Animal Ethics Comes Home

For the past 6 weeks or so, we've been struggling with one of our cats' health  - he vomits about once a day, eats little, hides under beds. He's lost a lot of weight, and this is clearly life-threatening.  We started with blood tests and x-rays, which didn't identify the problem. Then our vet put him on the steroid prednisone, which helped a lot for a few weeks, but the problems came back. Next question was whether to use ultrasound to diagnose the problem, at a cost of ...$Alot. 

Throughout all of this, all the issues of my book about animals have become real life issues.  I'm glad to say that I don't find the perspective of the book academic or useless. I do (emphatically) think it's important not to be a speciesist about our cat--we are not going to dismiss this illness because our cat is "just an animal."  At the same time, our response should be "appropriate." If we would obviously spend  $Alot to diagnose a problem in one of our children, that doesn't immediately tell us what to do for our cat.  Loss of life for our cat is not morally equivalent to loss of life for our children.  If you think that's speciesist, you (with all due respect) don't understand the term. 

If the cat's demise isn't the same as a child's demise, it's not nothing, either. I don't buy the idea that individual animals are replaceable, or that painless killing of one animal can be canceled out by creating or saving the life of another. I can't make up for my cat dying by rushing from the morgue to the animal shelter, and rescuing a different cat.  There is a certain cold logic to letting him die, and donating $Alot to the shelter to save 10, but no.  When we adopt an animal, we make him or her like a family member, and I think we have to stay the course.  We can't suddenly shift from being this-cat-fanciers to being every-cat-fanciers.

Everything gets even more complicated considering that we have children who are deeply attached to the cat.  (We adopted him and his brother as kittens nine years ago.) Whatever we do teaches them a lesson about how we regard animals, but also about "the virtues".  Are we committed and faithful, or are we fair-weather friends?  On the other hand, are we extravagant and wasteful, or are we logical and reasonable?

Sigh!  So, we did spend the money for ultrasound, and the vet found a region of intestine that suggests maybe (but not certainly) lymphoma. However, when he aspirated some cells and sent them to the pathologist, that diagnosis was not confirmed.  Now we face a new dilemma.  To definitively diagnose the problem will require surgery that costs another $Alot.  If he has one kind of lymphoma--the one the vet suspects--the prognosis is very bad. If another, it's not quite as bad. Medicine night keep him going for a few years. There are other possibilities with better prognoses.

We thought about this for several days, and by the end of the thinking phase, the cat had lost more weight.  When push comes to shove, we don't have it in us to watch him slowly die, and then "mercifully" accelerate the process at the very end.

So--surgery's tomorrow.  If you believe in The Cat Goddess, don't hesitate to petition her for a happy outcome.


elkly said...

I'm sorry to hear about your cat and hope she recovers soon.
And maybe this isn't the time to bring it up as it is close to home for you- but I've been puzzling for sometime now over this and would love to hear your thoughts on it. My puzzle concerns the difference between accepting an animal as a "member of the family" (as so many people do) and acknowledging a difference between the animal family member and a human family member. I think this is an intuition many people share, myself included, but I struggle with an articulation of how/ why it is so.
My sense is that it could be a number of factors: perhaps we believe ourselves to share even more of an experience of being in the world with other humans than we do with animals (that is, the problem of minds is even more of a problem when we think about animals than when we think of humans), and therefore we feel more compassionate and empathetic towards the human; Or maybe we consider the relationships that the child and animal have generated in their lives and feel that more people will be hurt by not assisting the child (extended family, friends) than by not assisting the animal (this is a utilitarian consideration); Or, maybe we feel that the child has a brighter future with more potential to flourish than the animal who has already perhaps peaked in terms of flourishing- and therefore more value must be placed on assisting the child.
I'm curious about your own thoughts on the reasoning behind this intuition.

crystal said...

I hope your cat does well in surgery.

I had four cats who were of about the same age and got elderly and sick around the same time, two with kidney disease and two with cancer. I did try to keep the two with kidney disease alive as long as possible with subQ fluids at home. The other two got ultrasounds too and I also tried to keep alive but I did the wrong thing, I think - I didn't get them surgery but tried instead to keep them going with medications.

I spent the money, though I didn't have much - thank God for credit cards. But I worry maybe I let them go too easily because they were animals instead of children, though I loved them as if they were.

Jean Kazez said...

Crystal, Thanks very much for the story. I've been talking to people today about this and I'm surprised how common it is for people to opt for pretty advanced medical care for cats. As far as not going for surgery-- wow, you had four with problems at the same time! I imagine if you'd had one you might have done the surgery. Or maybe not--it's very hard to know what really makes sense. It's so easy to adopt a pet, and then down line it lands you in all sorts of difficult problems and responsibilities.

Elkly, Let's see, what do I really mean by "a member of the family"? Not an equal member, to be honest, but an individual with whom we have a relationship and to whom we are committed. It's completely different from a relationship with other humans because there really isn't the same basis in commonalities. I think my cats have extremely simple lives, and so there's just much less to latch onto and relate to. But they have good lives, and I want that to continue!

Anonymous said...

Unless you, your cat and your family somehow vary from the typical animal lover, a new kitten will fill the void left by the cat quickly. Did you have a cat ten years ago? Ever? Do you still grieve for them. Grieve as with pain - not platitudes about good and bad times. Pets are replaceable in that sense and kids are not.

When I have heard the money argument - it is usually the spending $ALot on pet vs spending for less fortunate human beings argument. This is the first time I have heard the spend on 10 other animals argument - which seems more relevant. In the abstract, these arguments are pretty facile since they can be used against practically any spending. But, I think it might difficult if it does happen in practice. What if, while on the very day of pondering about spending money on cat or not for ultra-sound, somebody without insurance wants to borrow money for an ultra-sound for themselves. I suppose you could just pay for both the human and the cat. What if on the very day, a free ultra-sound clinic is trying to accommodate as many human beings as they can collect donations. Can sympathy for your pet necessarily outweight empathy for strangers - when $Alot is involved? Pretty moot really, since the odds of such coincidences are negligible unless you are involved with regularly contributing to medial charities. But I think, it wouldn't be an easy ethical issue if it does occur.

Anyway, there is always something cold about discussing ethics interweaved with concurrent events. First person and third person seem to work well. Second person does not (at least when I write).