Dear Joseph,
I am a 21-year-old woman living in an apartment with a 15-year-old cat. My father had originally gotten the cat for me when I was a child, but he never really wanted it. When I moved out, he made me take the cat with me. Now the cat is old and sick (the veterinarian says there is not much he can do for her), and her odor is so bad that none of my friends will visit my small studio apartment. Needless to say, this is terrible for my social life. Also, the constant stench from the cat is making me sick, and her loud meowing at night often makes it hard for me to sleep. Would it be immoral for me to put the cat to sleep?
--Sleepless in New York

Dear Sleepless,
For those who believe that there is no real difference between human and animal life--because all life is equally holy--the answer is obvious: You must keep the cat alive and bear with the consequences. After all, you wouldn't kill a human being because her bad smell was adversely affecting your social life.

For those who believe that animal life is of little value, the answer is equally obvious: When an animal becomes inconvenient, eliminate the inconvenience.

I fall in between these two views. I believe that animal life has value, but I believe its value is less than that of human life. Thus, I eat meat (I say this without pride; I think I would be a better person if I didn't). But I also believe that people develop special relationships with their pets, and that these relationships impose upon them some special obligations. Thus, I believe that people are morally required to have their pets treated by veterinarians to cure illnesses, and to minimize the chances of an animal becoming sick and suffering pain. But what if a person does not have the money to go to a vet? Then, I would argue, they have no moral right to own a pet.

During my childhood, we never had pets in our house, so I grew up without special feelings for animals. But I married a woman who has a great love of animals, my children are crazy about our two cats, and I've mellowed over the years. Two years ago, one of our cats, Snowbell, became sick with diabetes. We learned how to administer insulin to the cat. Even with her blood sugar better regulated, Snowbell started to deteriorate and develop other illnesses, and my wife had to feed her intravenously. Eventually, the cat lost two-thirds of her weight, and we were ready to put her to sleep. But when we took her to the vet to do so, she looked at us with such alertness in her eyes that we felt we couldn't go through with it. We took the cat home until it became apparent that her quality of life had so suffered that it was time to put her to sleep.

Our reaction was perhaps on the extreme side, both in terms of the time and money we were willing to spend. But I don't say that our reaction need be binding on you. The fact that your environment is unpleasant, people won't visit you, and you have trouble sleeping at night is of legitimate concern.

I therefore propose the following: Revisit your vet, and find out if there is anything they can do to help the cat and stop the smell. Second, assuming you can't find anyone else to adopt such a cat, get on the web and find out if there are services that will take in old, sickly cats. If there are such services, you should be willing to pay a reasonable amount so that your cat can have a decent end to her life.

If there is nothing the vet can do, and no such services are available, then I don't believe it is immoral to put this animal to sleep. Others, including my wife, might disagree.

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