Blog friends, I seek your help. I think my cat is dying. Anthropapa and I are unsure about how we feel about this process. We don’t want to let the cat suffer, but we also don’t want to put him to sleep for sheer convenience of not having to care for or pay for a sick animal.

A few years back we had another cat who did not travel well into a new home and ended up with liver failure. He couldn’t keep any food down, and we tried force-feeding and giving him subcutaneous fluids to no avail. We had to put him to sleep, which felt like the right thing given the severity of his illness and the lack of response to our interventions. My first pet as a child had to be put to sleep in his old age because he was suffering too much from a heart condition.

I’m just wondering how we will know when the time is right. I’m doing small things for Harry — giving him lots of Petromalt in case he just has a giant hairball, trying to tempt him with different foods and different textures (in case it’s something with his teeth), brushing him more than usual, and so on. At this point he’s still mobile and able to climb on and off the bed, but he doesn’t appear to be grooming himself or eating.

I feel of two minds about pets: on the one hand, they are beloved companions who receive lots of love and attention from us. On the other hand, they are “just” animals and I can’t see spending a lot of money that we don’t have on them. It sounds so callous, but I just feel that the humans in our family have a higher priority, so to speak. I’m just waiting for the bloggy judgment to rain down on me for that one, as I know several of my 10 loyal readers have pets and are animal lovers.

I guess I’m just wondering what are your ethical/moral feelings on this. If you’ve had ill and/or dying pets, how did you handle it? What was your decision-making process? And if anyone has a better phrase than “put to sleep”, especially when talking to children, I would love to hear it.



Filed under Family, Health, life

20 responses to “Passings

  1. envisionhope

    The challenge is a tough one. I had an old dog who I decided would be better served at home. It took longer than I had hoped, and even though it was very hard for me at times, I believe it was the right thing for him. I have put animals down and do not know if that is always the way it should be anymore. You will know when the time is right. It will be that nagging thought that never leaves you alone.

  2. Mon

    We put our beloved dog to sleep just 4 months ago. I still shed tears on and off. I’m of the mind that a pet, as a domesticated animal, deserves that we choose such things on its behalf, and therefore needn’t suffer unnecessarily.
    However, you don’t say that you know for sure what’s wrong with Harry.
    I would always help heal a sick animal back to health, somehow finding the funds or whatever. But if the animal is severely ailing and healthcare would be beyond the family’s financial limits, then I would try to find animal charity help. If the animal’s condition is so bad that it’s dying, then I would have to consider putting it to rest and dealing with the heartache.

    Don’t know if that helps or hinders, but they’re my thoughts. I’m an animal lover, loving them more than people sometimes, but I am able to let go, if I feel within me it’s right. You know it’s right when you don’t feel any guilt about it.

  3. Hmm. I suspect that we’ll face that with one of our cats in the next year or two. Uh-oh – crying baby…
    …OK, I think she’s soothed herself back to sleep.

    Anyway, I’ve been wondering about the same thing. My parents put down a terrier that snapped at me when I was a toddler and I’ve always felt guilty about it. Also, our cats have definitely had a lot less attention since we had children (I do make at least a tiny bit of time to give them a stroke or a cuddle each day but it’s not the hegemony they used to enjoy). So I suppose I’d want to support them as long as we can. BUT in the case of the male cat, it’s going to be a combination of the vet’s input in terms of his quality of life and my own feelings about what he can do compared to what he could do – I have to keep in mind that a feral cat would live half as long as he already has and count themselves lucky and that to be maintained as an invalid is not necessarily a blessing for a cat who once used to own his neighbourhood.

    So I suppose my advice, such as it is, would be to try to take the animal’s point of view as well as your own – I think many utterly devoted animal lovers maintain their pets for their own sake rather than the animals. A human can potentially rationalise his/her infirmity in the most extreme of circumstances. An animal can’t dictate The Diving Bell And The Butterful.

