In my opinion, euthanasia is one of the most difficult decisions that an animal caregiver must make. I receive many calls from people whose companion has just died and their grief is usually tremendous. However, people calling to ask whether or not they should euthanize an animal companion experience a greater agony just trying to make such a decision.

"Author Rita Reynolds with her dog, Corky"

At such times I can only be a mirror for their own inner truth. Once a veterinarian has been consulted, and perhaps friends or others such as myself, the decision to euthanize an animal must ultimately be a personal one made by the primary caregiver. I cannot say to anyone, “Yes, you need to put your animal friend to sleep, it's time.” Conversely, I would never say, “No, it isn't time, you should wait.” The choice will be made clearly and concurrently by both the animal and his or her human.

Many lessons on euthanasia have come my way, judging by the number of times I've had to make that final call. With some animals I've struggled through and to this day still hold regrets, while with others I feel totally at peace. Pain and confusion are a part of the process no matter what.

Sometimes there really seems no choice at all, such as when renal failure occurs, which can be extremely painful when accompanied by vomiting. Final and usually painful stages of cancer or other terminal illness, and serious injuries due to accidents or abuse are strong calls for euthanasia. But when the choice is not that clear, especially in old animals, I always offer three suggestions that I personally use with great success:

First, I tell the dying creature that it is okay to die. Yes, I will miss her; I will grieve deeply. I would love for her to live forever, but that's not possible. Besides, I know where she's going, it's a great place, and because we've known each other we will never be separated in spirit. If you need to go, I say, go ahead. I support your journey every step of the way. I also add that I'm going to be just fine in a little while and do not stay around for me. 

It is essential to mean every word that is spoken or thought. Animals have shown me time and again that it is my thoughts they understand more than my spoken words. Animals are highly intelligent, sentient, and clairvoyant, often to a degree far more advanced than humans, though we might not want to admit it. Animals read our intentions and take those for our truth, even if our words belie our heartfelt feelings. If I am saying, “It's okay to let go,” but I'm thinking, "Please don't die, I hope you don't die, how can I live without you?" then the animal will, if at all possible, act on the thoughts rather than the words. I have seen animals struggle with great suffering to stay in their bodies until I am ready to let them go. Perhaps animals read the visual images our thoughts and words form, or sense vibrations or colors relative to our emotions. Whatever it is, they pay far more attention to thoughts than spoken words, and almost always will try in their unselfish, compassionate way, to make their death easy for us.

For the second step I ask my animal friend for her assistance. Perhaps I might say, “I'm just a bit confused and tired right at the moment. Would you please help me understand as clearly as possible what you want to do?” I will ask the animal, “Are you ready to leave? Would you like some veterinary assistance?”
     The third step requires that I take some deep breaths to calm and center myself, and without working too hard at it, listen and watch for the response. My experience has shown me that the animal’s response always comes, sometimes immediately, usually some time later when I'm not concentrating so desperately. Sometimes an animal’s signal is direct, as was the case when Josie, the goat, was dying. She leaned against the barn wall, her eyes becoming dull. As I witnessed this, a thought was firmly planted in my mind to help her move on. One I couldn’t deny. Josie had sent me a strong signal several days before she died, letting me know that release from the severe pain of her cancer was appropriate. However, I was too focused on her physical condition to really listen. Yet, I remember being concerned (as I always am in such cases) that she might be suffering while the doctors and I searched for answers. But Josie waited without complaint, anger, or resentment. She knew, I'm sure, that I was doing the best I could for her at the time.
Now I remind myself that our last communication was one of love on my part and gratitude on hers. This memory washes away all the struggle of indecision, and clinging to my fear that I made the wrong decision. What a wonderful way to die, saying "Thank you."

Excerpted from Blessing the Bridge: What Animals Teach Us about Death, Dying and Beyond, © 2001 by Rita Reynolds, NewSage Press,  and used with permission of the author and the publisher.
For further information, please visit Rita's Web site, Blessing the Bridge.