Owners of sick, aging pets agonize over the decision to end an animal's sufferingBY CHRISTOPHER YASIEJKO / The News Journal08/19/2005
Ben was a Great Dane, the adopted son of a proud Karole Brownson.
Each night, before he climbed the stairs and went to bed, he would stand on his hind legs and lean much of his 190 pounds on her shoulders. His meaty white paws dangling off Brownson, Ben sometimes would steal a kiss before lumbering away.
First in Newark, then in New Castle, the homes of Brownson, 55, and her partner Iris Berman, 53, were filled with decorations that made clear their love for dogs. To this day, lawn ornaments poke up from the mulch and declare, through images and words crafted in wood, that theirs is a home centered around their dogs.
There was Ben, who inspired Brownson to clip "Marmaduke" comics, and there was Zach, a black labrador who when playing fetch favored a certain toy football.
Earlier this year, Ben, 8 1/2, got sick. His veterinarian, Charlotte Fagraeus of Animal Haven Veterinary Center in Bear, tested for cancer. Negative. She tested for irritable bowel syndrome. Negative. She tested for Addison's disease.
Brownson and Berman knew they'd have to make a decision: Do we let nature take its course? Or could euthanasia prevent suffering?
It's a decision Delaware residents face each year.
Today's decision is easier in some ways. Medical advances can keep pets alive and comfortable longer. The process of euthanization itself is more dignified, increasingly allowing owners to oversedate their pets at home, in their arms, in a family setting.
"See, the animal is really a member of the
family," says Booker Outland, a 73-year-old retired veterinarian who ran the Bridgeville Animal Hospital. "Perhaps it may sound trivial, but it is actually true. There's no difference between a kid being a precious member of the family and an animal who's a precious member of the family."
For Brownson and Berman, Ben's disease, in which the adrenal gland's hormone production is insufficient, initially causes vague symptoms -- vomiting, lethargy, a depleted appetite -- but can cause heart problems, shock and death.
Brownson didn't want Ben to suffer. She had to make a decision. Euthanasia, once treatment became futile, was the likely end. She knew this.
"Probably the hardest decision," she says, "was knowing when to say, 'It's time.' "
Many veterinarians, including Fagraeus, tell clients to look for signs that their pets no longer have the will to behave in ways befitting their personalities -- big eaters, for example, lose appetites, and playful dogs or cats don't respond to the usual cues.
To fight Ben's Addison's, Brownson injected him once with cortisone. Before the next scheduled injection 25 days later, Ben grew ill. He weakened. His back paws began curling under him.
"Do you have any doubt in your mind that this is the right time?" Brownson asked Fagraeus.
"None at all," she said.
On March 3, Fagraeus visited Brownson and Berman's home. Brownson held Ben in her arms. She told him he was a good boy. And his doctor of more than seven years gently injected into Ben's body an overdose of anesthetic. He drifted out of consciousness, and he died in peace.
"People in general, including doctors, run from death," Brownson says. "And I promised myself from my early teenage years that I would never let anyone I know die alone. Because I don't want to die alone."
Any reputable veterinary clinic will allow the owner to be present when a pet is euthanized. Many veterinarians will come to the homes of their patients for the last moments. If the owner can't summon the emotional strength to hold the animal, a technician usually will provide that final comfort in the office.
A retired nurse, Brownson chose to have Ben euthanized at home for a reason: "I don't believe in taking a dog or cat to a place that makes them nervous and having that be their last memories."
On June 8, after 16-year-old Zach's neurological problems had worsened to the point that he would fall, Brownson and Berman had Fagraeus visit their home again. Three months after they quietly bid farewell to Ben, they did the same for Zach.
A precious family member
Although animal euthanasia isn't universally accepted, it's long been considered a humane alternative to the drawn-out death that comes of terminal illnesses.
However, area veterinarians say it's not as necessary today because of medical advances.
Booker Outland of Bridgeville Animal Hospital retired two years ago after 37 years of veterinary practice. During the final 10 years of his career, he says, euthanasia decisions became less frequent. He attributes that decline to better drugs, more specialists and organ transplants for pets.
But the emotional process, Outland says, hasn't changed.
"From the very beginning," he says, "the rule was no pain and suffering. Even though we have an improvement in the drugs, making it easier to achieve that, it would always be our priority."
Fagraeus echoed that sentiment. During her 11-year career, she says, the percentage of those who opt to euthanize has held steady. (She speaks anecdotally, since she's worked at more than one clinic and since the latest numbers are separated according to animals' weights and other factors.)
The overall number may