  4. I believe you’ve already received some very good advice here. I agree, the term “put to sleep” doesn’t sound like a good choice of words, especially with children. I don’t know if I would even tell my children about that part if I was in your place. I might just tell them the cat died at the vet. because she was so sick. But, my feelings about that are colored by my memories of being very angry with my own parents because they had a dog I loved “put to sleep” when I was young. No matter how they explained it to me, I didn’t understand.
    My heart goes out to you and your family right now, and I hope that your cat gets better.

  5. Ugh, tough one. I’m sorry you are facing this. We are slowly getting used to the idea that our 12 year old dog won’t be around forever… these are hard decisions and thankfully I have not had to make them yet. I can contribute two thoughts though: let the children be involved in the process. When our beloved dog died (right before an international relocation), my parents did not keep us updated about it. To this day I wonder if they just didn’t want to pay for his airplane ride back home. So how you handle it can really affect how your children trust you. As far as talking to them, it depends on what you have told them about death in general. My Children, being brought up with Waldorf ed, are familiar with the rainbow bridge story, and so far (they’re 9 and 6) all they need to know that people go back across the bridge at the end of their life to be with their angel. This has always satisfied them, because to them that just makes sense.

    Best wishes at this tough time.

  6. Heni — My cats are the only children I ever have, and when one or more of them becomes seriously ill, I will have no hesitation in gently sending them back to the warm lap of the benevolent God of Cats who is waiting to play with them. My eldest cat will need to be euthanized if she ever has any illness that requires regular medication, because she was severely abused as a kitten, and even now, won’t let me handle her in that way without becoming completely emotionally withdrawn and terrified. Her quality of life would decline horribly if I had to medicate her on a daily basis; it would be kinder to let her go. I have known this about her for a long time, and am emotionally prepared for that day, which will still be, I hope, several years in the future.

    The truth is that even the most beloved animal in the world has a limited life span, which is somewhat artificially lengthened by the care we give them. It is not heartless or cruel to euthanize a pet whose physical complications make it too difficult to care for. This is not selfishness — it’s common sense. For example — an animal that is not controlling its bodily functions is a health hazard to the home in which it lives. Confining or containing an animal to deal with that is bound to affect its quality of life. And it makes no sense to spend hundreds or thousands of dollars on diagnostics for an animal who is older … it’s seldom anything simple, and older animals don’t tolerate surgery or major treatments well. Many people inappropriately anthropomorphize their pets, and attribute feelings and motives to them that they simply don’t have, in regard to their own mortality. That is, I think, a foolish error, and a lamentable form of cowardice. I don’t think there is anything wrong with your train of thought regarding Harry.

    I think you’ll know when it’s time to let Harry go, and in my opinion, that time will be when he cannot safely be a member of the family, or when he loses interest in interacting with you.

    As for what you tell your kids … I think it depends a lot on whether they understand the concept of death. If it were me, I would treat it similarly to the death of a friend or relative, but because they’re so young, I think it would probably be better not to tell them that you are taking an active part in euthanizing Harry, simply because I think it would probably be confusing, unless euthanizing a pet is an idea they are already familiar with.

    I think telling them that Harry died at the vet’s is probably the kindest version of the truth. I don’t know about where you live, but here there are a lot of animal cremation services. It sometimes helps to create closure to bury the urn somewhere special, rather than just never seeing the pet again.

  7. I like cats, but I am somewhat allergic to them. My daughter has had cats; I can be around them for a little while but not for more than several days. I have shared in the experience of some of her cats dying.

    I popped over here after I saw a comment on David’s blog. Then I noticed that you are an antroposophist.

    My aunt was a member of that organization for many years. Under her influence, my sister became very involved as well, and in fact worked for the national organization in Chicago for a number of years, though now she lives and works in Vermont to be closer to a daughter and granddaughters. This is useless information, but seing this random connection I felt compelled to post it in your blog.

  8. Thank you everyone for your kind and helpful comments. I will need to take some time to digest than and comment after I meet an impending work deadline.

