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The Last Walk: Reflections on Our Pets at the End of Their Lives

The Last Walk: Reflections on Our Pets at the End of Their Lives

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by Jessica Pierce

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From the moment when we first open our homes—and our hearts—to a new pet, we know that one day we will have to watch this beloved animal age and die. The pain of that eventual separation is the cruel corollary to the love we share with them, and most of us deal with it by simply ignoring its inevitability.
With The Last Walk, Jessica


From the moment when we first open our homes—and our hearts—to a new pet, we know that one day we will have to watch this beloved animal age and die. The pain of that eventual separation is the cruel corollary to the love we share with them, and most of us deal with it by simply ignoring its inevitability.
With The Last Walk, Jessica Pierce makes a forceful case that our pets, and the love we bear them, deserve better. Drawing on the moving story of the last year of the life of her own treasured dog, Ody, she presents an in-depth exploration of the practical, medical, and moral issues that trouble pet owners confronted with the decline and death of their companion animals. Pierce combines heart-wrenching personal stories, interviews, and scientific research to consider a wide range of questions about animal aging, end-of-life care, and death. She tackles such vexing questions as whether animals are aware of death, whether they're feeling pain, and if and when euthanasia is appropriate. Given what we know and can learn, how should we best honor the lives of our pets, both while they live and after they have left us?         

The product of a lifetime of loving pets, studying philosophy, and collaborating with scientists at the forefront of the study of animal behavior and cognition, The Last Walk asks—and answers—the toughest questions pet owners face. The result is informative, moving, and consoling in equal parts; no pet lover should miss it.

Editorial Reviews

Publishers Weekly
Bioethicist Pierce (coauthor of Wild Justice: The Moral Lives of Animals) is well-positioned, both professionally and personally, to examine the way the lives of American pets end. While conceding the limits to our understanding of what animals actually experience as the end nears, Pierce makes a compelling case that the negative phrase, “to die like an animal,” needs to be turned around, to mean, instead, “a peaceful, respectful, and meaningful death.” The prism through which Pierce makes her observations is her own family’s experience with the end stages of the life of their beloved dog, Ody. Pierce alternates between entries from her journal and broader discussions of issues familiar to those caring for elderly or ill humans, such as hospice and euthanasia; shockingly, the latter is the main cause of death for cats and dogs in the U.S. The author is unflinchingly self-critical, continuing, even after having Ody put to sleep, to struggle with whether fighting harder for him toward the end would have been more for her than for him. This sensitive exploration of a topic that even many pet lovers have likely not thought enough about is likely to generate discussions about what kind of death is owed to beloved animal companions. (Oct.)
Globe and Mail

“Using her experience caring for her elderly Vizsla as a springboard, Pierce, who is a bioethicist, explores the evolution of North American attitudes toward pets and their demise, while delving as deeply as she can into her own feelings as her dog Ody goes into decline.”

Mark Derr

"Jessica Pierce takes a brave and honest look at the hardest decision all of us who share our lives with dogs must face--whether and when to put to sleep, put down, euthanize, terminate, kill our boon companions. She does not make it easier--it never gets easier--but she does succeed in cutting through the euphemistic obfuscation that so often obscures every aspect of the subject."
Marc Bekoff

"Decisions about how to treat an animal toward the end of her or his life are among the most difficult we have to make and it's our responsibility to do the best we can. Our companions trust that we will have their best interests in mind. In The Last Walk, Jessica Pierce considers all of the hard questions about sick and old animals. She seamlessly weaves in personal stories with scientific research to provide readers with an incredibly valuable guide--a must read--about when and how to end an animal's life in the most humane way possible. I learned a lot from reading this book, and I know others will as well."

