Animal Studies Bibliography

Sanders, Clinton R. 1995. Killing with Kindness: Veterinary Euthanasia and the Social Construction of Personhood. Sociological Forum 10(2): 195-214.

The killing of animals is regarded with much less concern in our culture than is the killing of humans, because animals are generally perceived as property and therefore are excluded from the social category of person. Companion animals, in contrast, inhabit a liminal space between person and nonperson, along with others such as fetuses and the permanently comatose. These animals are sometimes part of intensely emotional relationships with their owners and their deaths are therefore agonized over, whereas the deaths of other pet animals are quickly dispatched without emotion. Feelings about veterinary euthanasia are thus ambivalent and are a place where we can see the results of the social granting and denial of personhood on a being's quality and length of life. There are important differences between the way doctors interact with human patients and the way vets interact with owners and animal patients. Doctors are generally in charge of the interaction (a power reinforced by signs of competence, such as clothing), are the main determiners of treatment, are subject to considerable legal and ethical controls, generally ignore cost as a factor, and avoid undertreatment. Vets, on the other hand, engage in much more negotiation with clients, for reasons including vets' lower status and the client-oriented (vs. patient-oriented) nature of the interaction. In vets' exchanges, cost is often a primary factor, and euthanizing the animal is always one possible option, in considerable contrast to human medical care. There is much less legal regulation of vets, and their primary legal duty is to serve the owner of the property (the animal). The triadic relationship in a veterinary exchange (vet, owner, and pet) involves much less technical jargon and much more sharing of observations and discussion of treatment possibilities than do doctors' interactions. Vets are allowed to show emotion in their practice, whereas doctors are not. Finally, doctors' role in administering death is debated and usually hidden, whereas killing patients is assumed to be part of a vet's work. At the start of a euthanasia, the vet usually breaks the ice with the client by asking the pet's age, etc., and then discusses the prognosis and asks the client whether s/he would like to stay for the procedure. Most clients choose to stay, which increases vets' stress because euthanasia is not always pretty. Vets then described the procedure and allowed owners some time alone to say goodbye to their pets. Owners were also offered time with the remains after the procedure was completed. Because vets' services are based on the decisions of the owner, vets are placed in ethical dilemmas over euthanasia, depending on how legitimate s/he feels the owner's reason for choosing euthanasia are. Depending on this judgment, the vet may try to change the client's mind, may fulfill the request, or may tell the client to go elsewhere. Vets considered animals suffering and pain--the animal's quality of life--the most legitimate reason for euthanasia. Some owners wanted euthanasia for their own quality of life, due to an animal's behavioral problems. Vets normally saw this as somewhat legitimate since most owners did not have the knowledge or time to train pets effectively. Owners putting animals to sleep for economic reasons (e.g. medical care for the pet was too expensive) were much less accepted by vets. The least justifiable reason was the owner's convenience (moving to a new house, no longer cute, etc.). When unjustifiable reasons were presented, vets who chose to go along justified their decision by arguing that they were paid by the owner to do such a service and that if they didn't do it, someone else would. Usually, however, owners come in conflicted about euthanasia. In these cases, vets have to assess the owner's feelings and determine not only the animal's prognosis, but also what the owner wants and needs to hear. Vets often used humor to deal with this regular contact with death and suffering, especially when there were numerous euthanasias to be performed in one day or when an unknown animal had to be euthanized. In other words, the emotions of the vet were significantly shaped by how well s/he knew the animal--euthanizing long-term patients whose histories the vet knew was emotional, whereas putting an unknown animal to sleep was much less so. The action was also much more emotional when an emotionally involved client was present. The client's pain also had to be dealt with, and help was offered through giving the owner time with the animal, providing books and videos, and by a donation in the animal's name to a veterinary school, which in turn sent a greatly appreciated condolence letter to the owner.


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