reserve of even the most saintly. I love dogs, but find myself wanting to kick it.

Now it's Thanksgiving, and I will be cooking all day in the kitchen tomorrow. I know the dog will be under my feet, whining incessantly, and yet there's nothing I can do -- if I suggest to my grandmother to take it somewhere else (the kitchen is open to the family room where people gather) she will get huffy. Five Thanksgivings ago when something similar happened she started walking home with the dog, two states away, because she was so offended that someone didn't love it as much as she did.

Anyway, there has been some talk of putting the dog down because it is old, incontinent and going blind, and more importantly is breaking down my grandfather's will to live (he's spoken about suicide multiple times) and ability to care for my grandmother. We are pretty sure she would forget about it after a week. No one has yet stepped up to the plate to follow through on this possibility. I'm thinking about it. What do you think? Is it the right or wrong thing to do? Could you live with yourself if you did something similar? Am I sounding as whiny as the dog?

Granddaughter Chef

Dear Granddaughter Chef,

We cannot kill creatures in our care merely because their illness becomes a problem for the rest of us. We cannot kill the dog for this reason any more than we can kill your grandmother for this reason. Your grandmother and the Yorkie are both creatures in our care. They are not of the same species or the same status. One is a human and one is a dog. But they are both creatures and they both deserve to live.

The Yorkie is overweight and annoying. So are many people we see in the supermarket. That does not mean we get to euthanize them.

There is a place for human death with dignity. There is a place for veterinary euthanasia. The American Veterinary Medical Association published its latest Guidelines on Euthanasia in June 2007. I have just looked through the report, much to the peril of my tranquility. It describes methods mostly. It does not talk about justifications. But it does talk about pain. It talks about the medical reality of pain. Without addressing the ethical question, the focus on pain serves to remind us: The reason to provide an animal with a humane death is to alleviate the animal's pain. Ethically speaking, I think the focus must be on the animal's welfare, not on our own.

You are a recent college graduate and the world will soon be in your care. So I ask you:

What behaviors and attitudes do we wish to cultivate in our society?

This is not an idle question.

The exercise of insouciant power, if given encouragement and room to grow, can become tyranny. The exercise of love and humility, if given encouragement and room to grow, can become benevolence. What benefits our world more, the habit of tyranny or the habit of benevolence?

Why do we not care for our poor in this country? Why do we have no national healthcare? Why do we not house the homeless and feed the hungry? Why are we a culture of convenience rather than of service? Why on a holiday like Thanksgiving do we turn to the question of whether to kill the dog?

Is it because, to risk the tautological, that is who we are?

So who are we? Who we are is bounded by the unthinkable. So what is unthinkable? Consider: If it were unthinkable for a member of Congress to propose that we not give medicine to the sick, that we leave the moneyless and the jobless to live in the streets, then anyone who proposed such a thing would be shunned, no? If it were unthinkable, then any person who proposed policies that led to citizens being left to shit in alleyways and to lie on filthy blankets in front of opulent storefronts would be shunned, right? If it were unthinkable to have such a world, would not anyone who proposed such policies be condemned as a barbarian?

But it is not unthinkable. It is not unthinkable at all. It is the policy of this nation to leave large numbers of its citizens without care.

So if that is not unthinkable, then what is unthinkable in our world? What is beyond the pale? And what, therefore, by inference, do we most deeply honor?

It is beyond the pale to criticize our soldiers.

At this moment, having uttered those words "our soldiers," it is customary to insert a pious disclaimer, pledging the highest respect for our men and women in uniform. Why? Why have we become a society in which any mention of our soldiers must include an honorific? What has changed about our country that we must now explicitly state our highest respect for the individual men and women in uniform any time we mention them? Has anyone noticed that the obligatory inclusion of an honorific has chilling historical and cultural echoes?

And why is it beyond the pale to criticize soldiers but not beyond the pale to criticize professors? If we honored knowledge as highly as we honor killing, would it not be grounds for censure in the halls of Congress for a congressman to vilify a professor, a philosopher, a poet or novelist?

What else can one conclude? We do not honor knowledge. We honor killing.

Is it any surprise then that the first solution that comes to mind to the problem of the annoying and overweight Yorkie is to kill it?

We cannot do this. We cannot kill out of mere convenience.

So what to do? You mention only four people in your letter: Your grandmother, grandfather, mother and aunt. But there must be other family and friends who might be willing to help in such a situation. So what I suggest is that you go to your aunt and you say, "The dog is not getting adequate care here. We must find adequate care for the dog." Make getting adequate care for the dog a high priority, a must-do.

There are two ways to provide adequate care for the dog. Either have someone care for the dog at home, or have the dog live somewhere else. If your aunt is caring for your grandmother, perhaps she can also care for the dog. If no one in the house can adequately care for the dog, however, it would be best for the dog to live somewhere else and occasionally be brought over to visit your grandmother. There must be a dog lover somewhere among your family's friends and acquaintances. It would be an act of charity and love if someone would take care of the dog in its last years. Look into the local culture of animal lovers. Look into Yorkie Rescue (but beware of the audio!). There must be someone who can take care of this dog.

One final thing. You say that the dog has broken down your grandfather's will to live. If your grandfather is having suicidal thoughts, that is a matter to be referred to a social worker and/or a therapist. It is not the dog's fault. The dog is part of the situation. The dog is part of the family. But the situation is much bigger than that.

In other words, let's not blame it on the dog.

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