  9. Oh dear, I don’t have anything remotely helpful to say other than this sounds awful and your kids are bound to be really upset over it. I wish I had some wise insights. All I know is that I was devastated at age 12 when our cat ran away and was killed, and extremely upset at 20 when our cat became ill (cat AIDS and leukaemia) and was put down. The train of thought there was “to put him out of his misery”, I didn’t really agree at the time. I remember wishing there was some other way, but he was dying and I suppose it was “better” than him suffering on and on. Not that I really know, though…. Sorry not to be more helpful! I think I would explain this situation to Kiko in some awful way that prior to having kids I vowed I would never use i.e. “The cat has gone to heaven to see Jesus.”

  10. rebecca

    We just put our 15 year old golden to sleep about three months ago. I still miss her….here are some random thoughts on my experience.

    – For about 5 months she kept getting sick, we would take her to the vet, pay the bill, she’d get a better then get another illness. I started to “get her message” to me- she was ready to go. She was old for a dog and I really believe tired, very tired.

    – The vet, a very, very kind man, kept wanting to treat her illnesses. He could not “see” what I could. I definately felt a little presssured (unspoken) to not “give up.”

    – In the beginning of her down-turn she would eat canned food, hamburger and rice and dog bones only. Then she would only eat the hamburger and the bones. Then only the bones. Then nothing but water. It was really hard. We had to carry her out to “go”. I knew. Listen to your heart.

    – It is really hard to to decide, to know you are the one responsible for the impending passing/death of a pet. That You, not God, not the vet are deciding on their living….I spent lots of time wishing/praying for her to pass/die without my having to decide.

    – In the end I had to decide. Two of my children came (16, 13), but did not want to watch. My husband came and stayed with her and me. My third child (11) did not want to come. The vet and tech were great. I was petting our dog in the end and I think she knew I was crying/upset. She ultimately let go and died peacefully when I told her to go find Pepere. We brought her home and all buried her in a back garden.

    Once when our other dog was hit and died tragically/unexpectedly, a HUGE part of our family’s healing came from writing in an open journal left out – we wrote memories, thoughts, etc about our dog.

    My heart overflows for you and your family.


  11. I think everyone has said it all. On the farm we have to make decisions like this all the time and sometimes I swear never to have any more animals after they all die- the heartbreak is too much. Sending you and your family and your cat lots of love!

  12. Alida

    I’m so sorry. These are such though decisions. I have very strong feelings about life and death. I think there should be dignity in death and while I don’t believe in so-called mercy killing of human beings, I also believe that there is a time to stop medical interventions. My grandmother died at the age of 100. She died of natural causes in my mother’s home. We had signed not to resusitate her. What would be the point? To prolong her bed-ridden life for a few more days?

    I have had to take two different pets to be put down and it was unfortunate but the reasons were two-fold, but mainly financial. One dog I had, needed surgery that would cost thousands of dollars, I didn’t have. In the meantime, she was very severe pain. As hurtful as it was, I felt there was no dignity in her suffering and no way to help her.

    I also had a cat, that needed daily medication that was not really healing her, just prolonging the inevitable. Here also the cost was beyond my capacity.

    For my children, I’d sell the house, put my life on the line. For my pets (not that I have any at the moment) not so much. I’d love them dearly, put there are other priorities to consider.

    Again, I’m sorry.

  13. Eicart

    I’m so sorry to hear about Harry, and can definitely relate.
    We had to say goodbye to our beloved beagle. Back in April, she was diagnosed with lymphoma. Our vet told us that if we chose not to treat her, she would live no more than two months. With treatment, she could perhaps live a couple of years. We decided, but set our conditions: we would pursue treatment, but only as long as her quality of life could be maintained.
    We had to fuss with our budget a bit, but were able to afford three months of an inexpensive chemotherapy. The tumors shrank, and the following three months were tumor- and drug- free. The tumors returned a month ago, in a more aggressive form. We consulted with a veterinary oncologist, and he gave us a prognosis that depended upon stronger, more expensive chemotherapy drugs. We checked the wallet, and tried one session. The stronger drugs were too hard on her system. In her sweet beagly way, she told us that she couldn’t go through with it. Last night, she told us she was ready to go.
    I guess what I’m trying to say is, we had to balance what we wanted for her (an addition of perhaps 20% of her lifespan), what we could afford to get for her (no more than $150 every three weeks), and how she felt about herself. In the end, it was the last one that counted the most.
    I firmly believe that Harry will tell you when it’s his time, when he has lost his joy for living. Your children are bright, and brave; you and your husband are creative and compassionate. You will find the right way to help them say goodbye to Harry.

