One of the hardest things I’ve ever gone through was saying goodbye to my beloved cat, Tater. Actually, when I think back, the hardest part was before we said goodbye. It was caring for her during her last few months and not knowing how much time was left, or if I was going to be able to make the right decision before she suffered too much.
We’re asked by cat owners all the time to tell them when the time is “right” and how they’ll know. There’s no good answer, although over the years, the closest we’ve come to that is something along the lines of “When your cat doesn’t enjoy their favorite things any more, that’s when it’s time.” It’s not a specific answer, but it’s the best we can come up with, because every cat–and every owner–is different.
First off, and this should really go without saying, if you suspect your time is limited, SPOIL YOUR CAT! Really, really spoil them, go above and beyond your normal level of spoiling. Tater’s last two years were probably the happiest of her life; she got canned food on-demand, slept in a heated cat bed right next to my side of the bed (so she could sleep with me or in her precious heated bed–I got to be a little bit jealous of the amount of time she spent in that bed!), and got brushed, pet, and loved at every opportunity. When she got a bit wobbly on her feet, we moved a litterbox close to her bed so she didn’t have to travel too far if she wasn’t up for it.
Make sure, as your cat is aging and you’re noticing changes in her routine, that you are communicating these changes with your veterinarian. We have an arsenal of medications and treatments available that can improve your cat’s comfort and quality of life as they age. Acupuncture, pain medications, and nausea medications, to name a few, can help improve a cat’s quality of life immensely by managing their symptoms.
As your cat ages, it’s normal to think–to worry, even–about the end of his or her life. When you know the time is approaching, it’s good to be mindful of your cat’s daily activities so that you’ll notice any changes as they occur. How is her appetite? Is she responding to you? Is she interested in her surroundings? Is she vocalising frequently? In response to things, or at random? Is she hanging out in her usual spots, or is she unable to get to them? Is she hiding? Is she using her litterbox, or soiling her bedding? The answers to these questions can help you assess your cat’s quality of life to some extent. When the answers start to tip more towards the negative, it’s likely that your cat’s quality of life has diminished to a point where euthanasia should be considered.
When you feel that the time to say goodbye is approaching, you’ll want to discuss options with your veterinarian. Many veterinarians offer a home euthanasia service, which is an especially good alternative for cats who become very stressed during veterinary visits. Whether you decide to have a doctor come to your home or to bring your pet in to the office, you can expect the visit to involve the same routine:
1. Sedation: Most doctors will give sedation, either into a muscle or into a vein, to help your pet relax and alleviate anxiety prior to the injection of euthanasia solution. This usually takes a few minutes to kick in, and also gives you some very peaceful time with your pet.
2. IV injection or the euthanasia solution: The doctor will make sure you’re ready and that you’ve said your goodbyes before giving the second injection, which is an overdose of barbiturates. Once this injection has been given, your pet’s heart will stop within seconds. They will not close their eyes when they’re gone, and they might have some involuntary lung movements after their heart stops. Veterinarians and technicians will usually warn you in advance about these things to prevent you from being upset by them.
3. You’ll need to make a decision about how you would like your pet’s remains handled. Do you have a backyard you’d like to bury them in? Or are you considering cremation? Most veterinary offices offer group cremation, in which your pet will be cremated with other pets and you will not receive their ashes, or private cremation, in which your pet is cremated privately and you receive an urn containing their ashes and a certificate. People choose all three options regularly. Some people also choose to have their pets interred at pet memorial parks. If possible, it is best to consider your options in advance so you’re not faced with that difficult decision while actively grieving.
After your pet is gone, and even before, you will grieve. You might feel overwhelmed by sadness all the time, or it might hit you at odd moments. The resources listed below are available to anyone in need of support after the loss of a pet:
ASPCA National Pet Loss Hotline
Toll-Free: (877) GRIEF-10 or (877) 474-3310
ASPCA Pet Loss Resources
Washington State University College of Veterinary Medicine Pet Loss Support
Toll-Free (866) 266-8635
Iams Pet Loss Support Hotline
888-332-7738 / M-F 9am-5pm
Iams Pet Loss Resources
Losing a pet is never easy, but the knowledge that you made their last days as comfortable as possible and alleviated as much suffering as possible can help ease the transition somewhat.