This past weekend we put our old dog “to sleep.” We chose to have a lethal dose of anesthetic administered through an IV until he was dead. We euthanized him. We put him “down.” There are so many different ways to say that we killed our dearest animal friend.
I realize that this is a relatively common practice, and one that many people are quite comfortable with. I have struggled mightily with this concept for many years, well before I ever needed to make this decision. Since I was young, I have loved my pets, especially my dogs, and I have also tried to live my life based on the yogic ethic of Ahimsa, or non-harming. In 1999, I committed myself to practicing the Five Mindfulness Trainings, the Buddhist lay precepts as rewritten by Thich Nhat Hanh. The first training is entitled Reverence for Life:
Aware of the suffering caused by the destruction of life, I am committed to cultivating the insight of interbeing and compassion and learning way to protect the lives of people, animals, plants, and minerals. I am determined not to kill, not to let others kill, and not to support any act of killing in the world, in my thinking, or in my way of life.
So as my dogs and cats aged, I worried about this possibility a lot. I talked to friends, fellow yogis, and vets. Everyone said that when the time came, I would know what to do. Over the years, many of our growing up dogs were hit by cars or otherwise left our family without needing to be put down. As an adult I have had two dogs who we gave away when we added four small children to our family, one dog who ran away and was adopted by the family who found him, and two cats hit by cars who died immediately. Two years ago, our chocolate lab suddenly began looking very ill, and she passed away in my arms that day, as I sang to her. I dodged the decision again.
But over the last two weeks, my adored 12-year-old standard Poodle, Gus, started having trouble walking. We stopped his second walk, and he seemed to recover some, but last week he took a turn for the worst and wasn’t able to get up at all. By the time we carried him into the animal hospital on Friday morning, he was panting furiously, and even foaming at the mouth. They diagnosed him with liver cancer that had spread to the lungs and was bleeding out into his abdomen. One of his lungs was completely occluded. They thought that he had hours, maybe a day or two to live.
My first reaction was to take my sweet dog home to die naturally in one of his favorite spots in the kitchen or on the stair landing. That seemed to fit my desire for non-killing. The vet told me that yes, this was an option, but that Gus would likely suffocate to death because of all the fluid in his lungs. She said it was a very unpleasant way for a dog to die. Palliative care at home was not possible, and even with sedatives his passing would be quite terrible. My husband was there, and he was leaving the decision to me. I tried desperate life-line calls to my out-of-town kids, but could only reach one of the four. She happened to be staying with us and came right over.
We went into the room where Gus was on IV fluids. I looked at him and I thought hard about the first mindfulness training. Instead of focusing on the line about not killing, I thought about the line that says: “I am committed to cultivating the insight of interbeing and compassion and learning ways to protect the lives of people, animals, plants, and minerals.” When I looked at Gus with the eyes of interbeing and compassion, I could see that he was truly in me, and I was truly in him, and that if it were me lying there suffocating, I would want my loved ones to help me transition through it. There was no hope for Gus’s body to recover from this illness, and all that was left for him was to struggle to breathe until he wasn’t able to take another breath. My husband and my daughter both supported the decision to administer the anesthetic.
While Gus’s body slowed to a stop, I sang him the same song that I sang to our Lab when she passed away:
No coming, no going. No after, no before. I hold you close to me. I release you to be so free. Because I am in you, and you are in me. Because I am in you, and you are in me.
I don’t know for sure that we did the most skillful thing in this situation, but our decision was founded on interbeing, compassion, as well as the desire not to kill. And as Thich Nhat Hanh says, the trainings are not commandments. They are not the moon, they are the finger pointing at the moon. They point us in the direction of liberation and less suffering, and all we can do is try our best to go in the right direction.