Anticipating Loss: When Our Beloved Pets Age

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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.

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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).  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.  

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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.

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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

Gail ♥

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About Gail

I am a wife, mother, sister, aunt, friend, veterinarian, and wanna be writer. I love nature and animals of all kinds, music, cooking, and spending time with my family.
This entry was posted in Animals, cats and tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

22 Responses to Anticipating Loss: When Our Beloved Pets Age

  1. rarasaur says:

    This was beautiful and I loved the quote at the end. It’s always so scary waiting for those test results! If only pets lived as long as we do!

  2. Sending hugs your way, Gail. Bigfoot looks like a well-educated guy; I bet he’s never emptied the bin like my Murphy 🙂 The hardest thing about having a pet is knowing that one day they will no longer be there, but however hard it is when that moment comes, its important to concentrate on the good time you had in his company rather than the pain of losing him… Easier to say than to do, I know. Be strong xxx

    • Gail says:

      Thanks for the hugs. I know in time I will only think about the good times and the happy memories I have of him. For now, I just need to treasure every special minute I have left with him.

  3. enitsirk24 says:

    Bigfoot is a beautiful blessing. I know the heartache of losing four of our cats over the years. We have 5 “future tragedies” (as my husband calls them) still living with us.

    God’s peace and wisdom to you.

    • Gail says:

      “Future tragedies.” Ha! That’s a good one and a pretty adequate description! I know I’ll eventually get another. It may be a while but there WILL be more. I lost my 16 year old dog several years ago and she also just faded away, lost a huge amount of weight, etc. I knew it was time to let her go when she started falling going up and down stairs. It about killed me. I have not been able to get another dog because I knew it would turn Bigfoot’s world upside down and I couldn’t stress him like that in his old age. I never remember NOT having a dog in my life so this is a first.

  4. Oh Gail ~ this is such a beautiful post ~ I am so happy that Bigfoot’s tests came back healthy! I sobbed as I read your post because of our connections to our furbabies. Thank you for understanding from vet and owner side of how hard it was on Saturday for us with darling Chessie. I feel her spirit around me which helps, but it is heartbreaking to walk into the house and she’s not there. Thank goodness we still have our little Tiffy too as I would be truly a mess. Big hugs to you and Bigfoot! You are blessed to have eachother. Give him a hug from me! xo

  5. matiserrano says:

    I’ve always loved dogs but ever since my nephew started chasing after neighborhood kittens, I’ve also come to love cats. This is a wonderful homage to a beautiful memory.

    • Gail says:

      Thank you so much. When people ask me if I’m a dog or a cat person, I always say I love both. They’re so different aren’t they? I guess there’s no comparing them!

  6. mama2cj says:

    That was beautiful. Our Gwennie is 6 years old, and while for most dogs that would be middle aged, for a bulldog, as I’m sure you know, it’s closer to her end years. I try hard not to think about that and thank God she is healthy and happy. It is going to be so heartbreaking losing her.

    Love to you as you face this hard decision. Treasure your fur baby!

    • Gail says:

      Thank you for your kind comments. I WILL treasure what time I have left with Bigfoot. I do know what you mean about Bulldogs. They’re one of my favorite breeds…. such sweet, sweet dogs but they do have a short lifespan and so many health problems. One of my favorite patients I had when practicing was an English Bulldog named Spice. She was such a cutie and so loving. I just never saw many “old” English Bulldogs when I was practicing though and that was sad. It’s really all we can do when they’re here on earth with us– to treasure the short time we have with them.

