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Thursday, June 16, 2011

A DEEP PHILOSOPHICAL QUESTION

I have a cat, named Christmas Eve, who for the past four years has been in renal failure. Three times a week, I give her a subcutaneous infusion of liquid to assist her kidneys, a process that involves slipping a large needle under her skin [not apparently a painful procedure] and waiting while 100 cc's of the fluid flow into the space between her skin and her flesh [on that spot at the nape of the neck where mother cats pick up their kittens in their teeth]. This process has kept her alive for these four years, a source of great joy to both myself and my wife, Susie. We are devoted to her, and even cut short our Paris visits so as not to be away from her too long. Christmas Eve, of course, has no understanding of why I do this to her periodically, and although she accepts the treatment docilely, she clearly does not like it.

Now the question: Since Christmas has no understanding of death, and no ability to anticipate her demise, or to grasp that she is being kept alive by this process, am I right to inflict it on her, as opposed to having her quietly and painlessly "put to sleep" [as we pet lovers squeamishly describe euthanasia]? There is no question that keeping her alive gives great pleasure to Susie and me, but ought that to count?

I am aware that there are two absolutely non-overlapping groups of people in the world: those who recognize this as a pressing, important question, and those who think I am insane even to think this way. So be it.

7 comments:

Jim said...

Professor Wolff –
As someone who has had to endure the experience of putting two beloved cats to sleep, I would venture to say that as long as Christmas can easily do the kind of things that cats normally do (that is to say, use the litter box properly, eat and digest food without too much trouble, scratch the appropriate rug or couch when so inclined, able to leap to a windowsill for a view outside, etc.) then by all means use whatever measures are at your disposal to keep her alive and happy – periodic subjugation to subcutaneous injections included. However, if it becomes too difficult for her to perform her usual activities, that would be the time when you should begin to seriously think about permanent sleep. If and when it does come to that difficult moment, you should find solace in the fact that the quality of life you provided for the cat far outweighed what she would have experienced in a “nasty and brutish” state of nature. So many animals (as well as people and cats) die alone, frightened and in pain. By putting a cat to sleep with loved ones around, it does not have to experience any of those feelings. At least, that is how I have been able to cope with the process.

Robert Paul Wolff said...

Jim, you are obviously a kindred spirit. Thank you. At this point, Christmas happily hops up on our bed at night and appropriates well over half of the available space. She condescends to be scrathed and petted, and purrs obligingly, she says hello when I come into the room [I am interpreting here, of course], so I shall continue on for as long as she can be with us comfortably.

Noumena said...

I agree with Jim: A few minutes of discomfort a few times a week is a small and entirely justified sacrifice to maintain a happy and otherwise comfortable life for all involved. I tend to think of companion animals as part of our families -- Christmas Eve isn't quite on a par with a human daughter, of course, but, as a member of your family she deserves your care.

Chris said...

Maybe I missed it, but did you comment on the Cat's state of contentment? Does the cat appear to be overall content in life? If it's not, and you're only keeping it alive for yor own pleasures, then I'd side on putting it down.... If it is content, then let it stay.

Of course, I'm one of the few readers of Lord of the Flies who thought Piggy was fortunate to die the way he did.

Robert Paul Wolff said...

It is of course a brave man who would deign to read the mind of a cat, but if purring when scratched and meowing a greeting and sleeping relxedly on one's favorite chair are signs, then I think I can say she is leading a contented life.

Chris said...

Haha it is a brave man, and perhaps it's a cat only problem; but I've certainly become quite adjusted to knowing what makes my Dog happy/sad...

If the cat is fine I see no problem with the act. Also, when it comes to putting an animal down - as I've had to do - I didn't find it to be the swift death Piggy received in Lord of the Flies. When we brought our dog, she threw up in the waiting room, and cried the whole time. As did my father and I. It was by no means a sweet Epicurean release into death, but a nightmare for all parties involved.

Chris Brooke said...

People interested in this discussion may enjoy (and/or identify with the sentiments expressed in) Gavin Ewart's excellent sonnet, "A Fourteen-Year Old Convalescent Cat in the Winter", which is a very fine cat poem indeed:

http://stumbles.org.uk/John/rec/Poems/Cat.html