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msnbc.com contributor
updated 11/30/2010 8:51:05 AM ET 2010-11-30T13:51:05

We’ve all heard of people who love their pets too much. But what about loving your pet to death?

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Such was the case with Tom Tom, a healthy 2-year-old Yorkshire terrier who was euthanized and laid to rest last March after its late owner, Donald Ellis, left explicit instructions that his beloved Yorkie be put down and buried with him.

While startling, it wasn’t an anomaly. Tom Tom isn’t the only pet to find his days numbered after an owner shuffles off this mortal coil.

Emily Kinney, a 32-year-old communications manager from Dallas, says her grandmother sat everyone down after her husband’s funeral and announced she wanted her Shih-tzu, Sam, to be put to sleep and buried with her when she passed.

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“She said if she should die before her dog, my dad’s first job was to take Sam and have him put to sleep,” she says. “She wanted to be buried with her best friend. She knew that there were plenty of people in the family that would take him but she wanted her best friend with her.”

Of course, Sam was hardly a pup. The dog was 17 years old, deaf, blind and prone to “accidents”. But Kinney says discussing the dog’s future (or lack thereof) was still unsettling.

“Sam was not a healthy dog so it wasn’t exactly cruel,” she says. “It was almost funny to be talking about putting him to sleep while he was in the room, clueless about his fate.”

Luckily, Sam died first so the family wasn’t forced to make that long drive to the vet. But it was a different story for K.C., a 14-year-old tortoiseshell cat left behind after its 84-year-old owner, Elue Olvera, died last November.

“My mom told me, ‘Either you take her or put her down. She can’t live with anybody. She’s very picky,’” says Bea Gonzales, a 56-year-old school bus driver from San Antonio, Texas.

Gonzales says she couldn’t take the cat (she had other pets) but couldn’t bring herself to put K.C. down either, so she tried letting the cat live on in her mother’s home with a niece who’d moved in. Unfortunately, K.C. became listless — and then began to fight with the niece’s cats. Eventually, Gonzales made that final trip to the vet.

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“My mom and that cat were two peas in a pod,” she says. “It’s like they were married. I loved my mom and wanted to respect her last wishes. And I feel like she was up there saying, ‘It’s about time.’ She knew K.C. couldn’t live with anybody, that she wouldn’t be happy.”

Madeline Bernstein, president of the Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals in Los Angeles, says she’s heard all kinds of reasons why people want their animals euthanized after their death.

“They think no one will love them as much as they do,” she says. “That’s the more narcissistic reason — it sounds like it’s in the best interest of the pet but, clearly, when you think about what they’re asking you to do you have to wonder if it is. And some feel their pet will suffer, that there’s such a strong bond between them the pet will grieve and be miserable and fail to thrive.”

'It's what my brother wanted'
That was the case with Ellis, who asked his sister to euthanize his 2-year-old Yorkshire terrier after his death because “nobody would love him like he did.”

“Tom Tom was grieving for my brother,” says Marilyn McDaniel, 58, of Star City, Ark., who consented to her late brother’s wishes. “They were very close. I’ve gotten a lot of grief for doing this, but it’s what my brother wanted.”

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Other people worry that the animal might be a burden to friends or relatives, particularly if it’s an older animal with health problems, says Bernstein. But no matter what the reason or rationale, she says people who request their animal be put down following their death should stop to consider just what it is they’re asking.

“Killing something is not easy,” she says. “It’s asking a lot of your survivors to follow those wishes.”

It may also be difficult to find a veterinarian who will comply with the pharaoh-like request, she says, particularly if the pet’s young and healthy.

“It’s not illegal to put down a healthy pet but you have to be able to sleep at night,” she says. “A vet may have an ethics issue with it.”

Planning ahead
According to Emily Patterson-Kane, an animal welfare scientist for the American Veterinary Medical Association, the AVMA has no specific policy on the subject — but they do have principles of veterinary medical ethics.

“When in doubt, we always go back to the veterinarian’s oath,” she says. “Consider the needs of the patient. And the patient is not the human — the patient is the animal. We can’t tell people what to do with their animals, but a veterinarian is going to counsel as to what’s best for the animal.”

Dr. Tony Kremer, a Chicago-based veterinarian who owns five pet hospitals, says he finds the idea of taking an animal with you into death “inconceivable.”

“Obviously it’s a bit crazy,” he says. “I would rank it as saying ‘I want you to put my kids to sleep when I pass away so no one mistreats them.’”

Luckily, such practices are rare, he says, though relatives commonly come in with a deceased parents’ pet asking for euthanasia, even when the animal is healthy.

“When this happens, we do our best to steer them in the direction of putting the animal up for adoption,” he says. “Most people are glad to find there’s another option.”

Kramer also says by planning ahead, people can avoid all the drama.

“If you’re the caregiver of a pet, then you need to be responsible for setting up something, some plan for that pet if you’re unable to take care of it for whatever reason,” he says. “There are a lot of different rescue organizations. Or people can put money in their will so the pet will be taken care of in perpetuity.”

Chris Jones, a trust attorney of 40 years and founder of TrustedPetPartners.com, says pet trusts are another way to ensure an animal is taken care of after you’re gone.

“You choose a guardian and then you choose a watchdog — someone whose job it is to enforce the terms of the trust — and then you set aside money or other property that can be converted to money to pay for the care of the animals,” he says.

Prepaid pet insurance is yet another way to help make sure your animal will be cared for.

As for those who worry that going against the deceased’s last wishes might be illegal, Jones recommends asking the court for advice.

“Legally, you’re supposed to carry out the instructions in the will, but whoever the executor is always has the opportunity to go to court and say, ‘It tells me to do this but I’m not so sure I should,’” he says.

Protesting a death order can work, too. In 1992, the Royal Canadian Mounted Police refused to carry out the instructions left by Clive Wishart, a Canadian man who stipulated in his will that his four horses be shot by the RCMP and buried after his death. The court found that “the destruction of four healthy animals for no useful purpose should not be upheld” and the horses were spared.

Courtesy of the Lee family
Ron Lee, 44, is so committed to his basset hound, Winston, that he's made arrangements to be buried with Winston's ashes when he dies.

'You don't have to give the final solution'
Ron Lee, a 44-year-old TV reporter from Charlotte, N.C.,, says the idea of prematurely taking a pet with you to the grave is “repulsive” — although he definitely plans to be buried with his beloved basset hound, Winston.

“If Winston goes first, my wife and I will cremate him and put his ashes in a little shrine until I die,” he says. “Then Winston’s ashes will be put in my arms and buried with me.”

And if Lee goes first, Winston will live out his days in style, thanks to a “secret savings account.” After that, his ashes will be sprinkled over Lee’s grave.

“I can understand why people want to be buried with their pet but to cut its life short, that doesn’t make any sense,” he says. “There’s always someone who can help — some group, some organization. You don’t have to give the final solution to your dog or cat.”

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