Lori Gruen
"The Last Walk is an engaging tribute to the complexity of human relations to companion animals and the range of issues and concerns that arise for us as those companions' lives come to their ends. The nature of building relationships and forming families with companion animals who, in most cases, we know we will outlive, shapes those relationships in profound ways. Given the subject matter, it seems odd to say I 'enjoyed' this book--I was so moved by it at times that I wept--let me say instead that I was utterly gripped by this book and think it is a must read for everyone who shares their lives with animals."

Hal Herzog
"In The Last Walk bioethicist Jessica Pierce covers virtually every aspect of dealing with the aging and death of a companion animal—from doggie diapers to the morally complex and psychologically wrenching decision to euthanize a pet. This is an intelligent and deeply moving book that everyone who loves—or will love—an aging animal should read."

Barbara J. King
"The Last Walk rings with compassion for aging animals and charts a hopeful new course for those of us who care for them. With her beautiful 'Ody's journal' passages, Jessica Pierce made me feel close to her beloved and high-maintenance old dog. It was through Ody's challenges, and Pierce's on his behalf, that I came to grapple in important new ways with issues of pet aging and death. This book is revolutionary, and  I loved it with all my heart."

Open Letters Monthly

"The best nature book this year (and also the best dog book) is immeasurably also the saddest. . . . This great little book is not a happy reading experience--but for dog people, it'll be a massively cathartic one."
New Scientist

The Last Walk is a book that all loving pet owners should read. Nothing will make the prospect of ending a good friend’s life any easier, but at least it can help those awful decisions feel less of a stab in the dark.”

Library Journal
Pierce (coauthor, with Mark Bekoff, Wild Justice: The Moral Lives of Animals) has made an important contribution to the small body of literature dealing with aging and death in companion animals. The aging of our society has become a popular topic in recent years, with numerous books and articles on eldercare, geriatric medicine, and palliative care. Until now, little attention has been given to these same issues in the companion animal population. Pierce, a bioethicist, draws on her personal experience with a family pet and her professional experience working with animal behavior scientists and philosophers to provide a thorough discussion of what is known about animal aging and the best way to deal with ill and elderly companion animals. The book is in part a journal in which Pierce records the declining health of her beloved dog, Ody, and her reactions to his increasing helplessness, and in part a discussion of current and emerging options for the care of aging pets. Thoroughly researched and well documented, it also offers an extensive bibliography. VERDICT While this will appeal to a fairly narrow audience, it should be required reading for every pet owner. Readers will identify with Pierce's feelings of ambivalence, and see something of their own pets as they read about Ody's antics and challenges. Recommended.—Deborah Emerson, Central NY Lib. Resources Council, Syracuse

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University of Chicago Press
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The Last Walk

Reflections on Our Pets at the End of Their Lives

By Jessica Pierce

The University of Chicago Press

Copyright © 2012 The University of Chicago
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-226-92204-1


Final Odyssey

Ody shuffles down the hall and stops at the doorway of my office, peering in at me with brown eyes made milky by age. He doesn't come all the way into the room to put a muzzle on my lap or push a nose under my hand as he used to. For Ody the greeting remains incomplete, a reminder that he now inhabits a different world.

I turn in my chair and call him. Though he doesn't come, I know he hears me. His stump of a tail flicks back and forth in reply. I also know, because we repeat this exchange day after day, what comes next. With a snort and a raspy cough, Ody will turn stiffly and make his way back down the hall, the click-drag click-drag of his nails telling me where he is headed. But I don't want him to go just yet.

I stand and step into the doorway. Kneeling, I take Ody's face in my hands. His long ears are like velour under my fingers. I run my hands along his body, feeling the spongy lumps that bulge out here and there, like a super-sized Braille inscription. The lumps, the vet tells me, are fatty deposits called lipomas and are a harmless, if unsightly, manifestation of age. Despite his lumps and skin tags and white hair, Ody is still just as handsome to me as ever.

Repeating another familiar exchange, I lower my face and touch my nose to his. I've always loved his nose, which is improbably colored to match the russet of his coat. I close my eyes and feel the cool roughness. His breath is a reminder of worn and broken teeth and of gums decayed by time. We remain here nose-to-nose for several long moments, and I then I stand up and turn back to my work. Ody shuffles off, click-drag, down the hall.

