The Question of Euthanasia of Animals

I want to say there is kind of a Buddhist “rote” answer, and that would be “no” to euthanasia and “yes” to letting the animal die naturally. But I think the dharma goes much deeper than simply giving us “rote” answers
  • Question:

    I am addressing you with my concerns about animal euthanasia since I know you to be a lover and owner of horses. My dear, 16-year-old dog is ill and dying, and I watch her physical suffering as she gets closer and closer to her end. The tumors in her nose are bleeding and her breathing is labored. The weight loss is dramatic, though she still can eat little bits and walk with some difficulty and assistance.

    I am a new Buddhist, soon hoping to become Kongtrul Rinpoche’s formal student, and thus newly exploring rebirth and death within Buddhist teachings, and exploring the meaning of my Bodhisattva vow. As a life-long animal owner, I had practiced euthanasia before with dogs, cats and farm animals. This killing at a remove (via veterinarian) is something I want to renounce. I have been determined to let my dog choose her own time of passing. Taking a life is abhorrent and yet I am struggling with the option that I could deliver her out of her suffering with a shot. I want to do what is best for this life companion of mine and I feel caught between two cultures in a way.

    As I watch her suffer and sit with her and practice Tonglen and try my own fumbling at unfamiliar prayers, there is some momentary peacefulness, she does settle a bit. I think I have rushed to write this letter to you because you have also spoken about the value of bearing witness. How much of my quandary is my inability to bear witness to her suffering, (compassion must also be part of it), how much is coming from a lingering belief that euthanasia is a compassionate option, and how much is coming from my doubt and lack of confidence in rebirth and that idea I should not interfere with her transition into another life?

    It is very hard to hold an open question with all these facets and seeming choices, in the face of my little animal’s physical torment. Can you tell me if Buddhism ever allows euthanasia of an animal? And yet if there was a yes , it would not necessarily provide me with any clarity. Can you point me in the direction of the most compassionate practice?

    Thank you Elizabeth, a friend.

    …….. Response: Dear Friend,

    I am so, so sorry to hear about your beloved dog and your question is so poignant and heart-felt. What you are asking comes up so very often in the context of the Buddhist practice as we struggle to care for our animal friends.

    In fact, I have often asked myself this question too. Over a year ago I lost my mare. She was young and it happened suddenly. I was out of town when she colicked suddenly. No one could reach me because I was out of cell phone range and the electricity where I was had gone out due to a storm. The vet wanted to put her down but my friend knew that I would want to give her the best fighting chance possible…so they waited. Meanwhile, they gave her morphine and she died on her own soon after.

    When I brought home my most recent horse the question and responsibility has continued to weigh on me as I have wondered what I would do if such a thing were to happen again and the situation was prolonged. It has become normative to put down horses immediately when they can’t walk, as there is no way for them to actually survive. So I have to say, it is still a question for me. But I know I would do absolutely everything I could to make my horse, cat or dog comfortable and really give them the best fighting chance. Because animals do fight to survive…and they know how to let go when it’s time.

    Obviously there is no easy answer for this question. I want to say there is kind of a Buddhist “rote” answer, and that would be “no” to euthanasia and “yes” to letting the animal die naturally. But I think the dharma goes much deeper than simply giving us “rote” answers. It is not that Buddhism “allows” or “doesn’t allow” anything. I don’t think it dictates what we “should” do but rather asks us to deeply examine cause and effect. And when our motivation is kind and loving, these choices are not so black and white. So I think no matter the circumstances there are consequences either way. You would have to be callous to not feel the consequences of putting down a being you love. And yet it can seem cruel to let them suffer unnecessarily at times. So the question itself requires us to be very big and courageous.

    Sometimes we can find creative ways to work with this situation. I have a friend who asked me the same question some years back while her cat was dying of cancer. Her animal’s pain was almost too much to bear. But then she asked her vet to prescribe pain medication and that seemed to ease the pain enough to support them both to relax and allow her cat to die peacefully. It was an important experience for my friend to see her cat off in that way. She learned a lot about her ability to bear witness to that kind of struggle and she was grateful for her choice. She realized that yes there was suffering in the process both for her and her cat, but there were moments of relaxation, ease and great joy and love as well. She realized that they could not have shared these moments if she had decided to put the cat down.