  14. David Rochester said it wonderfully well.

    I have done it both ways, Henitsirk. I have had a loving companion euthanized, and I have waited and worked to keep one alive, and he died anyway. Neither one is easy. You must listen to and talk to the cat.

    My beautiful Cio-cio-san had cancer. Ultimately, I had a psychic conversation with her as she became sicker and sicker. I had already had surgery done to remove the tumor, unsuccessfully. What I did not want was this incredibly dignified and personally meticulous cat to suffer from more pain and indignity than she deserved. I discussed it with her very seriously, and I told her I would abide by her decision and when she was ready to make the transition painlessly and gently, I would make that happen for her.

    With Mike, he had the fatty liver disease, and I felt strongly that if I could keep him nourished long enough for his liver to cleanse itself of its fat load, he would recover. He seemed to be making progress. Unfortunately, I was not able to complete the job as we had a vacation planned that we had paid for in the prior year and there was no way that we could afford to write off well over $7,000 that we had already paid for in order to stay home and nurse him back to health. I discussed this with him before we went, and I knew that when we returned he would not still be living. God that was hard, and still is. I have so many photos of that Kitty-boy on my computer, every time I see them it makes me miss him. I am very grateful that I did not have to explain any of his demise and situation to any children.

    I don’t know your children personally, but I get the idea from reading about them that they are sensitive AND sensible souls. Surely by now they have come in contact with the concept of death. If not, then pets are a beautiful way for them to learn about the physical loss of beloved souls. The sad but true fact is that our animal companions do not live as long as we do, and when we take on and love a dog or a cat or a snake or a gerbil or a fish, we are going to have to learn how to say goodbye to the physical manifestation of that soul.

    It is a rehearsal for the greater losses we sustain later in our lives, and I believe the “practice” we get in grieving for pets helps us learn to deal with the griefs we will experience later in life.

    I honestly don’t remember the trauma of the death of the “first” cat I ever knew. There have been so many losses and transitions through my life by now, those earliest ones have been lost in the mists of memory.

    Do you really think your children are not aware of the pain and weakness the cat is experiencing? They do not strike me as so blind and self centered. My own mother was very straightforward about those sorts of things at the same time as being kind.

    Death is one of the natural cycles of life. We see it happen so quickly in the yearly cycle of seed-sprout-plant-fruit-death-seed. The cycle of a cat’s life, or of our human lives, is the same one on a larger scale.

    On the day Cio Cio was too weak,in pain, and tired to stagger back to her bed after she had made it to the cat box, she told me it was time. Her death at the veterinarian’s was calm and serene and beautiful, and I know it was the right thing to do.

    Mike was not in pain, he just faded away because I was not there. He tended to pine if I was gone, and I knew he did not have the resources left in his emaciated body to pine for any length of time while I was away on vacation. That is a death that I still feel guilty about.

    How to talk to your children? Tell them the truth. The cat is ready for his transition to death, to send his soul to the spiritual plane. Keeping him on the physical plane while he is in terminal, mortal, unremitting pain is no blessing for him.

    My heart goes out to you.

  15. Again, thank you everyone. Many of your comments brought tears to my eyes, of sadness and gratitude.

    We certainly have not kept Harry’s illness a secret from the children. They have seen me try to feed him, and they can see how listless he is. We have talked about death before, though they have not known any people or animals close to them who have died. (Eicart: we all send you our love. The kids and Anthropapa were very sad to hear about Schuster.) Our family believes that human beings reincarnate, so they are familiar with that idea, though I don’t think animals do so in the same way as people. (Too much to go into here.)