Ody is just over fourteen, and if you saw him on one of his occasional walks (he walks when the mood is right, and otherwise refuses to leave the house) you would know that he is an old dog. His back legs are atrophied and weak and bend awkwardly, and he stands as if he were halfway toward sitting. Every few steps one of his back legs fails to do its job, and he lands on top of his toes, rather than on his paw pad. Without support of the foot, the leg collapses, and his body dips and sways. This idiosyncrasy is most likely the result of some neurological dysfunction that causes the brain to send the wrong signals to the legs. It is one among several symptoms of "cognitive dysfunction syndrome"—in other words, Ody suffers from dementia.

Ody is nearing death. And the closer he draws toward the end, the more puzzled I become about what a good death would mean for him. It is pretty clear what a bad death looks like, and far too many animals in our world suffer a bad death, dying afraid, in pain, and alone or with strangers.

But what is a good death? The message I get from everything I read and all the people I talk to is that eventually Ody will reach a point at which his life becomes burdensome, and he will tell me, somehow, that he wants to be released. I will take him to the vet and the kindly people there will poke him with a needle and it will all be very quick and painless and gentle. But something about this scenario bothers me, like a splinter just under the skin of my conscience. And the closer Ody limps and shuffles toward this elusive endpoint, the less comfortable I become.

Is a "natural" death preferable, for Ody, to euthanasia? Why is it that we have such a revulsion against euthanasia for human beings, yet when it comes to animals this good death comes to feel almost obligatory? If it is an act of such compassion, shouldn't we be more willing to provide this assistance for our beloved human companions as well?

I worry: will I be able to read Ody's signals? And I wonder: does life ever become so burdensome for an animal that he or she would prefer death, or is this something we have judged from the outside? Is it that their lives become burdensome for them, or for us? The more troublesome Ody becomes—the more he pees on the floor, the more often he barks for no reason at odd hours of the night, the more frequently he stands, confused and panting, in the middle of the kitchen while I'm trying to cook dinner—the more ambiguous the question of burdens becomes.


When Ody was about thirteen and a half, I decided to keep a journal about his life. Although he was still in relatively good health, I could see age wearing its tracks onto his body and mind. His health was starting to fail in small ways—he had had mast cell tumors removed from his ear and from his haunch, his hearing was fading, and he had to work a little to stand up. I began to write down the funny and annoying things that Ody spent his days doing, so that I would remember him in color and detail. And I recorded my reactions to watching him grow old. I thought it might help me work through the anguish of someday losing him, and the difficult decisions that I suspected lay in wait for us. I didn't know it at the time, but the "Ody Journal" was the beginning of this book.

Ody's story soon became something more than personal. As a bioethicist, my work has focused on how the biomedical sciences intersect with human values, particularly within the context of healthcare. At the same time as I began writing my daily journal about Ody, I was finishing a large college-level textbook on bioethics. The ethics of death and dying has long been at the core of this field of applied philosophy, and one of the central chapters in the textbook focused on ethics at the end of life. I would sit at my desk, immersed in the literature about human death and dying and hear Ody retching in the background, as the water he just drank got stuck in his throat. I would have to get up from my work, frustratingly often, because he needed to go out and pee, again, or was barking at the door. It became obvious to me that many of the questions under discussion in human end-of-life care were similar to ones I might soon encounter with Ody. How aggressively should I treat his encroaching disabilities? How do I judge the quality of his daily life, as he experiences it? Might there ever come a time when his day-to-day living is filled with so much pain and fear that the humane course will be to hasten his death?

