When is the right time to euthanize a pet? In this article and my last, I tell the story of our cat’s illness and the long process we went through in deciding to put her down. (For a short list of 10 final signs, skip to the end of this post.)
Our family cat, Kelly, was diagnosed with a brain tumor in November and our vet said she’d have six months to live, at best. She was spot on in her estimate. There is no doubt our cat’s health is now in rapid decline.
She eats very little and suffers from violent seizures—sometimes as many as three or more a day—if I don’t give her daily doses of a powerful medication that is getting increasingly difficult to get into her. As weak as she is, she can clamp her jaw down with amazing force.
For weeks I’ve been asking myself: is it time? Is now the humane time to put her down?
I asked the advice of a new vet, one who makes house calls and happens to be the mother of one of my daughter’s friends. She has turned out to be such a blessing in helping me make the agonizing decision of when to let Kelly go.
“If she still enjoys spending time with you, that’s a good sign,” she said.
Yes, on most days she does. She still seeks out our company, likes to lie on us and purrs at our touch.
“Does she ever hide? Do you find her hunched and does she look like she’s in pain?” she asked. “Search the Internet for pictures of cats who are in pain.”
Yes, she hides. Yes, I find her hunched, and I do think she looks pained. And yes, she does look like the cat images I found online. But still, she enjoys our company and that’s the sign I’ve been holding onto.
But because I wasn’t sure, I scheduled an appointment. The vet came over a two-hour visit. Yes, two hours, for the same cost as our usual 10-15 minute appointment at the vet down the street. During the time she was here, Kelly sought me out, sat with me and purred for most it. She also witnessed just how skinny Kelly is, and a full-blown seizure where she lost her bladder, which has just started happening recently.
The vet left us with a few syringes of pain killers, some appetite stimulant pills that I’ve been dismally bad at getting down her throat, and instructions to give her an existing anti-seizure med we were prescribed for a three-day usage in November, every day.
“Keep me updated on how she’s doing,” the vet said before leaving.
I’ve been looking for a sign. A definitive sign that it’s time.
As the week went on, Kelly had good moments, but she started to spend more and more hours by herself. She doesn’t seek me out as often, and will only sit on my lap if I go get her. She had a seizure while sitting on the top stair and fell three-quarters of the way down before I heard her. I went running and caught her.
I can’t stand to watch her suffer anymore. Is that my sign?
Every time I say yes, that’s the sign, and make the decision to put her down, Kelly bounces back some and puts just enough doubt in me that I decide to wait.
My mother-in-law and several friends have told me it’s time. They are impartial witnesses, without the attachment I have. I should listen to them.
“What would you advise a friend if Kelly were their cat?” I asked my husband, who is just as reluctant as I am to say goodbye. “I would tell them it’s time to end the cat’s suffering.”
So why haven’t we? A generation ago, my dad would have put her down within weeks of the diagnosis, if not sooner. He’d have taken her to the mountains and shot her, putting an instant and painless end to her suffering. It’s what he learned as a boy growing up on the farm. It was just a fact of life back then.
His mother used to drown bags of kittens in the creek that ran along the back field. Don’t judge. It was a different time and there were no shelters, no spaying or neutering options, nor were there neighbors who could take the kittens in. They were all farmers, too, with their own barn cats. I bring this up only to contrast it with my own moral dilemma, the one I’m facing with a cat who is not going to get better, who is being kept alive only through modern medicine and who is getting expensive.
Expense is another thing to consider when deciding whether or not it is time to put down a pet. Maybe that sounds crass and heartless, but we could spend thousands of dollars prolonging her life and it will not save her.
I’m getting closer to making a decision for my furry little friend.
Saturday, June 4
Kelly had three seizures Thursday night and I was ready to schedule the euthanasia. I chickened out. Instead, I picked up three more syringes of pain killers from the vet on Friday morning and emailed her again that afternoon.
“She feels better after a dose of pain killer. She’s up and drinking water and lapping some gravy.”
And then I wrote it. “Unless you think it’s the wrong course of action, we’ll spend the weekend saying goodbye and I’d like to put her out of her suffering next week. What do you think?”
She wrote back. “I think Kelly is indeed deteriorating to the point that her decline will become rapid. Unless she has strong improvement, it would likely be best to let her go next week as you plan. I’m so sorry.”
On Saturday afternoon the neighbors found her under their car.
“What? Kelly?! I thought she was upstairs on my daughter’s bed,” I exclaimed.
“I’m pretty sure it’s Kelly. She looks really skinny,” my neighbor said.
I ran next door and found her splayed out on the hot concrete under the front of the car, just close enough that I could drag her out and bring her home. I laid her on the kitchen table and she couldn’t move. She looked angry, the end of her tail was flicking back and forth. She didn’t want water and she didn’t want to be touched. I moved her off the table and she spent the next couple of hours heaving and alone, occasionally moving to a new spot. She was nauseous, likely suffering the results of dehydration.
Had she wandered off to die? Because she surely would have had my neighbors not found her.
I wanted to end her suffering then. I had the vet’s number on my phone, but I didn’t want to disturb her family on a Saturday night so I continued to watch Kelly.
She had a seizure just before bedtime and lost her bladder again. It surprised me there could be anything liquid in there, but there was, and it stank. And the cat no longer cleans herself. That’s a loss of dignity for a cat, another sign.
I gave her meds and reluctantly put a small bed for her in the bathroom, closing her in for the night. It’s the first night she’s spent outside of my daughter’s bedroom, or our bedroom, in I don’t know how many years.
Sunday, June 5
I opened the door slowly yesterday morning, not sure I would find her alive, but there she was, hunched on a towel. She raised her face to greet me as I peeked in. I brought her downstairs to try to get some breakfast into her. She still refused water.
I emailed the vet again. This time to schedule the euthanasia. It’s set for tomorrow evening.
We spent yesterday alternating between holding her and letting her be on the couch. Interestingly, our dog spent a surprising amount of time by her side, which was unusual behavior for these two. They tolerate each other, but in healthier times, the cat liked to poke at the dog, and the dog often lashed out at the cat. She still does, consumed with jealously over all the attention Kelly gets. She would never hurt her though, and it touched all of us that she stayed by Kelly’s side on Sunday.
Monday, June 6
It’s euthanasia day. I feel as confident in my decision as I can, but I still waver, like first thing this morning, when I found her in one of her favorite places, next to my daughter’s head in her bed, where she had slept with her all night.
I wavered again after my daughter left for school and she sat with me, and purred. I laid her in the sun next to me on the couch and took her picture.
I know it’s time. Here’s how I know.
- She eats hardly at all. She drinks nothing and hasn’t for days.
- I don’t want to watch her wither away and suffer any longer.
- I don’t want to force the meds down her any longer.
- I don’t want to reach a crisis point. I read a euthanasia article on petmd.com that said “sometimes it’s better to be a week too early than a minute too late.”
- She’s losing her dignity. My daughter had to give her a bath.
- We’re spending money on medicines she hates, to prolong her life, not save it.
- Friends and family have told me it’s time.
- She spends increasing amounts of time hiding and wanting to be alone.
- She is in pain.
- The vet agrees it’s time.
If we can prevent suffering, isn’t that a good thing?
I am resigned. The family is resigned.
I am relieved.