You might not know me, but I’ll bet you’ve heard of my father, Tony Nicklinson. He became famous for something no one would wish on their worst enemy. A stroke in 2005 left him paralyzed from the neck down, unable to speak, care for himself or live any semblance of the life he once loved. In August, judges denied his request to let a doctor legally end his life. Heartbroken at the thought of spending the rest of his life trapped in his own body, my father succumbed to pneumonia six days later. It was a difficult end to an agonizing seven years.
My dad’s ordeal has changed my life in so many ways. Seeing how terribly he suffered, even in spite of my mother’s constant, loving care, has made me more sensitive to the ways that others suffer, particularly animals – whom I’ve loved since I was a little girl. Many people who supported my father’s desire to end his life said that if someone were to keep a dog or a cat in the condition my father was in, it would be considered completely cruel. I couldn’t agree more. But sadly, many people do let their animals linger in pain and distress, simply because they can’t bring themselves to say goodbye.
Animals have feelings and emotions, and they suffer from pain, disabilities and diseases just as humans do. But unlike my father, who could clearly communicate his wishes through a system of blinking his eyes, animals can’t tell us (at least not in human language) that they don’t feel well, are in terrible pain or even want to die. They depend on us to notice when something is wrong and to be brave enough to make the heartbreaking-but-humane decision to end their suffering when the time comes.
We can know when it’s that time by carefully observing their body language, appetite, energy level and overall demeanor and by talking to our veterinarians. When our normally happy, vigorous companion animals become very old, sick or injured without hope of recovery, and when they can no longer enjoy their lives, having them euthanized is our final act of love and kindness towards them.
That’s not to say it’s an easy decision. I know how gut-wrenching it is to face the thought of losing someone you love. But as much as I didn’t want to lose my dad, I didn’t want him to suffer even more. Yet some people let the very animals whom they claim to love live in agony for weeks, months or more because they can’t handle the thought of losing them. This isn’t kind – it’s selfish.
Some animal shelters even operate under this mentality, keeping animals caged for years, rather than euthanizing them. Just as being trapped in his own body killed my father’s once-buoyant spirit, being constantly caged kills cats’ and dogs’ spirits. Many animals become depressed and withdrawn. Others lose their minds, spinning endlessly or gnawing their own flesh to pass the hours. Some become aggressive, baring teeth or hissing at anyone who tries to pet them. This is no life for any living being.
Sometimes, the kindest thing a shelter can do for a dog or a cat who has spent months in a cage with no adoption prospects is to give him or her a peaceful send-off, cradled in a shelter worker’s arms. Of course, many of these deaths could be prevented if breeders stopped churning out animals for profit while our shelters are bursting at the seams – and if people spayed or neutered their animal companions. That’s why it’s so crucial for each of us to boycott breeders and pet stores and adopt our animals from shelters.
Some people seem to think that death is the worst thing that can happen. But I’ve seen firsthand that a pain-filled, hopeless life can be far worse. Caring for animal companions means giving them a good life and a good death, when that time comes. One thing is certain: if my family’s beloved dog, Tyson, ever ends up in a state like my dad was in, he won’t have to suffer. Surrounded by the people who love him, the needle will go in, and he’ll breathe out his last without suffering. It will be a peaceful end to a good life, just as it should be.
This article was written by Beth Nicklinson and originally appears on Huffingtonpost.co.uk.
Make your time with your friends and family—including your animal companions—even more meaningful.