Bioethics has not generally concerned itself with animals, and most certainly not with the aging, dying, and death of animals. But as I began dealing with Ody's aging, and thinking about how to navigate decisions at the end of his life, I realized that end-of-life care for our animal companions is worthy of sustained attention and that pet owners and veterinarians face moral quandaries every bit as complicated as those we face with human loved ones. Yet as I learned the hard way, we are not always prepared for these challenges, not having been asked to think carefully through the terrain ahead of us. No one told me that having an old dog would be hard and that his approaching death would strike so much fear into my heart. I didn't know that planning for his death—knowing how a good death might best be accomplished, what might happen with his body, how I might find constructive ways to grieve—would have helped me do it all better, without so many regrets.

Soon enough, the bioethics book was done, and before me sat, clear as day, my next project: to write about caring for our aging and dying animals. I thought that I might, through research and deliberation, know what to do for Ody, when the time came. And I thought that hearing Ody's story might help others deal with the dying of a beloved animal companion.

I say this is Ody's story, but it is really my story, too. It is my story of watching an animal I love grow old, suffer the infirmities of age, and begin his descent toward death. It is my story of choosing and not choosing; of action and inaction; of coming to terms with change; of accepting the inevitable; and of holding his life in my hands and trying to figure out what to do with it. I began to worry about Ody's death long before he even began growing old. And it scared me. It was always crouching in the back of my mind, like an animal tracking its prey from the shadows: the fear that someday I would have to choose to "put him down," or watch him suffer; that I would have to play God. And that time did come, eventually.

But before we rush ahead, let's go back to the beginning.


Ody joined our family as a ten-week-old wriggling sack of loose red skin. It was 1996. I was thirty. I had wanted a dog since forever, and I finally felt that I was in a position have one: settled into a life that rotated around the home. And once I wanted one, I wanted one badly. Some women in their thirties become obsessed with babies; I wanted puppies. But my husband Chris would take some convincing. I dropped hints here and there, but not too pushy. Not too needy. Subtle at first and then growing more blatant as he grew accustomed to the idea.

I didn't care what kind of dog—any would do. So when Chris mentioned that he might be interested in a Vizsla, without even asking the obvious "What's a Vizsla, and what are they like?" I immediately started scanning newspaper ads and kennel listings. Vizslas are not common, so I was readying myself for a hard search. But within only a few days, I opened the Omaha World Herald to the want ads and saw "Vizsla Puppies, $200." It was a Sign. By that afternoon we had met Ody and his aptly named brother, Tank, the only two puppies left. We watched as the two pups wrestled and bit. One was clearly the boss—confident and way too busy to pay us any attention. The other, the smaller one, was sweet and friendly, and when he could push his way out from under Tank he would waddle over and crawl into our laps. We fell in love with Ody, and the rest, as they say, is history.

The Vizsla (pronounced VEESH-l[??]), also known as the Hungarian pointer, is considered a "general utility gundog." Ody, being Ody, is terrified of gun sounds and will start to pant and quiver if you so much as pop a plastic bag or squeeze too hard on bubble wrap. Vizslas are light and sinewy—the average male weighs about fifty pounds. Ody is a particularly stout Vizsla—not fat, but broad-chested and muscular, all seventy-five pounds of his short-haired rust-colored body. People who know Vizslas always remark onOdy's too-short tail. A perfect Vizsla would carry two-thirds of his tail; Ody has about one-third. Whoever did the tail docking must have slipped with the scissors. Still, it amazes me how much he can say with his stump: it embodies his personality and is a clear barometer of his mood. Pointed up (happy, excited), curved down (scared, upset), or pushed out straight as a rod behind him (squirrel mode). When Ody's stump wags—which it does all the time—his whole body shakes back and forth.

According to my Vizsla owner's manual, the breed originated with the Magyar hordes who during the tenth century invaded what is now Hungary. The dogs became prized hunting companions of the Hungarian aristocracy, who protected the purity of the breed through the centuries. During the Soviet occupation of Hungary after World War II, Vizslas were smuggled out of the country, and eventually they began arriving in the United States. We've always considered Ody an exceptionally regal dog—in looks, at least. And that explains the name Odysseus: a great king—handsome, cunning, beguiling—who undertakes an epic journey. Actually, his full legal name, if you must know, is Sadie's Rigorous Odysseus. His mother was Sadie, and his father was Rigor (with a brother named Mortis) and belonged to a mortician.

