t is a heartbreaking decision, one nearly every pet owner must make at some time. Cindy’s dog, Otis, was suffering a losing battle with cancer. Cindy agonized: should she euthanize? Turning to a Buddhist listserve for advice, she posted the following:
Last May, when my dog Otis manifested symptoms of distress and trauma, an ultrasound revealed a large mass in the area of his right adrenal gland. Several veterinary experts agreed that surgery would be tremendously risky, and if he lived through it, there was no promise of any benefit. They gave him three to four months to live. We didn’t choose to do surgery.
Over the past eleven months, Otis and I have met a number of wonderful people who have treated him with acupuncture, chiropractic, homeopathic, and other alternative therapies. Otis has enjoyed these months of life. We have had the gift of each other’s presence for longer than anyone thought.
But now he is failing. The tumor has invaded the vena cava, and the experts believe that he has begun to bleed internally. So far it seems that the bleeding is slow or somewhat intermittent, and he is rallying to accommodate it. He has periods of rapid breathing and what appear to be distress and discomfort. Then his breathing slows and he rests. These episodes do not appear to be painful as such, but who knows?
He still gets up and asks to go outside. He has spent most of this morning outside in the backyard, lying in the snow, resting and observing the world around him. He loves the snow. He has not eaten today.
I am feeling the pressure of the decision to euthanize or not.
I would appreciate any further guidance, any thoughts, and any sharing that anyone has to offer.
If there are practices or prayers that would be appropriate for us, please advise and, if possible, send texts.
Thank you for reading this.
Thank you for your compassion.
Among the letters sent in reply was one recalling the time a practitioner, painting the exterior of a building at Karme Choling, a Tibetan Buddhist retreat center in Vermont, had killed flies that were hopelessly stuck in the paint, in an effort to end their suffering. Later that day—during a question-and-answer period with the Venerable Dzigar Kongtrul Rinpoche, a Nyingmapa meditation master—the practitioner confessed what he had done.
With a look of horror, Rinpoche said, “You killed them?!” He went on to say that although no harm would come to the practitioner since he had acted with good intention, killing the flies had not ended their suffering—it had simply removed it from our awareness. The flies’ negative karma would result in suffering, if not in this lifetime, then in the bardo, or in their next lifetime, or in the one after that. And their suffering might be much worse later on, Rinpoche said.
When it comes to the dilemma of whether or not to euthanize an animal dying in pain, from a Buddhist perspective there are two prevalent views. The first is that we should not interfere in any way with the natural dying process, even if it is prolonged, even if it is painful. The other view holds that if we have the right intention, it is proper and compassionate to end the life of a suffering pet.
The situation often gets murky, though, as questions about right intention—and compassionate action—arise. Patrul Rinpoche, in his book The Words of My Perfect Teacher, states that killing in the belief that it is a virtuous thing to do is “killing out of ignorance.”
Since we are all relatively confused beings living in samsara, is it possible to be sure of our intention, particularly in the case of taking a beloved pet’s life? For most of us, the honest answer is no. We muddle through, trying to see more deeply and clearly the view that our teachers have pointed out to us, doing the best we can with our limited understanding, wavering motivation, and jaundiced sight.
Buddhist teacher Judy Lief, author of Making Friends with Death, says that when considering whether or not to euthanize an animal, the questions to ask are: Is this for your own benefit or your animal’s? Who is suffering—you or your animal? If you choose not to euthanize your pet, are you doing so because you can’t let go?
When asked about the advisability of euthanizing a pet, Dzigar Kongtrul Rinpoche has said, “For Buddhists this is not permissible unless one has one hundred percent pure motivation and can accurately see the circumstances of both this life and the next life very clearly. Ordinarily, people are not able to do that.”
The Seventh Dzogchen Ponlop Rinpoche, the senior teacher at the Nitartha Institute in Halifax, Nova Scotia, agrees. “In very rare cases,” he says, “killing has become practice for great bodhisattvas.” He gives the example of the Buddha, who in a previous lifetime killed a man on a boat whom he knew was going to murder five hundred people. The Buddha’s intention was to save the man from accruing a tremendous amount of negative karma. But in a situation like that, Ponlop Rinpoche explains, “It is required to have a complete sense of egolessness—a selfless view. Even a small thought like “Oh, maybe I can get such-and-such benefit from this death’ becomes polluted. The intention is not bodhisattva action.”
Sakyong Mipham Rinpoche, holder of the Shambhala Buddhist lineage, once sat by the side of a road in the Rocky Mountains for many hours after his driver hit a small animal.
