Every night before I go to sleep, two moments flash before my eyes. They're the moments when, six weeks apart, I let two of my senior kitties go. They're still fresh, open wounds. But sitting in this time after, I have a thousand thoughts -- about what I thought I knew, about how my fears have changed, and how I'm making my way through. So here's the honest truth, if you're nearing a difficult choice for your pet.
Let me give you the brief, clinical-esque summary of my two dearly departed pets, so that you can see where this knowledge and experience is coming from. Then, we'll dive into the lessons that I've learned.
Ramses, the former feral
Ramses was a former feral cat. It took me a year of leaving wet food outside to be able to pet him, another year before we could trap and neuter, and another year before we brought him inside - against his will - because of a skin condition caused by fleas. He spent three months hiding in my basement and in cupboards. He finally realized we weren't going to kill him, and became a treasured member of our house.
In August 2021, 2 years nearly to the day after we brought him inside, he was laying near the water, puking a lot, so we took him to the emergency vet. $6,000, and we had a diagnosis: mast cell tumor in his intestine. He lived seven months after diagnosis, with chemo. It cost probably $12,000 to keep that cat alive, and while we burned through our savings, we felt like it was the right choice.
Ramses left us on March 24th, 2022 - the night before our tenth anniversary. All in all, we had gotten 2 years and 7 months with this cat. I bonded with him most during his illness.
Miss Maya, the queen of street cats
In 2013, I was trying to help someone find their missing cat in Fairborn, Ohio, where we lived at the time. I searched neighborhoods within walking distance and never found that cat. But I found Maya, instead. She was an incredibly scrawny, long legged street cat with an orange beauty mark on her cheek. She was SO lovey. She would follow me from street to street. Eventually, I enlisted my future husband, and we kidnapped her from the streets.
This was a cat who only knew love from that moment on. She screamed for one of us the first night, and so, Brad slept in the room we were isolating her in. She fattened up quite nicely, and lived a beautiful, wonderful life. She traveled across the country with us, twice. She lived in three different states. She LOVED the car, and she loved cuddling. Everything was fine, until it wasn't.
A few days before Ramses died, I noticed Maya dragging her back legs in the kitchen. I took her to the emergency vet. They thought that she had a saddle thrombus, which is basically a death sentence. We got a second opinion and settled on neurological issue of some sort. For the next six weeks, through our grief with Ramses, we tried our best to care for Maya.
She spent a week leaking urine because no one told us that she needed help expressing her bladder. We expressed her bladder for a few weeks, and then she became incontinent instead. In some ways, that was easier - but it caused a lot of potential for infection in her vulva area. On May 3rd, she started sliding downhill: trying to hide, not fighting us with medicine, some trembling. I gave her some pain meds, but it was clear by morning that it wasn't enough. It was time. On May 4th, around 11am, we let our second cat go.
Lessons from our pet deaths
1. There is no "right time"
So many people trying to be helpful in internet comments will tell us that we'll "know" when the right time is. The truth is, that over the course of eight months, I thought there were at least four right times for one of my cats. And I truly wasn't ready to let go when it was actually time.
We make two agreements when we bring a pet into our home. First, that we will love them unconditionally - the way that they love us. And second, that we will be good stewards for their care, even when it gets hard. That second choice is so, so much harder than the first choice. Especially because, truth be told, there is no right time.
We probably could have squeezed a few more days out of Ramses. Sure, he seemed a little disoriented on his final day, but we probably could have gotten some medical intervention to help just a little bit more. Ramses was less clear than Maya. He was still walking, he was eating a little. He was feisty, right up until the end. But ultimately, it was the time. Even if it didn't feel right to me.
We may have been able to sink time and money into Maya, too. But her quality of life was already diminishing. She was hiding, we couldn't keep her clean from the incontinence, and she was having recurring infections. Maya felt more like the "right" time to me - but I also lose sleep, still, worrying if I did the best that I could for her.
2. There is no "good" death for our pets.
We all have this fantasy that one day, our animal will be lulled into a gentle sleep, and their heart stops, and they will feel no pain. While this is generally what euthanasia does, it still doesn't feel very "good" to witness.
Sometimes, our pets can appear to be in pain at the end. When they gave Ramses the sedative, I think it went too fast into his veins, and he reacted just before he went to sleep - a gagging motion. That motion is carved on my heart's walls. I know it didn't hurt him. It just surprised him. But it hurt me to know that he had even a moment of fear in his last few. Then again, it tracks for him. He was always a fighter.
Maya's death was more gentle, but that doesn't mean it was any easier. We were still destroyed by grief for Ramses. In some ways, I feel like I cried less for her, because all my tears had already been cried. And yet, for her - death felt more sudden. She was fine, until she wasn't.
3. Our pets really don't fear death like we do - but they do fear pain.
The honest truth is that we don't know if animals have a true grasp of their own mortality. Our best evidence settles on "maybe" for chimps, and leans towards "no" for most of the rest of the animal kingdom. While they don't fear death, they do understand pain.
That's why, when we choose chemotherapy for our pets, it's often palliative. We can't reason with our pets and tell them that they're nauseous all the time because of the medicine that's keeping them alive. That's also not fair to them. So we use chemo to extend life, but not at a dose high enough to eliminate cancer. It usually comes back.
But that's ok. Because with chemo, we got an extra seven months for Ramses to lay in the sun. With Maya, chemo wasn't really an option, but we still had palliative measures for her. Pain-saving, life giving measures. And even though, eventually, they weren't enough - they kept her mostly pain-free until it was time to go.
Signs of pain in cats
If you're approaching that euthanasia decision for your pets, think hard and fast. They won't suffer in agony knowing that their death is coming. But they will suffer in agony if they're in real pain from their illness. Choose palliative care, and keep an eye on them for signs of pain.
Signs of pain in cats include:
- Hiding, or laying in new places that are more secluded than usual
- Peeing or pooping inappropriately
- Being reactive when you touch them - a change in behavior
- Being disoriented
And, if your cat refuses to eat, or drink, it can get critical fast. We've found cats laying near drinking sources but refusing to drink in several instances when they've been critically ill, so please do keep an eye out for that.
Losing a cat is so, so challenging. But know that euthanasia is often the best option. Work with your vet to figure out what is best for your cat.