The Vizsla is said to be an expressive, loving, and gentle dog. Though intelligent and highly trainable, they are easily distracted and have a proclivity for stubbornness. The breed is highly tactile, and many Vizslas have an odd quirk: they like to hold people's hands in their mouth. Ody has never done this, but he does love to be touching someone whenever possible. He leans against you whenever you stroke his back, always sleeps in the bed under the covers, and fancies himself a lap dog. Vizslas are often referred to as "Velcro dogs," wanting to be close to their owners as much of the time as possible and with a tendency toward separation anxiety. Vizsla books and websites emphasize that these are extremely athletic dogs, requiring a great deal of exercise and stimulation. One source recommends that you run or walk your Vizsla at least six miles a day, preferably more. That kind of mileage is outrageous for most people, I think, though with a smug little smile and a self-righteous pat on my own back. Here, I think, is one thing I actually did right. For his whole life, Ody has been my running and mountain biking partner, and we covered a lot of miles in our day.

As I write this, Ody is asleep on the tan couch to the left of my desk. I feel a little stab of sadness every time I glance over at him, and more often than I'd like to admit, my eyes well up. The thought of losing him hurts, but even more than this, I mourn his losses. I am sad that Ody can no longer run wild through a field of tall grasses or chase the teasing squirrel in the backyard. But how do I know that he has lost anything, in his own mind? Why should I think that his diminished mobility makes him feel frustrated? How well do I really know Ody?

Despite the close bond we share, Ody is mysterious to me. The word that comes up over and over, when I think about Ody, is "inscrutable." And in his golden years, Ody has become, if anything, more difficult to read. In Dog Years, Mark Doty writes, "No dog has ever said a word, but that doesn't mean they live outside the world of speech.... To choose to live with a dog is to agree to a long process of interpretation—a mutual agreement, though the human being holds most of the cards." I try to move beyond the world of human language, into Ody's own form of speech, but rarely do I feel confident about my translation. In our relationship, I think Ody holds more cards than I do. Doty goes on to say, "Love for a wordless creature, once it takes hold, is an enchantment, and the enchanted speak, famously, in private mutterings, cryptic riddles, or gibberish." We have our private mutterings, Ody and I, but when I ask myself questions such as "Is Ody happy?" and "Is he suffering?" I find that I really do not know.

Wondering about Ody makes me wonder about animals in general. Are animals aware of their aging, of illness, of the dusky shadow of the grim reaper following behind them? What is their aging, dying, and death like for them? Very little sustained attention has been given to these questions. The presumption has long been that animals are not complex enough creatures and that dying and death are too abstract for any but the human mind to grasp. Even among those who fight for improved animal welfare, the focus of attention is almost always on the quality of animal lives. And this, of course, is paramount. But we mustn't neglect the quality of their death—particularly because it is we who often orchestrate their end. The ideal of a "good death" applies not only to human beings but also to our animal kin.


It is worth inquiring, first of all, how animals actually do die. It is impossible to say how many companion animals die each year in the United States since no one keeps a registry, as we do for human deaths. So this is merely educated guesswork. During one year, US consumers will have purchased or otherwise acquired an estimated 15 million birds, 94 million cats, 78 million dogs, 172 million freshwater fish, 14 million reptiles, and 16 million small animals. How many of these animals die each year and by what means is difficult to figure. Narrowing our attention to dogs and cats (since there are no data on other kinds of pets), cancer, kidney disease, and liver disease are the leading causes of death, in terms of disease processes. Yet the main cause of death in dogs and cats in the United States—that is to say, the central mechanism of death for most canines and felines—is undoubtedly euthanasia. The Humane Society of the United States estimates that six to eight million cats and dogs enter shelters each year, and three to four million are euthanized. No data are available for the numbers of dogs and cats euthanized each year in veterinary offices and homes; all we know for sure is that far more die by the needle than by natural causes.