Though Rinpoche’s attendant wanted to kill the gravely wounded creature so they could make their flight, Rinpoche said no. The only thing to do, he said, was to sit with the animal while it died, however long that took.
Khyongla Rato Rinpoche’s cat, Mr. Benny, lived for twenty-one years. When Mr. Benny’s kidneys stopped working properly, Rinpoche—a Gelugpa teacher and founder of the Tibet Center in New York City—gave him insulin shots, fed him by hand, and even helped him go to the bathroom after the cat was paralyzed by a stroke. Amy Hertz, a longtime practitioner, recalls Rinpoche gently feeding the paralyzed cat with his fingers and dropping water into the cat’s mouth. After the meal, he would say, “Excuse me, Mr. Benny has to do his business,” and he’d carry the cat to the bathroom, where Rinpoche would hold him over the toilet. Rinpoche slept in a tiny room with just a simple cot, but Mr. Benny curled up on his master’s pillow every night. When Rinpoche had to be away from Mr. Benny, he would put His Holiness’s teachings on a continuous-play cassette player so that the cat could hear the teachings constantly.
“The point is,” says Hertz, “he never thought of putting Mr. Benny down. He just took care of him until he died.”
Most Tibetan teachers, including Penor Rinpoche, Thrangu Rinpoche, Bardor Rinpoche, Tulku Thondup Rinpoche, and Khandro Rinpoche, have told practitioners that it’s unadvisable to kill any being under any circumstances. To care for an animal through the pain and suffering of old age and death is courageous and kind.
We had two old friends, Emily, the border collie of the sangha, who used to stand guard while we were practicing, and her old friend Sophie, the tabby with no tail. They were both getting on—Emily was incontinent, had arthritis . . . and Sophie was apparently wasting away. We asked the Sakyong what to do. He replied gently that it was not a good thing to take life. He didn’t elaborate. Emily died in my daughter’s arms in the shrine room about a year ago. Sophie died in the big armchair downstairs a little later.
Everybody up here puts their animals to sleep for the sake (they say) of the animals. We were on the verge of doing so. But really we were doing it for the sake of ourselves. In fact, this culture of denial would prefer putting things to sleep to looking at dying. I can’t blame folks for their revulsion. It was a hard thing to go right to the end with these old animal friends, but having done that, I am deeply relieved to have followed Rinpoche’s advice. It seems part of our path to keep death cheerfully in view.
If it’s any consolation, it seems that death is to some degree a natural process when it happens unimpeded. Emily was in distress a lot towards the end, and had to be carried upstairs. It was very sad to let her go, but this departure struck me as the best possible way.
It is easy to imagine upholding the vow of nonharming when a pet is healthy or relatively pain-free. But when an animal is in agony—from a tracheal tumor, or from being hit by a car, or from being old and arthritic—the choice to end the pet’s suffering, despite your belief in karma and what happens in future lifetimes, often begins to seem like the only sane and compassionate response.
From the point of view of the dharma, anything that shortens life is “absolutely not okay,” says Rinpoche Nawang Gehlek—the director of Jewel Heart, an international dharma organization based in Ann Arbor, Michigan. But when you know that the quality of the pet’s life has deteriorated and it will not live much longer, then you’re “given the opportunity” to shorten it, he adds. Rinpoche euthanized a beloved Lhasa Apso in India thirty years ago, when the dog came down with distemper. First, however, Rinpoche asked his teacher for advice and prayers, and did a powa ceremony—a practice in which a capable practitioner moves the consciousness of a dying being to a favorable rebirth. (Powa in Tibetan means “move.”)
But Ponlop Rinpoche, on the other hand, argues that euthanasia is inappropriate if a powa ceremony is performed. “Powa is meant to help people die a natural death,” he says. “If we do powa and then kill someone, then killing becomes like practice.”
This is just a quick note to express my great appreciation for all the kind and helpful words that were sent in reply to my message about euthanizing pets. Otis and I were blessed by your companionship and compassion.
Over the past week, Otis regained strength and energy and is, today, still with me in a vital way. He was probably the only delighted being in the state of Maine when we received last Friday’s gift of snow. Except for me, of course, who delighted in his delight.
Today, he doesn’t feel so well.
I am extremely grateful for this manifestation of my teacher.
Thank you all so much. I cannot express how much it meant to me to hear from you.
According to Richard Baker Roshi, there is a Japanese concept—aware—which means to be “painfully and thoroughly conscious” that everything we do kills something.
“The most compassionate growing of vegetables involves killing,” Baker Roshi says. “If you speak to another person as if they were less than you—that’s killing them a little. If I grind my teeth, I’m killing microbes. In each circumstance,” he continues, “we must try to avoid killing.”
