While our preference may be that our companion animals gently pass from this world in their sleep, unfortunately, many will not. And so, pet parents find themselves considering palliative care options or facing a decision about whether to engage in euthanasia (the act of intentionally ending a life in hopes of relieving pain and suffering).
Enter heartbreak, frustration, and sadness! How do we make decisions when we are emotionally bereft? How do we choose on behalf of another being? With mindfulness and plenty of support.
Making the Decision
Step 1: Understand the medical details
When receiving news about an animal’s situation, it is common to experience some shock or disassociation. Words often go “in one ear and out the other.” So, whenever you speak with a member of your veterinary team, take notes with a pen and paper.
Recording information has a few benefits. First, it provides an accurate history to which you can return throughout the process of decision-making. Second, research suggests writing helps you integrate and retain information longer. Finally, when you write by hand, you will likely move more slowly and mindfully.
It’s okay to ask your vet to repeat details you don’t understand. Likewise, ask about alternatives to anything that feels intuitively “off.” And if the vet recommends euthanasia, ask specifics about the process they use, who can be present, and what might happen to the animal’s body after death.
Step 2: Talk through the options with a trusted friend, animal chaplain, therapist, or member of your support community
We often rely upon veterinarians to help us decide when “it’s time.” And yet, while your vet is an expert on medical issues, she may not be the best person to delve into your ethical quandaries or religious questions. Furthermore, she may not have enough time available to stay with you through your decision-making process.
For these reasons, pet parents who have religious or spiritual questions about death may find it most helpful to talk with an animal chaplain or member of their spiritual community. Some religious groups have people dedicated to animal-human topics. Or, if you are atheist or solidly secular, talk with a therapist or social worker.
To be clear: this is not a slight in any way on veterinarians! Instead, I am acknowledging that because we tend to avoid talking about death until the potential moment arrives, we can feel rushed to come to decisions quickly in their offices, pushing the decision onto them. Not being involved in the choice can leave us open to regret later.
Step 3: Explain the details to the animal
Sit with the animal gently. Share the information you have received. Talk about how it feels to be facing a difficult decision about their wellbeing. Be honest and sense into any messages you might receive from either your intuition or the animal. Jot down any thoughts that arise next to your medical notes.
Step 4: Invite divinity into the process with you
Whether your spiritual language includes God, Goddess, Adonai, Jesus, Allah, Inner Self, the Force, or some other touchstone for support, invite that being-ness into this process with you and the animal. Ask for guidance. Then listen for answers. Write down anything that feels meaningful. You may not hear clear direction but rather a word or phrase. Or a memory might resurface. Scribble it down. Reflect on what the remembrance might enlighten in this context.
Providing End-of-life Support
If you are guided to reject euthanasia, turn your efforts towards best supporting the animal in their critical illness or injury. Some tips include the following:
- Ask your veterinary team for recommendations based on the animal’s unique situation. What does she think will be most helpful for keeping the animal as comfortable as possible? You might ask about pain management, wound care, nutritional needs, or needed home modifications such as installing bed ramps. Complementary practices, including acupuncture, massage, or physical therapy, are also worth asking about.
- Understand what future symptoms might signal your animal is in crisis and what to do.
- Consider getting first aid training. The Red Cross offers a 35-minute online course to help you learn the basics. You should also consider purchasing a pet first aid kit if you do not already have one.
- Find out whether your veterinary team will be able to assist you with the animal’s body after their death or whether you will need separate arrangements for burial, cremation, or aquamation.
- Create a cozy, private sleeping spot for the animal to rest in, away from loud sounds, slamming doors, and high-traffic hallways. Consider placing a plastic sheet underneath fuzzy blankets, as loss of bladder control is common in older or ill animals.
- Be careful not to expect the animal to soothe your emotional despair. Instead, get support from an animal chaplain, mental health practitioner, or understanding friend so that you can support the animal—not vice versa.
If you decide to proceed with euthanasia, know that while it is common to have this procedure at an animal hospital or veterinary office, traveling services are becoming more widely available. So, rather than subjecting your sick cat to a stressful car ride, euthanasia can happen within your home.
Regardless of location, it is possible to bring mindfulness into the medical procedure. Consider creating a short sacred ritual to mark the animal’s transition. Thought-starters include:
- Lighting a candle (or bringing a battery-powered one to the vet office)
- Laying a prayer shawl over the animal or wrapping them in a favorite blanket
- Reading a poem from Mary Oliver’s Dog Songs or Elizabeth Bishop’s Cat Poems
- Offering a prayer or blessing