The term “euthanasia” is often used in veterinary medicine, but often incorrectly. When correctly used, it means that an individual is being killed by another, but solely with the interests of the individual dying in mind. Of necessity, this means that the individual dying would benefit from death by ending a situation that is causing intractable suffering. Ideally, the individual would be able to indicate that he or she prefers death to continued life. In some situations, particularly in veterinary medicine, this may not be feasible because of an inability to communicate with the individual. In these situations, it becomes especially important that the person ending life must be clear on her or his motives which must derive only from a sincere belief that ending the life is in the best interests of that individual at that moment. Using a defence that one is somehow preventing future suffering would be patently absurd and could justify killing any individual at any time.

In addition to considering the interests of the individual being killed, euthanasia also demands that the method of death be as quick, painless and stress-free as humanly possible. Any method that results in more than momentary and mild pain, creates an atmosphere of extreme anxiety or otherwise impacts negatively on the individual cannot logically be considered euthanasia.

One of the most abused uses of the term euthanasia is when it is used to characterise the killing of unwanted cats, dogs and others as a means of dealing with “overpopulation” of these individuals. In the vast majority of cases, the killing of those individuals fails to meet the most important test of the definition of euthanasia: best interests of the individual. Just because the dog, for example, is handled gently and a method such as an intravenous overdose of a barbiturate is used, this does not qualify as euthanasia. Even if the dog is “unadoptable” for reasons of aggression, for example, this still does not qualify as euthanasia. One could not argue coherently that this particular dog would choose death over life. Imagine killing a healthy human being, even one who is ostracised by others due to obnoxious behaviour, in such a manner that he or she is unaware of impending death and feels no pain when it occurs. No rational person could consider this to be euthanasia. Taking the lives of non-human animals for reasons of benefit to society or because funds are not available to provide care is not euthanasia, no matter how carefully and compassionately it is done nor how fervently we wish it to be the case. It is killing, regardless of the rationalisations and justifications underlying it.

Updated 2023-11-22