    As for the practice, the best practice is the practice of simply expressing love and care. You don’t have to say any foreign prayers. I think in these kinds of situations there is a lot we feel – not just suffering. I’m sure you are experiencing a great deal of love and appreciation for your dog, a sense of responsibility, the sadness of impending loss, the vulnerability of not being able to do anything to fix the situation, and the realization that life is so very full and therefore it is hard to know what to do sometimes. If you can rest with the fullness of all of that, your own fears and confusion around this may also dissipate and things will become much more clear. It usually works like that.

    Much love to you and your dog. May her passing be peaceful.



    Let's Discuss

    8 thoughts on “The Question of Euthanasia of Animals

    • lynda ryan says:

      A dilemma – clients left the door to my office open in February & mice came in! We used catch & release traps for 6 weeks!!!! with no success. We recently began to use a very well designed trap which leads them in directly & snaps down very firmly & quickly – absolutely no suffewring – but we are still distresased. The alternative of allowing them to reproduce is also not a good one. We even tried outfitting my office with 3 repellants which emit a sound that keeps them away (but of no use once they are in we discovered). – sigh!
      any thoughts or reflections? Thanks! Lynda

      • Linda Barone says:

        We have many field mice around our home which often find their way into various parts of the house. I have used a variety of methods. The humane traps work if you catch one at a time & take them several miles from your place. Mice have an amazing way of finding their way back to protected places especially where there is food or warmth. They do not like the odor of moth balls & if you can place some in areas where they might be first entering & where you are not breathing the odor that is a good deterrent. If there are mouse holes stuffing the hole with plain steel wool & sealing it off also works. They don’t like to chew through steel wool. I try my best to protect them but sometimes when nothing works I also try to find the quickest least painful way to get rid of them. I have also found that prayers help & trying to communicate with them that staying in my home is not a safe place for them & they need to stay away & find other areas of which their are plenty for them to be.

    • Sharon Jackson says:

      I am struggling with almost the exact same situation and would be very interested in any “humane” & effective suggestions!

    • This is the best possible answer of all:
      “But I think the dharma goes much deeper than simply giving us “rote” answers. It is not that Buddhism “allows” or “doesn’t allow” anything. I don’t think it dictates what we “should” do but rather asks us to deeply examine cause and effect.”

    • Annette says:

      I have a condition that could cause my death eventually. Intervention is a medical necessity. The philosophical position of non-intervention is fundamental to the Christian Scientist movement. However, people have been arrested for abuse in cases where children were not properly cared for in their time of need.

      It seems important not to get too deeply intellectual when practicality and common sense and kindness dictate action.

      Personally, I admit that within myself I agree to absorb any karmic effects of my actions for the sake of any burdened creature.

    • Jay Wohlen says:

      I would like to support the idea there is no “rote” answer. I have done both with my animal friends, based on the situation. I started practicing Buddhist mediation in 1978 and took refuge in 1988 (I don’t rush into things) and when my 20 year old Seal Point Siamese started to go downhill I could see the weakness but there was visible pain so I watched and witnessed his slow passing. He actually died while I was petting him and I could see his spirit leave from his tail thru his spine and out his eyes (a very profound experience). Yet after spending $20,000 on my second Siamese cat (Insulin dependent Diabetes, and three strokes) I did not hesitate to call the vet to euthanize her after her third and worst stoke (my vet will come to my home to do it so is minimally traumatic for my friend). My intention is love and caring and support for the great journey they are about to go through. To that length I discovered a Buddhist mantra that is said to aid in escaping the animal realm and facilitating rebirth as a human I say it to my current pets and all the poor critters I see all the time not just when they are dying. It is: NAMU SUGATA RATNASHIKHIN. Pronunciation does not matter, intention does, love it the answer.

    Enter Comment

    Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *