The narrator notes that dogs have one advantage over humans that is “extremely important”: the option of euthanasia (from the Greek for “good death”) or hastening death in a painless manner.
Although this is presumably a comforting option for beloved pets like Karenin and their owners, animal euthanasia occurs on a broader and less fortunate scale: The Humane Society of the United States estimates that 3 to 4 million pets are killed every year in shelters across the U.S., and The No Kill Advocacy Center and Alley Cat Allies put the number at closer to 5 million. The remains of animals euthanized in shelters are often forwarded to meat rendering facilities where they are processed for use in cosmetics, fertilizer, gelatin, poultry feed, drugs, and pet food.
The $250 million Maddies Fund provides grants to animal shelters to prevent creatures in their care from being euthanized. The dog below was photographed in the "Paws and More" No Kill Animal Shelter in Washington, Iowa.
Although it was true at the time The Unbearable Lightness of Being was written (the early 1980s) that dogs could be euthanized and humans could not, the Netherlands had just begun to observe a policy of not prosecuting physicians who helped terminally ill patients to an early death. That country officially legalized euthanasia in 2002, as did the state of Oregon in 1994, although Oregon’s law had to survive several in-state legal and election challenges (and a Supreme Court challenge by President George W. Bush’s administration in 2006) before becoming firmly established.