Though Baker Roshi once shot a deer that had been left fatally wounded by hunters with imperfect aim, he chose, when the time came, not to euthanize his dog. “The dog I could take of care of,” he says, “and she was in a natural situation. But the deer was in a hopeless, unnatural situation.
“I think animals go through suffering quite well,” Baker Roshi continues. “I think we know how to die: Our body knows how to do it, if we don’t interfere with it. And I think animals have more immediate access to the sambhogakaya body [the body of enlightenment] than we do.” He laughs. “They’re probably blissed out more than we are—otherwise, it would be boring to be an animal.”
Are animals, karmically speaking, different from humans? The question elicits a wide variety of responses. Chogyam Trungpa Rinpoche is said to have told several students that animals don’t learn from their suffering the way humans do; therefore, it is all right, in certain circumstances, to euthanize a dying pet. (However, he is also reported to have said that euthanizing an animal is not a good idea, because it ends their suffering so swiftly that they don’t have time to fully break their attachment to this life.)
Not that euthanizing a pet neccesarily condemns it to rebirth under worse circumstances. There is, after all, the story of the mosquito inadvertently slapped and killed by King Trisong Detsen in a previous lifetime. The mosquito was reborn as the King’s daughter, Princess Pema Sel. She died at seventeen—the result of her father’s past karma with the mosquito—but the princess was brought back to life by Padmasambhava, who gave her the first dakini teachings, making her the first in the Khandro lineage.
Dzigar Kongtrul Rinpoche says that when it comes to karma, humans and animals do not experience the same consequences. Humans, he says, accumulate karma more “actively” than animals, while animals experience karma from their past lives “more passively.” Whether or not this is so, many Tibetan teachers recommend trying to keep your pets from killing, in order to help them avoid lesser rebirths.
Dear Cindy, I have been a foster mom for many, many animals. Currently, we take care of eleven dogs and four cats. I have been in your situation too many times. If the animal is not in pain, then I do not call the vet for a shot. If, however, there is suffering, I tearfully take the animal in. I waited too long one time, and I regret it. My pet had suffered all night, and I cried for the pain to stop.
I was his best friend, and I felt that I had let him down because of my difficulty dealing with the situation. I was a coward. It was a painful lesson to learn.
I wish you fearless wisdom.
With so many issues to consider—our intention, the pets’ suffering, our own suffering—the question of euthanasia and pets is far from easy to resolve. Looked at from a Buddhist perspective, though, one thing seems clear: If, as one practitioner puts it, “an animal is just experiencing the deterioration of old age, and caretaking becomes very demanding, we don’t have the right to kill it. Our stewardship includes seeing it through the difficulty of old age. Pain, not the debilitation of aging, seems to be the determining factor.” Isn’t this why we practice? To be able to keep our seat no matter what arises, to be able to stay with the suffering of others, to be able to arouse bodhicitta for all beings, using everything—good or bad, happy or sad—to wake us up to what is.
It’s so good that our hearts can become so raw and tender and open. The beloved and “beloving” pet is a path for many of us. And then having been so revealed, how much more deeply we witness. Cindy
If an animal is in pain, you can seek relief with drugs and/or alternative medical techniques like acupuncture and herbal remedies. The administration of dutsi, or other “blessing pills,” is highly recommended by Tibetan teachers under these circumstances—and may even cure the ailment. Dzigar Kongtrul Rinpoche suggests reading the names of the buddhas into the ears of dying animals to ensure good rebirth; the Buddha advised this in various sutras, he says.
It is important to stay with an animal that is dying, to do everything possible to lessen its fear and provide a peaceful environment both before and after the moment of death—cradling it in your arms; wishing it a good journey; doing tonglen, a meditation practice that involves breathing in the suffering of another being and breathing out relief. Then, when you have done everything possible, it is important to let your pet go.
Hi folks. Late in March I wrote to you about my dog, Otis, and asked for guidance about how to work with his approaching death from a cancerous adrenal tumor. Many of you were kind enough to respond with stories of your own experiences. I just wanted to let you all know that Otis died at home yesterday afternoon. I believe there was some pain for him, but it did not last long. I held him while he took his last breaths.
His body is currently in my shrine room, lying in front of the shrine. I will sit with him for as much of the three days as possible and then perform a sukhavati [a Buddhist funeral service] before I bury him in my backyard.
I have been truly blessed by his presence in my life. He walked beside me through some very tough times. I tried to do the same for him. I miss him immeasurably.
Your thoughts, prayers, and meditations for Otis during this time of transition would be much appreciated.
Thank you all for your kindness.
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