The Question of Animal Euthanasia
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.
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.
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.