What about the birds, fish, reptiles, and small animals? No one really has any idea how these pet animals die. There is no crime in buying a pet and killing it, as long as you don't do it on purpose or with cruel intent. My guess is that the vast majority of deaths occur through inadequate care. Animals simply wither away, perhaps because they don't have enough heat, or too much, or not enough moisture, or too much, or not the right kind of food. But "wither away" doesn't put quite a fine enough point on it, does it? These creatures—the corn snakes, hermit crabs, leopard geckos, and bearded dragons—die slow and unpleasant deaths after protracted, though perhaps unnoticed, suffering. I call this category of death lethal neglect.


Excerpted from The Last Walk by Jessica Pierce. Copyright © 2012 The University of Chicago. Excerpted by permission of The University of Chicago Press.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

Meet the Author

Jessica Pierce is a bioethicist and coauthor of Wild Justice: The Moral Lives of Animals.

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The Last Walk: Reflections on Our Pets at the End of Their Lives 4 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 4 reviews.
Michael_C_Petty More than 1 year ago
Ms. Pierce has written an amazing book about her last year's journey with her dog Ody. As a veterinarian who has practiced for just over 32 years, I did not think there was anything new for me to learn about death, dying and euthanasia. But after reading this book, I realized how wrong I was. This book is a gut-wrenching story about the author's last year spent with her aging dog who has some severe neurological problems. The issues she bravely puts out there for all of us to read are the ones that haunt (or should haunt) any owner of a beloved pet. Don't read this if you are looking for a feel-good book. Do read this if you will some day need to contemplate the euthanasia of your own pet, and do so knowing that you will have a companion to help you struggle through your own personal decision. If I could have my way, this would be required reading at every veterinary school.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
My husband bought this book to help us go through end-of-life decisions for our dear cat. Rather than finding comfort in the pages of "The Last Walk", I was left in anguish and full of anger for the author's harsh criticisms for those who don't agree with her viewpoints. I wish I had never read it.  My biggest problem with this book is the author casts harsh judgments on those who choose to end an animals suffering before it gets out of hand (unlike the author who let her dog suffer needlessly for months - he had terminal cancer with severe mobility issues, defecating himself, difficulty eating/underweight, blind, deaf, in pain and obviously scared and anxious due to the fact that he spent much of his time hiding under a piano - still the author "wasn't sure" if her dog was suffering?). She accuses those who euthanize their pets to end suffering as "shoving them brusquely off a precipice". Ouch. In another chapter she alludes that those who euthanize their pets are denying their animal to have a "spiritual transition" to the afterlife (although she herself eventually chose to euthanize - this book is full of such odd contradictions). She also seems to have disdain for veterinary offices as she often describes them negatively as "smelling bad", having "cold metal tables" and even goes as far as pointing out that she wouldn't want her dog euthanized at her own vet's office because it's located "near a shabby liquor store" (simply absurd).  Bottom line: I would not suggest this book if you have an ailing animal and are trying to find answers as to when is the right time to let them go from suffering. This book will guilt you into thinking that you should hang on to your animal and prolong life for the sake of "quantity" and not quality of life (this author claims to understand what quality of life means, yet when asked to evaluate it for her own pet she missed the mark terribly). If you are an animal lover and are able to bravely put your animals needs before your own, then this book may send a shiver down your spine and leave you feeling upset, as it did for me. 
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
I got interested in this book because I have an older dog and thought it would be a good read. It's really interesting because it talks about the ethics of how dogs and all animals are treated as well as making it personal by talking about her (the author's) personal experience. Don't have to be a huge animal lover to like this book.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago