Many Buddhists forgo the use of euthanasia for pets in order to remain in accordance with the teachings of the Buddhadharma and with our vows to refrain from killing. This means we must cultivate an understanding of palliative medicine and commit on a deep level to the beings in our care. More and more, I am meeting people who choose to support one another as friends, sangha, or neighbors in order to provide end-of-life hospice care for one another’s pets in the community. This may be long or short term and is often no small task, but a labor of love that extends beyond this one lifetime of kinship. Caretakers often feel a deep karmic connection with their pets and believe that we have been connected in past and/or future lives, not only in this present lifetime.
According to the Buddhist view of existence, creatures in the animal realm live in frequent fear and ignorance. This perspective is not rooted in disrespect, but is rather an observation based on the instinctual nature of animals. As far as we can discern, most animals are not reflective thinkers and therefore cannot rationalize their fear away. Even very domesticated pets, who may be highly attuned to their humans’ emotions, gestures, and actions, still often experience raw fear, confusion, or ignorance of what is going on around them.
Loving animal caretakers know how to ameliorate and proactively avoid causing undue fear for their pets. Yet all animals retain an ancient consciousness of being either prey or predator (or both) and are therefore subject to fear, stress, and unawareness. The same tendencies exist in humans, although we can evaluate and therefore rationalize our circumstances to mitigate stress. There are many ways to extend the kindness of patience and calm to the animals in our homes and surroundings, especially as they age and become sick.
When it comes to pets in our families, children often closely bond with their pets and are fascinated by local wildlife. Even when animals are young, it is healthy to talk openly with children about how we all age and eventually die in order to address how we cope with our emotional responses as well as the practical needs of the aging, sick, or dying pet. Children can be included in these discussions and in the care that pets receive as they are nearing the end of their lives.
Some people may fear that pets in the household suffer unduly when witnessing the death of a fellow animal. Of course, we all mourn our loved ones’ passage, but it is important for animals to say goodbye in their own ways to fellow pets they have accompanied through life. If they are kept apart they may continue to search for the companion animal, not understanding that they are gone for good.
It can be lovely to have younger companion animals for an elder pet as well as for the children, so that the hole left by a beloved pet’s death can be at least partially filled with the affection available with another pet. Although much of my work centers around the cats and dogs, birds, and popular rodent pets that most people keep, these concepts also apply to farm animals and wildlife we may encounter where we live. Although in some cases it may be more difficult to care for larger animals such as horses, cows, pigs, or yaks through to their natural demise, it is certainly not impossible.
I’ve heard stories from vets, foresters, and animal caretakers who recount the natural passage of all sorts of creatures, citing how the animals just know what to do and that the people in their lives held that space for them to go off alone and simply let go. Sometimes death is messy and upsetting, other times it is easy and peaceful. Our natural exit from this particular journey into which we were born is a significant, earthy experience, a bookend to our birth.
Next month in Part 3 of this series, we will explore cultivating home-based hospices for animals in our communities, to assist them in dying on their own timing. We will also discuss home modifications for the changing mobility needs of elder pets and their comfort and safety, including pain management.
For all of this, we engender the patience, compassion, and practical knowledge necessary to help ease suffering and to appreciate and tend to—rather than fear—what arises over the course of a being’s journey toward death. We will each go through this portal ourselves, and we never know whose turn comes next.
Sarah C. Beasley (Sera Kunzang Lhamo), author of Kindness for all Creatures: Buddhist Advice for Compassionate Animal Care, is a Nyingma practitioner since 2000, and Certified Educator, and an experienced writer and artist. She has a BA in Studio Art and is an MA Candidate in Educational Leadership. Sarah spent close to seven years in traditional retreat under the guidance of Lama Tharchin Rinpoche and Thinley Norbu Rinpoche. With a lifelong passion for wilderness, she has summited Mt. Kenya and Mt. Baker, among other peaks. Her book and other works can be seen at www.sarahcbeasley.com.