A few days ago, I had to take my cat, Bigfoot, to the vet. Whenever people hear me say that, they give me a strange look or ask me WHY I took him to the vet when I AM a vet.
For starters, I’m no longer practicing and my boy needed some blood work. He turned 19 years old in February. I was not expecting good results. He’s lost so much weight recently and it’s as if over this past year to year and a half I’ve watched my little man just gradually waste away. I realize he’s 19 and I know that’s he’s already lived several years past the average life span of a cat, and is therefore living on borrowed time. My sweet boy is just fading away and that’s hard to accept. I’ve been emotional and very weepy. He’s eating (not always eating well, but still eating) but just continues to lose weight. I’m not ready to put him down because I still think he is enjoying life. He purrs, he jumps up in my lap to snuggle and cuddle, he still loves to sun himself, and he still likes to occasionally play with his toys. He’s not vomiting (other than the occasional hairball) and his feces look perfectly normal (okay, I know, you didn’t need to know all that). I don’t think it’s time.
Still I’ve started the grieving process. I’ve done my own physical exam on him and other than skin allergies (the fleas are killing us here in the south and they never seemed to let up this year with our very mild winter) and some other things that go along with being geriatric, I can find nothing to explain his weight loss. I guess I’m just in denial… he’s old. Very old. He’s just not producing enough digestive enzymes and not absorbing his food or I thought perhaps there was some other pathology going on that I couldn’t physically detect. Last year his blood work was all normal and he was starting to lose weight then. He’s lost a considerable amount of his muscle mass. He’s starting to get a little unsteady on his feet too which I’ve noticed recently when he walks. And just lately, he’s starting to sometimes have a little trouble jumping. That’s usually the first sign of arthritis in a geriatric cat (trouble jumping) and so he’s done well to make it to 19 and not have trouble before now. I know he has some arthritis in his hips and lumbar spine as he can not squat long when he urinates. He starts out squatting but then ends up standing pretty quickly which makes urine shoot out in a stream over the side of his litter box. He drinks a lot more water these days and therefore he urinates a lot more. It’s messy, but we deal with it… and that’s o.k. I would hope someone would be compassionate with me in my geriatric years when I’m not able to always hit my litter box.
This has not been a good month for some of my fellow bloggers and their animals. I’ve cried as I’ve read blogs about the deaths of beloved geriatric dogs and cats. A few days ago I sobbed as I read a post on Misifusa’s Blog, who took her 17-year-old cat, Chessie (a BEAUTIFUL cat who was also losing weight) to the vet and came away with the diagnosis of abdominal lymphoma. Chessie’s prognosis was not good. Today my heart broke as I read on her blog and sobbed again as she told the story about taking Chessie to her veterinarian for euthanasia. I felt her pain so deeply. I know both as a veterinarian AND the owner of a geriatric cat how heartrending that decision was. And I know how profound the grief will be afterwards. In her blog, she said that Chessie had been by her side comforting her during her breast cancer ordeal, and by her side through something like 14 surgeries! Wow. You can’t ask for a better friend than that. God Bless that sweet cat’s soul.
It’s hard watching our old and much-loved pets fade away before our eyes. In my opinion, making the decision to euthanize a pet you love is truly one of the hardest decisions you will ever have to make in your life time. In saying that, I’m answering the most common question I used to get asked as a veterinarian while practicing. That question was: Do veterinarians ever get used to putting animals to sleep? My answer? No, we don’t. And we never get hardened to it or desensitized to it like some people think. One comment I’ve heard a million times and one that ALWAYS makes me cringe is, “Well, I could NEVER be a veterinarian, because I could never put an animal to sleep.” Well, fortunately, that’s a very small part of what we do and I thank God for that.
Personally, I think choosing euthanasia for a beloved pet is an act of love and deciding to end an animal’s suffering is showing love and kindness to that animal. The word euthanasia comes from the Greek word that means “happy or fortunate in death.” As hard as the decision is, keeping a sick and suffering animal alive for our own sake seems a little selfish to me. And I’m well aware that not everyone is going to agree with me on this and that’s quite alright. I’ve seen many an animal suffer needlessly, whether it be old age, cancer, or severe kidney disease. They suffered because their owner just could not make the decision to euthanize. It’s tough for a veterinarian to see that. Tough because we have to respect that owner’s wishes and beliefs and tough because we watch that animal suffer so.