    Our other cat who died after the move had hepatic lipidosis (the same fatty liver disease as HMH’s Mike), probably from a few days of not eating either from stress or a hairball. I’m trying to stave that off with Harry on the off chance he just has a cold (he’s got a weepy eye, and loss of appetite and/or mouth sores are a symptom of feline upper respiratory tract infections) by offering him chicken stock and watery mushed up tuna, and Petromalt. He’s only sipping at these things, though he does come out to the food and water bowls, and today I saw him in the litter box. So all is not desperately bad, but it’s pretty bad. He’s not grooming himself and not moving much, and has definitely lost weight. I’m hoping he just needs rest for a few more days.

    And . . . as I typed that, I notice he is now cleaning off his paw where I put Petromalt many hours ago. He’s stuck to my side like glue here on the bed, where he spends most of his days. I guess a soft, warm bed that smells like his favorite people isn’t a bad place to be.

  16. Nana

    As you were growing up, we had to take a final trip to the vet for both Chaucer and Perrier, Sassy died on the back step.

    I personally felt better about the 2 final trips to the vet, as I was able to say goodbye and the dogs had your Dad’s comfort when they returned to God and their Angels. It was much, much more difficult with Sassy because, although she died a natural death (of old age), she was alone. I know that, in the wild, animals go off by themselves to die, but my emotions were much more “raw” with her death.

    It’s hard to describe the moment when you know you need to help your pet return to God and the Angels, but Harry will let you know with his eyes.

    I think it is best to be simple and straightforward with the children. Harry was too sick, he couldn’t get well again, and so he died. Then let them talk about it if they want and cry as much as they want and be angry as much as they want.

  17. Nana: I remember taking Chaucer to the vet quite clearly. It was the best thing for him, as he was definitely suffering without hope of repair.

    Today Harry seems better — his eye has cleared up, and he ate tapioca pudding and fresh baked chicken! Not very much of either, and he’s still very weak and listless, but it lends credence to my idea that he might just have a cold. Now, it’s probably still all downhill from here given his age, but I’m hopeful he might have a little more time to enjoy his life with us.

    As I mentioned to you earlier, I think our kids are pretty tough, though emotions aren’t always right on the surface where we can see them. I like to be as honest and straightforward as I can with them, but I also know that children cannot process *everything* yet. I think that just as I will know when it is Harry’s time to go, I will know what to say to them.

  18. My heart goes out to you. We had to put my cat down some years ago, only after thousands of dollars and much suffering. I remember being told that you will simply know when it is time, and I agree with that statement wholeheartedly. I regret that I became so focused on the sickness that I couldn’t see MY CAT. I wish I had spent more time with him rather than trying to heal him. You will naturally do the right thing for your family. Big cuddles from NZ.

  19. Eve

    Heni, I’m sorry to be weighing in on this a bit late, but I thought I’d comment anyway. How is Harry doing now? Still on the mend?

    We lost one of our chihuahuas about a month ago. She had been ill and then improved, but took a sudden turn for the worse on an afternoon when I was gone for several hours. By the time I got home, it was clear something was going badly wrong. I have been with several people and numerous animals as they have died and somehow could just tell. Some wanted us to rush her to the vet, but I felt she would die en route–and she did, in fact, die within 20 minutes of my realizing she was probably dying.

    It’s hard to know when to let an animal go and when to use heroic efforts. However, we’ve seemed able to make the right call when we’ve been able to calm and center ourselves (no real surprise there, huh?). Sometimes we have spent more than we should on an animal, and other times we have just decided not to use heroic efforts or a lot of money. It just depends.

    On a final note, we’ve also noticed that our cats are particularly sensitive to moves and to changes in the family. We’ve had two who had nervous breakdowns after we moved, and one who ran away. I dunno what it is with cats, but they seem to be that way.

  20. I’m sorry that I don’t have any advice, although you have been given much thoughtful, moving counsel here that will guide you well. I just wanted you to know that we’re thinking of you, holding you all in our hearts. Even Barky, who pretends to hate cats, but who’s too kind to hate.

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