Just last week, on January 17, the United States Supreme Court affirmed the right of the people of Oregon to allow physicians to assist terminally ill patients in ending their lives. While technically the issue before the court was whether the federal government had the right to interfere, the direct impact of the ruling is that humans are accorded the option to end their own lives when quality of life is radically diminished, and when there is a prognosis of death within six months.

Until now, the unequivocal convention in our society and the law of the land was that human patients live out their lives without intervention, regardless of the quality of life. The practice is rooted in our belief in the sanctity of life, and a conviction that we have neither the right nor the qualifications to determine when it is time to die. Further, many see the last days of life as a time of preparation for a transition at a spiritual level. Particularly when the physical body is not tormented by pain and suffering, the last weeks or days can be a deeply transformative time for the one who is passing on, and for loved ones as well.

The scenario is very different where our animals are concerned, and a different assumption applies regarding our right to intervene in their dying process. For many of us, euthanasia has generally been regarded not only as an option when a beloved animal nears the end of life, but an expected element of responsible, compassionate care. As difficult as it is, while we watch our companion’s health decline we begin to prepare ourselves for the day when we will have to make “the decision.”

But it may be, in some cases at least, we’re missing a piece of the puzzle when we assume that euthanasia is the right thing to do. Perhaps there are times when allowing an animal to die with dignity, and acting with all possible compassion, means allowing her to move through the dying process without intervention. If respect for human life requires that we allow the dying process to proceed naturally, isn’t it possible that the same might hold true for the lives of other species as well?

If we believe that an animal lives purely in the physical realm, and his life is governed by only the most basic instincts and desires for food, comfort, and procreation, then it follows that there’s not much point in allowing him to live in a body that no longer serves those needs. But if there is more to an animal’s life, if he has emotions or consciousness that have even a remote resemblance to ours, it’s worth considering that he might experience a transition up to and through the dying process that we can honor and support, and allow to proceed in its own time, in its own way.

It’s impossible for us to know the exact nature of our animals’ interior lives. For too long there was uncertainty about whether they experienced emotions. Thank goodness, the evidence that they do is at last overwhelming for all but the most determined Cartesians. The question of animal consciousness still stirs debate in some circles, and the notion of spirituality is too often not even on the table. But as my own emotional relationships with animals grow ever deeper, more complex, more intimate and more expansive, I simply can’t discern any limits I can confidently apply to the nature of their unspoken awareness. Most of us who live in their presence are simply not convinced they begin and end between nose and tail, in the few short weeks, months, or years they inhabit the earth. Who are we to say they’re not lost in contemplation when they sit silent, motionless, eyes half-closed, staring at nothing at all? They certainly have an awareness of birth and life and death. How much do we really know about the process they go through emotionally and spiritually as they approach death?

Both of my parents passed away within three months of each other, a little more than a year ago. My mother had always been a strong, independent woman, quick to laugh and almost as quick to bristle defensively against a perceived difference of opinion. The last months were difficult emotionally and physically as her cancer progressed. She was very private about her spiritual life in those days as always, but met often with a counselor from her church. On June 21 I wrote in my journal that she’d said “Goodnight, sweetheart.” She hadn’t called me sweetheart in many years, and it emerged from a sweetness I’d never seen in her before. That sweetness stayed with her till she passed away on July 3. My father’s life and our relationship had been complicated, as he struggled to find his place in the world and in his family. Alzheimer’s disease changed all of that, and in time he lived mostly in a decade long past. But in July, when I visited him after my mother’s funeral, for a few moments the veil of dementia lifted and his eyes filled with the pure and simple love that had been there all along, hidden beneath the complications. I visited often after that, and though he couldn’t always speak, I found the father I’d always longed for. He finally let go of this life in October.

Both Mom and Dad seemed to come to a place of peace, and connect to their essence as never before, as they approached death. Hospice workers tell me they see similar transformations all the time. I can’t help but wonder if we sometimes deprive our animals of the opportunity to go through a similar process when, with the most loving intentions, we offer euthanasia.

No doubt, there are times when it seems crystal clear that hastening death is the right thing to do. Brandy, my equine best friend, had been in the center of my life for more than twenty years. She was thirty-something, aching with arthritis and unable to keep weight on, when yet another bout of lymphangitis swelled her left hind leg to the size of an elephant’s, and sent her fever up over 103 degrees. As I walked past her on my way to get fresh straw for her bed, a voice in my head said, “Let me go.” It could not have been more clear—she was ready.

But I believe some animals make a different choice. I used to call Mazie “my power kitty,” because of the remarkable strength of her energy and her will. We lived in a quiet rural area, but still she was hit by a car when she was 1½ years old. It took her three days to drag herself home. Her pelvis was shattered, maggots covered the wounds where her fractured femur had pierced the skin, and the claws on her front feet were worn down to nothing. But she cried a mighty cry when she reached the front door. I was awed by her will to live. Sixteen years later when it was time for her to die, I couldn’t justify prolonging her life by artificial means—but neither did I feel it served her well to take it upon myself to end it. She had always been the master of her own life, and took charge of her death as well. One night as she lay by my side, she left—on her own terms. I made a space for her in the yard, lined with fresh hay and a sprig of sage. When I invited Savannah to come and say goodbye, she came to my side, then sat down facing away from Mazie’s grave. She made it very clear she did not wish to look at the lifeless body.

If there’s any chance at all that animals have spiritual lives—and there’s certainly no proof they do not—it’s incumbent upon us to consider their dying process in that light. When pain cannot be controlled, or quality of life is simply gone, it’s fortunate for them and for us that euthanasia is an option. In no way do I suggest we stand by and watch them suffer. However, I do suggest we give equal consideration to the possibility of allowing the life of the physical body to recede naturally. If they, like humans, experience emotional and spiritual transformation as they approach death, that may—in some cases—be our last and greatest opportunity to honor them
When we are deeply committed to compassionate care for the animals in our lives, the choices are often difficult. There’s so much we don’t know—where it hurts, why it hurts, what will bring them comfort. We must make use of the knowledge that veterinary medicine can provide, and its resources for good hospice care. But with that knowledge in hand, we can only turn to our hearts, the intuition born of love and understanding, and the guidance they give us when we are able to receive it. Our animals’ happiness is in our hands from the moment we meet, and their lives are in our hands when our time together draws to an end. If we are open to all possibilities, they can teach us yet again what life and death are really all about.

If you would like additional information about hospice, visit The Nikki Hospice Foundation for Pets. You’ll find resources for emotional support, a list of hospice veterinarians, suggestions for enlisting the support of your current veterinarian, and more.