I’ve had pet owners over the years who absolutely could not put their animals to sleep. Part of me understands that and I often used to counsel people NOT to put their animals to sleep if there was any doubt in their mind that it wasn’t the right thing to do. It’s hard to tell someone not to put their animal to sleep until they’re absolutely ready because after all, who’s really EVER “ready” for that? I think if people do it before “they’re ready” or before they’ve adequately prepared themselves, they can end up regretting it for a life time, and that’s never good. I’ve seen it happen dozens of times. I’ve also seen people euthanize their pet only because they felt pressure from other family members or perhaps friends who were telling them it needed to be done. I find that usually those friends and family members pushing for euthanasia, don’t have the special bond with the animal that the owner does. I’ve had someone tell me I should probably put Bigfoot to sleep just because “he’s 19 and he’s thin.” That person barely knew my cat and didn’t have any attachment or bond to him whatsoever. Their comment greatly offended me.
I’ve had clients who called me weeks after euthanizing their pet, to tell me they were grieving so deeply that they couldn’t eat and couldn’t sleep. I had two clients who confessed to me they were feeling suicidal after putting their animal to sleep and one client who called to tell me after euthanizing her beloved dog, that she couldn’t get over the guilt of not being present during the euthanasia (which was her choice at the time). She wasn’t eating or sleeping and had lost what I thought was a significant amount of weight. I gave that client a pet loss grief number (which she did call) and gently (and lovingly I hope) encouraged her to see a counselor for her grief issues. I always gave clients the option of being present with their animal when I euthanized it, or if they preferred, waiting in another room. Some chose to spend time with their animal at home and then just dropped them off for the euthanasia. This particular client told me she just couldn’t be present and didn’t even want to come inside the building. She asked if we could watch out for her and have someone come out to the parking lot to take her dog from her. While I feel strongly that an animal is going to feel less fear with their owner present (the owner offers comfort, familiarity, and security), I also understand that some people just can’t be there. They just can’t. I respected her decision and assured her that the technician and I would see to it that her dog would be treated with the utmost love, kindness, and respect that it so rightly deserved in the last moments of its life. Her dog went very peacefully with the technician and myself loving on it and speaking gently to it. The client just needed confirmation that the procedure had indeed gone smoothly and that her dog didn’t suffer. Euthanasia is NEVER an easy decision and the grief one experiences afterward can be heart wrenching.
I love my little guy more than I can describe here in words. I first met Bigfoot when he was 3 weeks old. He was a patient of mine as was the rest of his litter. I fell in love with this box full of little gray and white polydactyl kittens. They all had eye infections. Their eyes were delayed in opening and their little lids were swollen and crusty with green pus oozing out the corners (probably an eye infection they picked up in the birth canal as they were being born). I cleaned their eyes and gently pried their little crusty eyelids open, and dispensed antibiotic eye ointment. I told the owner that I had always wanted a gray and white cat. She offered to give me one of the kittens when they were weaned and the rest is history.
Now here we are 19 years later. My veterinarian friend who saw Bigfoot the other day is someone I respect and admire. I worked for him for a short time 3 years ago after he had just opened his practice. He’s a great veterinarian, a good clinician and diagnostician, and he knows Bigfoot. He walked in the exam room and the first words out of his mouth were, “Hey Bigfoot buddy, it looks like you’ve lost a lot of weight.” He pulled blood and ran a chemistry panel and checked his thyroid (since many geriatric cats get hyperthyroidism that can cause a pretty drastic weight loss). I held back tears as I waited on those results. I dreaded hearing what was going to be said when the vet walked into the room. But surprisingly, everything checked out very good for a 19-year-old cat. His liver and kidney function tests were both good. Extremely good for a 19-year-old cat. His thyroid test was completely normal. Bigfoot was given a steroid shot for his skin allergies and arthritis, and given a vitamin injection. He came home and ate like a little pig that day. My friend lovingly joked that Bigfoot might live another 5 years. But I know that won’t happen. I need to prepare.
My little man has blessed me beyond measure these past 19 years. He’s slept in the bed with me almost every night and kept me warm many a cold night and provided many hours of laughter with his funny antics. He is just one year younger than my youngest son. He’s part of our family. As a kitten, he laid in my father’s bed when my father lay dying of cancer, and he laid in the bed with me as I recovered from two difficult surgeries in the past few years. He provided me with so much love and comfort during those times. When my nest emptied last year as my youngest son flew the coop, Bigfoot was there to help get me through that grief. Now, he’s like a little old man who always seems to be cold and seeking heat. He loves to lay on the heater vents and I’ll admit he’s taken over all my kids’ old baby blankets. I figured I may as well pull them out of basement storage and put them to good use. They’re the perfect size for a cat.
I hope I can find the strength to do what’s right when the time comes. And above all, I pray that I will be able to see and know WHEN that time is. I pray that I don’t wait too long and I pray that my sweet boy doesn’t suffer.
“Until one has loved an animal, a part of one’s soul remains unawakened.” ~ Anatole France