  7. carolofthebells says:

    Oh, a beautiful post, Gail, and what a gorgeous cat. You must love curling up near him and watching him smile and curl a paw. (I got a kick out of your readers’ words “furbabies” –so apt, and “future tragedies” –absolutely.) We’d had to put down our old Mitty the day son shipped out to Basic Training, and both those events damned near killed me, because he was 13 –had grown up with the kids! But dear God, I still miss my Larry. I told him that day so many years ago (and I meant it), there’d be no more cats for this lifelong cat-lover. He was the best. Period. We got a dog some time after that devastating day of putting him out of true misery (suffice it to say I had cried so hard, I made the 6’3″ farming vet and his assistant cry, too), but I vowed not to get too close to the dog, either. Nope. Never again. I am not willing to outlive another beloved. I’ll be praying that your gorgeous guy goes quietly in his sleep one fine day, so that both of you will be alright.[I don’t know if it’ll help come that awful day of goodbye, but I truly did feel at that moment…that Larry was out back of the place (in spirit), running free at last — no dogs, no cars, no worries, utterly joyously free.)

    • Gail says:

      I can only imagine how hard that was– shipping a son off to Basic Training and losing a pet all in the same day. How hard that must have been!

      When I was practicing I used to hear clients say all the time (after losing a pet) that they wouldn’t get anymore animals– that they get too attached and it hurts too much to lose them. I understood what they were saying to me was that they were choosing not to love a pet so they could avoid the pain of grief. But in doing so, they were also choosing to miss out on a ton of love and a very unique bond that one can only experience with an animal. So I guess I always felt somewhat sad when someone would tell me that (and I know I must have heard it a million times)! I think it was Queen Elizabeth II that said, “Grief is the price we pay for love.” So true.

      Thanks so much for the prayers Carol.

  8. Carol O. says:

    I should tell you what Mitty did that last day of his. I am convinced animals can truly love us. Son and I were scared/devastated at his shipping out, and I was sick with pneumonia at the time. This old cat had been going downhill for weeks, and in the few days before, he had only sniffed his food and walked away to nap some more, which had escaped none of us. Son was feeling so badly about that. On the morning when son was leaving (alone –he didn’t want us to come, it’d be too hard on all), the cat and I walked him to the door. I was losing the battle to not cry for the 100th time. The cat, however, was acting like his old happy self, and even stopped at the food bowl seeming to eat with great gusto while son petted him goodbye. He remarked, “Hey, look — he’s eating! Maybe he’s gonna be ok!” As soon as the door closed and son didn’t come back in, Mitty took himself off down cellar, and proceeded to die in earnest. He was suffering for 2 hours before I called daughter to come bring him to the vet’s. There was no cat food missing– Mitty had only moved it around; he had literally pretended to be better, for son’s sake, God love him.

  9. Serena says:

    He’s been lucky to have had you and you’ve been blessed to have him for so long. My cat was the same age but she had double incontinence towards the end (a quick and peaceful end but very sad of course)

    • Gail says:

      Thank you Serena. I know what you mean…. you’re grateful for a quick and peaceful end, but yes, very sad at the same time. Thanks for stopping by and commenting.

  10. So sad. This was me with my 18 year old dog, Mollie, a little over a year ago. IN her case, the excessive drinking and weight loss turned out to be due to kidney failure. She was also deaf, blind, incontinent and had bad arthritis in her back legs (had to carry her to the park on her ‘walks’) so made the tough decision to have her put to sleep. I thought later, I probably should have done it earlier but she had still seemed happy and loving even right to the end. Such a hard thing to do. Thinking of you and Bigfoot.

    • Gail says:

      I’m so sorry over your loss of Mollie. Wow…. 18 years old! She lived a long life. I actually think Bigfoot had renal disease but right now he just seems to be compensating really well. He is drinking a ton of water, urinating a lot and is so thin. It IS such a hard decision to make, especially in your case when they still seem happy and loving right until the end. It was the same way with my dog Patches, who I ended up euthanizing when she was 16. I had the hardest time making that decision because she still dearly loved to go on walks with me everyday. She was nothing but skin and bones and she could not make it up or down stairs without falling. One day she fell all the way down my front porch steps (which was quite a fall). I decided then that it was time.

      I appreciate your kind words and thoughts.

  11. Pingback: When Veterinarians Are Faced With Euthanizing Their Own Pets | Moonlight Reflections

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