We Need to Give Our Pets an Afterlife

Because without one we make them suffer

Photo by Scott Rodgerson on Unsplash

A friend of mine gives his old dog 18 pills a day. Blind, deaf, nearly toothless, and — the friend tells me — suffering from dementia, the poor animal mostly lives a life of sleep. I can’t be too critical. Our own dog is around 14 (a rescue, so her age is uncertain) and her kidneys have failed. Every few months some infection overwhelms her and we spend another few hundred dollars so a vet can poke her with syringes to rehydrate her and administer antibiotics. She can only eat one kind of food.

The last time our own dog fell ill, she crawled deep into a hollow underneath the house, which is what animals do when they know they are dying. I had to get on my belly and worm through the dirt and dark to haul her out. Two days later, more needles and coaxing and expense, she was back to her normal shuffling self.

I could go on for pages about others — cats on dialysis, dogs taking heart medications, highly specific diets, the endless hours nursing animals away from death.

A few decades ago I read an article about the movement of outdated human medical equipment into veterinary offices. Unless broken, replaced MRIs don’t go to the trash anymore, they go to image pets for tumors and heart conditions. And medicines, of course, will follow anyone willing to pay for them. We now keep our animals alive to a degree that would have been simply unthinkable a few generations ago.

We fight off death as best we humanly can, of course, so it’s no surprise that technology keeps widening the battlefield and finding victories. Everything fights to live, even if it means taking another life. Death is the kind of opponent you concede to only after all else is exhausted; it’s what we do. It’s what all animals do in their own manner.

But our victories over death are not themselves without cost. We may do everything humanly possible to keep our pets alive, but that doesn’t mean we do it humanely.

What kind of life they lead as we keep bringing them back is something of an open question. A dog doesn’t really tell you how much pain they are in; few animals are as vocal about their misery as people are. I suspect that our own dog is actually suffering a fair amount, but I can’t be so certain as to, well, kill her because of it.

Our unwillingness to let our pets go is certainly a desire to avoid the pain of grief, that sadness which comes when anything close to us leaves forever.

But there is something else going on. Because first, death is inevitable. Nothing lives forever, and in keeping our pets alive as they go blind, lose control over their bowels, walk with agonizing slowness, live mostly asleep, we are daily reminded not of life but of death. Their suffering, their quality of life, exists not in relation to the life they’ve lived, but the inevitable death that awaits all of us. And second, that suffering, that quality of life, is often quite horrible. If we remembered the tail-wagging, toy-chasing, ever-hopeful dog of yesterday, we’d be less willing to force the poor present-day creature to endure a life of suffering that, in the natural world, would have ended long before. We’d have allowed the animal to crawl under the house and die.

And why? Are we not familiar with death? Is it not certain? Why should a life of suffering be more welcome than an end to that suffering, especially when the end of that suffering is the only certain balm to it? What terrifies us about death that we are so willing to impose suffering to escape it?

The past doesn’t force us to keep our pets alive. The future does. But animals, unlike humans, don’t much live in the future or the past. They live in the present. If they fight death to a terrified end, it’s the present compelling them to do so, emotional instinct rather than intellect. To an animal, death IS final. Only humans, anticipating a universe empty of those they love or themselves, fill that void with something else.

The West never really answered the question, religiously anyway, of where animals go when they die. People go to heaven, or somewhere, but an afterlife filled with animals would be a bit crowded, not to mention fraught, what with all the poor creatures we eat, much less all those we aren’t even aware we’ve murdered.

There’s never been a place in the afterlife for our animals, because the afterlife, whether heaven or hell, has never been a place for animals to begin with. But as our pets become family, we find ourselves putting their deaths in the same place as our own. And absent any compelling faith in their afterlife, we struggle terribly with end-of-life choices. We force suffering with the most heartfelt of intent.

Perhaps, then, it would behoove us to reframe our understanding of an animal’s place in the natural world. And since some kind of afterlife for animals is impossibly complicated to imagine, it might be easier to focus on the life all animals lead here and now, in their present, as they themselves live it.

Maybe we should think of the Afterlife as actually the Beforelife; if we believed that death does not carry animals forward into the darkness, but backwards into the bright life they’ve already lived. If an animal lives only in the present, then past and future don’t really exist for them at all. Truth only extends as far as the mind’s capacity to conceive it, and so there is no truth of an afterlife for animals. There is only their Beforelife.

Or perhaps we should think of the afterlife as the sum of the life we’ve just been through as if weighed upon a scale. We are, after all, not an indistinguishable soup of experience and awareness, but the sum total of a series of moments. Some of them are heavenly — falling in love, the birth of a child, the release of a graduation — while others hellish — giving birth to a child, the tedium before the graduation, heartbreak. If we thought of the afterlife as those experiences separated and teased apart and placed in their respective heavens and hells, perhaps we’d be less willing to endure the hells to stay alive. In caring for our pets, keeping them safe and loved, feeding them food they gobble up with eager pleasure, providing warm homes and soft beds, we create for them a heavenly present existence that far exceeds anything they might experience in the wild. (There’s some argument that our pets would be happier in the wild, but that simply isn’t true. Life in the wild has its differences from domesticity, but pets are not like animals in a zoo.)

Imagine again that there is no afterlife for animals, yet their lives are as supernaturally profound as our own. If our own heaven or hell is driven by our choices, theirs is defined by those moments they live. If the eternity of an animal’s life is contained within their moments on the planet, would we not seek to limit those which are hellish rather than merely extend the number of breaths they take? If at the end of their lives, the heaven or hell of their eternal present was tallied and set upon a scale, would we not want it to tilt as much as possible on the side of heaven?

Or perhaps there is an afterlife for animals, one in which we are reunited with all those we loved while on the planet. Without memory, without the profound weave of past and present that makes a human life, would our pets not be in heaven the creature they were in their final days? Should we not seek to make those days as wonderful as possible?

However we choose to imagine the afterlife of souls other than our own, or if life other than our own even has a soul at all, our increasingly complicated relationship with our pets and their deaths is forcing some deeply uncomfortable behavior.

Following her latest plunge into sickness, our own dog has since recovered to her old self. We rescued her years ago from a no-kill animal shelter in Colombia, where she’d been for at least 8 years. We were told that when she was pulled from the streets she had eight puppies. All died soon after, and she herself nearly joined them. Shelter life there in Cali, Colombia, was likely better than whatever short-lived existence awaited her on the streets, but we’ve since given her a life few Colombian dogs enjoy. I like to imagine we’ve given her a heavenly afterlife already.

But I’m concerned about the next time I may need to crawl into the dirt and drag her from the dark place her suffering compels her to go. Whose life will I be rescuing, hers or my own?

just another frustrated teacher

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