“We’ve made this trip too many times,” my husband said as he put down the empty cat carrier and unlocked the back door. We had just returned from the vet’s office where we had “said good-bye” to our feisty, loyal, intrepid, tortoise-shell cat. She had literally walked into our lives one morning in September, 2010. Within the first few months of her stay with us, Whodatcat had eliminated the post-Katrina mouse infestation that no catch and release mouse trap, sticky trap, or the snap-them-in-the-neck-and-kill-them trap had been able to do. She even quite generously shared her bounty with us, placing little game trophies on the back step or in our dog’s feeding dish.
We’ve owned dogs and the occasional cat for at least forty-five of the fifty years we’ve been married. We’ve made the lonely trip home seven times—eight if you count my classroom gerbil. It never gets easier. I know some people who have decided to forgo the joy of pet ownership because the pain of parting with a beloved companion is more than they want to endure. I can respect that choice, but it’s not for me.
I am genetically wired for pets, dogs in particular. (See The Dog Gene, July 2016.) I will always have dogs and possibly another “accidental cat.” When I sign on for that owner/pet relationship, I know that somewhere down the road I’ll be faced with making the decision of when it is the right time to end the animal’s life humanely.
Deciding when to euthanize a pet is like selling stock. It’s unlikely that a person will be able to pick the optimal time. For most of our animals, my husband and I waited too long. Whether it was out of selfishness—we wanted more time with them—or cowardice—we weren’t strong enough to make the decision, we prolonged the life of a terminally ill pet that was probably in more pain than we wanted to admit.
Whodatcat was diagnosed with inoperable, aggressive, intestinal cancer before Christmas. If she hadn’t vomited blood, I would not have suspected she was ill. The veterinarian gave us choices, and we picked the middle road. He prescribed a steroid to drizzle over her food to reduce inflammation. She ate heartily and seemed to thrive. We knew, however, that the cancer was continuing to spread throughout her body every minute of every day.
Last Friday, she vomited blood again, came inside, ate her breakfast, and attacked a chair. In other words, she seemed perfectly normal, except for the throwing up blood part, which is pretty hard to ignore. We talked to the vet. We could increase the steroids, he said, and give her medicine to stop the bleeding and quell the nausea. Maybe she’d have a couple of more months. She’d still have cancer. It would continue to spread. Then, one day she wouldn’t seem to be perfectly normal. She would stop playing. She would stop eating. She would be in pain.
We made the decision to put her down that afternoon. I held her as the vet gave her the sedative. She relaxed into my arms. She was warm, she was comfortable, and her fur was soft. She was still beautiful. We told her good-bye and headed home with the empty carrier.
Did we time it perfectly right? Maybe we got out of the market a little too soon, for us. But for Whodatcat, we were able to spare her the pain of a lingering death. For Whodatcat, I think we timed it just right.