Q. Our family dog, Rory, is nearly 15 years old. When we got him, our children were seven, five, three, and a newborn. They have virtually no memory of life before we brought Rory into our family. He has been a great pet. His presence in our home has taught all the lessons one would hope a family pet would teach—responsibility, devotion, loyalty, empathy, unconditional love—all the things a dog models.
Rory’s health is failing, and we are anticipating the day when our veterinarian recommends that we put him down rather than continue to treat his many medical maladies. Frankly there is a limit to the care we can afford to provide to an aging dog, and we are concerned about prolonging his suffering as his health deteriorates.
We’ve discussed with our children the impending decision to euthanize Rory. The older three understand that this is not only permissible, but also the most humane course of action. However, our youngest son is adamant that euthanasia is wrong in all cases, even for animals. While we are gratified that he shares our ardent pro-life beliefs, we never taught him that the right to life from conception until natural death extends to animals. How can we explain that our affection for Rory does not give him the same status as a human person?
A. Having recently gone through the loss of a beloved pet, my family can relate to the grueling emotions you are going through. Even though they’re not human, our pets become integral members of our families, even exuding their own personalities and idiosyncrasies that endear them to our hearts.
A recent study even showed that the brains of mothers of babies who also are dog owners respond to both their babies and their pets in similar fashion. The team of researchers at Massachusetts General Hospital found that chemicals in the brain associated with maternal attachment rise when women view images of both their children and their dogs.
This is not to say that children and dogs are equal in the hearts of women, but it shows that to the degree emotions can be measured in a scientific way, they produce similar responses. But no matter how much we care for our pets, they’re still animals and therefore we treat them differently than human beings.
The Church teaches that animals do not have eternal souls, and the Bible makes it clear that humans have dominion over the animal kingdom (see Genesis 1:26). Consequently, animals are not afforded the same protections as humans, in whom God places an eternal soul created in his image and likeness. There are several legitimate reasons to put an animal to death, including putting an end to its suffering from old age, sickness, or injury.
Rather than engage your son in a debate about the validity of his argument for the right to life of your dog, recognize that he’s struggling to let go of his beloved pet. Just as Rory has taught your children about responsibility, devotion, and unconditional love, he now will teach your son about loss, grief, and acceptance. Use this teachable moment to help your son identify and express his feelings. And prepare him for the loss of his pup by taking lots of photos of them together while the dog is still with you.
One reason it’s hard to let a beloved pet go is that we’re not entirely certain what happens to them after they die. Some say they cannot possibly go to heaven because they have no eternal soul, while others argue that God draws all of creation to himself. The Church says this is an open issue, and that’s a lucky thing for those of us whose brains light up at the mere mention of our pets. We can’t imagine eternity without them!