To reiterate: superficial similarities notwithstanding, the euthanasia of companion animals cannot rest on ethical foundations similar to those that ground assisted dying in humans. The former instead rests largely on animal wellbeing, and the comparative account of the value of death should guide guardians’ thinking about when the proper moment to euthanize a companion animal is. The authority guardians have to make decisions regarding companion animal euthanasia rests on their special knowledge of the animal’s life history and personality. And though perhaps it should go without saying, companion animal euthanasia should be performed painlessly and swiftly.
As Bernard Rollin observes, companion animals are sometimes euthanized for trivial or appalling reasons: because guardians have planned a vacation and forgot to plan for their companion animal’s care, because guardians failed to provide adequate training for the animal, because a grown animal is less cute than a young animal (Rollin 1992, 220-21; see also Yeates and Main 2011). The view proposed here rejects these sorts of egocentric rationales, but I do not intend thereby that the interests of guardians are utterly irrelevant to whether a companion animal should be euthanized. Medical care for diseased animals can be astonishingly costly, and guardians at least have the right to take that into account when determining when animals should be euthanized.
I have largely abstained from grounding my arguments regarding companion animal euthanasia in any greater theoretical account of the nature or source of our duties to such animals. However, my arguments accord well with the widely shared view that the nature or source of these duties is that human guardians voluntarily undertake a relationship with a companion animal, thereby rendering that creature dependent upon a specific human companion for its wellbeing (Burgess-Jackson 1998; Cooke 2011, 267-70). But if such relationships are the source of our special obligations toward companion animals, then the duties ensuing from these relationships may be circumscribed by the interests of the other party to the relationship. Even though special relationships (friendship, familial relationships, etc.) generate duties that are more morally demanding than our generic relationships to others, even these duties have their limits. We are certainly not required, for instance, to do everything possible to keep companion animals alive. The nexus between guardians’ interests and their obligations to their companion animals is obviously thorny, and I make no pretense of offering precise prescriptions as to how to balance guardian interests with the wellbeing of companion animals when it comes to decisions regarding euthanasia. Still, in identifying the conditions under which the euthanasia of companion animals is justified in light of their interests, I hope to have brought clarity to one half of this moral ledger.
Throughout this discussion, I have assumed that the animals whose euthanasia we are imagining are animals that are already someone’s companion. My discussion might therefore appear irrelevant to the pressing ethical question of the euthanasia of potential companion animals, that is, the euthanizing of members of pet species housed in animal shelters. Sadly, millions of shelter animals are euthanized annually for want of a guardian. Granted, certain elements of my account cannot be extrapolated to shelter animals. They lack guardians with the sort of species- and organism-specific knowledge that comes from a longstanding relationship. However, their caretakers must still euthanize responsibly, and my own account of the conditions under which the euthanasia of companion animals is justified at least suggests the contours of an account of the ethics of euthanizing shelter animals.
In particular, there will be a point at which the continued life of a shelter animal is not a benefit to it, at which time euthanasia would be morally required on the grounds that the animal’s optimum life span has been reached. The distressing fact is that the point of optimum life span for shelter animals is likely to be much earlier in its life than for companion animals who have morally decent human guardians. Shelter animals may live in crowded, unsanitary conditions inimical to their social needs; may lack adequate food, shelter, or medical care; and so forth. And regrettably, there are fewer spaces in shelters than there are unwanted animals. Therefore, to try to keep all prospective companion animals living in shelters alive in conditions of want would be worse for each of these animals. As a form of shelter population control, euthanasia has a role in ensuring that a larger portion of shelter animals do not live long enough that they would have been better off dead. This is not to deny the moral urgency of improving shelter conditions, or better yet, taking measures to reduce the population of unwanted members of companion animal species. Even so, euthanasia of shelter animals can serve as the best response to a far-from-ideal reality.