The humanity of letting your pet die

posted November 25, 2015

I remember the day my grandmother refused her last surgery. She was still getting up every morning, still doing the crossword, still getting her hair done. I was shocked by the refusal, thought why is she giving up? She cited her age and said that the high risk of the surgery didn’t make sense to her.

I lived in her huge house at the time. I’d just moved to Northampton and was getting my legs under me. Her decline came within months, but once it started wasn’t swift or pretty. Her circulation was dwindling. The diminished blood flow made for a combination that was bizarre for me to understand. How could circulation so low it had confined her to bed also produce violent physical outbursts?

She was getting an increasing amount of palliative medication, liquids for immediate absorption, an ointment so strong we had to put gloves on to apply it or we’d have sedated ourselves. Most had no effect on her in the final weeks. She fought, kicked and screamed, seemed strong and awake even though mentally it often wasn’t clear she knew what was going on.

She had in-home hospice care and a personal nurse. She was exhausted for weeks and she still had to fight it out. It didn’t seem like the right thing to do, but it was the only thing we could do, legally. This process didn’t and doesn’t seem humane to me.

I’m thinking of all this because after taking care of my cat for the last 3 weeks following a significant injury I’ve decided to end her life. It was a hard decision, one that I don’t make with 100% confidence. But I made it, thinking about the morning things started to get hard for my grandmother. She was sitting in the kitchen eating her breakfast and I asked her how she was doing. My polite, religious, proper grandmother said to me, “Who’d have thought dying would be so fucking hard?”

My cat is young, not even 5. And she’s still capable of happiness, if we give her enough pain medication. Without it she cries, and runs around the room we have to keep her confined in now that she’s lost control of her bladder and bowels. We still cuddle with her because it’s one of her favorite things and we hate the loneliness we think she feels locked away. She still stares out the window, watching the birds and squirrels, longing to hunt.

The difficulty in making the decision is that her injuries are not life-threatening and might never become so. We know that if we decided to keep her alive we could expect, despite incontinence, to have to assist her 3 times a day in going to the bathroom, that she’d be prone to infections and blockages that would need medical intervention. She can’t survive outside or inside on her own anymore, but she could be kept alive for years. If she were human that would be the best we could offer her, to make her as comfortable as possible, console her as she suffers more everyday.

I know there are pet owners out there with cats in diapers and on 6 medications. I admire the love and devotion they have for their friends. I love my cat too. I’ve cried as much for her in the last 3 weeks as I have for people I’ve lost. She was wild and free, she was affectionate and funny, she was great company. I’m devastated for our appointment this morning, but the only solace in it is that I don’t have to watch her life become miserable.

I wish my grandmother had had the same option. I think the woman who refused high-risk surgery would have been grateful for a peaceful end, before her daily life became a miserable struggle. There would have been dignity and meaning in that decision. I found none in the kicking and screaming she got instead.


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