Ethical Pet Care: Euthanasia

The Arrival of Spike

I was 22. It was early in the morning and I wasn’t sure I was ready to wake up. The question was a strange one . . . maybe I was still dreaming. “Did you hear a baby crying last night?”

“There isn’t a baby in the building.” I moved further down under the covers. Nope, not ready to get up. It was February break. I was going to Raleigh in a day or two. And there wasn’t a baby crying.

“I swear I heard a baby crying.”

It was February, 2000. A few weeks before I had rescued a fluffy female gray and white cat who’d been tossed during a terrible storm. This wasn’t unusual in the area where I worked.

She had zero chance of making it. People had seen her around the school and talked about grabbing her and getting her to a shelter. But she came on her own terms, had to be removed from the ceiling where she’d decided to hang out. And at that point I knew she wasn’t going to a shelter; she was coming home with me.

Once the roads were passable I took her to the vet. She’d have to be fixed but she was pretty underweight and malnourished. Dehydrated. Keep her eating and drinking, then bring her back.

It was a somewhat easy transition. My old, male cat was not thrilled but she was good at reading his signals and they developed a relationship where she desperately wanted to be friends and he tried, desperately, to pretend he wasn’t interested. Sometimes I caught them sitting with each other and when I did, he’d act surprised. She quickly gained weight and was never timid about her needs. She was super social and wanted to be a part of anything that went on in the apartment. So it was a little weird when she started hanging out in my linen closet 24/7 after a few weeks. Pulling down blankets and sheets to make a nest. I joked that we were getting another storm.

“Where’s Chloe?” This next question perked me up. Usually the second she could hear someone was awake she was talking. “How was your night? What did you dream? Were you comfortable? Did you hear that bird? You guys drank a lot last night! The subway was late a few times!” The cat was a morning person. But not this morning.

My bedfellow got up and started looking and checked the linen closet. “Uh… Nance?”

She was curled around a kitten. I was pretty sure it was dead. Not five minutes later Spike came into the world, gray and smushed and — like his mom — a talker.


6,415 days. 3 boyfriends.3 exchange students. 4 jobs. 6 homes. 3 states (one of them twice). 3 other cats. 2 dogs.

Saying Goodbye

When I say that for 100% of that 17 years, 6 months and 24 days he was the world’s friendliest cat, I am not joking. Even on his last day he was the best cat ever.

The decision to end a pet’s life is one of the most difficult. Especially for us: people who do not have children to put things in perspective. I do not consider the dogs and cat as my children (I abhor the term furbabies, sorry). But they are family in the sense that they share our home, they provide us joy and entertainment and companionship, and we are 100% responsible for their wellbeing. They cannot tell us what is wrong; they can’t share their wishes when it comes to complicated things like health and quality of life. So we have to make those choices for them.

I can’t write about the end of Spike’s life. The pain is raw and I’m still in the phase of randomly breaking down as I process it. What I can provide, though, are my thoughts on how to ethically handle end of life decision-making and the humane death of your pet.

What follows are my conclusions on approaching euthanasia and end of life decisions. I could not have navigated this without the care and kindness of our vet, Dr. Suzy Pence of West Mountain Animal Hospital. Everyone at West Mountain is exceptional and have made dealing with three geriatric animals easier. At the end of the day, please keep in mind that this is a deeply personal decision and your choices and views might vary. And that’s okay. I only offer this to give you food for thought.

9 Things To Consider

We choose in home euthanasia.

Our older dog gets suspicious of the car between Memorial Day and Labor Day when we’re not making our weekly pilgrimage to Lake Shaftsbury. She hates going to the vet. And Spike, well, does any cat like the car? In home euthanasia reduces stress for you and your animal and, as we learned through conversations with Dr. Suzy, possibly your vet. I was very worried I would absolutely freak out that my last memories of him would be him dead in the apartment but, honestly, that hasn’t been an issue. He transitioned peacefully in my lap on the end of the chaise – his favorite place to snooze in the sun. In a crisis situation this won’t be possible but talk to your vet when you have aging pets and discuss with your family whether or not this is a good option for you.

We will both be present.

I know a guy who brought his pet to the vet to be euthanized and left the animal there. And I’m still judging him all these years later. I try to think of it from the perspective of not being able to see it but I can’t make sense of it. We believe we owe it to our pets to be with them during their final moments. If you can’t handle the death of your animals, or haven’t thought about it because it’s however far in the future, I urge you to consider this before adopting.

Have a plan for when you’ll euthanize.

In a strange twist of fate, it wasn’t Spike we made a plan for. Our older dog is in a precarious state although holding steady and not presenting any symptoms. We have had many conversations with Dr. Suzy about all of the possibilities and thank God we started those conversations because it greatly helped with navigating Spike’s quick and sudden turn. We had certain benchmarks set for Mugsy where if we noticed them, we said we would call and schedule. Sort of a hospice plan. After Spike’s most recent stroke a few Fridays ago we didn’t even have to think as much: he was hitting the benchmarks. And he wasn’t getting better.

Understand your options and make the big decisions ahead of time.

I recognize that my cat is gone. I recognize that his body is just that and that it doesn’t contain any part of him any more. That said, the idea of a mass cremation upsets me more than I can even think about and so, I choose private cremation. Yes, it is expensive but if you need to have this peace of mind, cut yourself a little slack and do it. I could not handle the idea of him being with other animals and just left or thrown away. Do what gives you peace and don’t worry about what others think.

Make peace with saying goodbye on a good day.

One of the most valuable discussions I had with our vet was the idea that sometimes, even when you know that the end is the best choice, your pet has a good day on that day. Spike had a bad Tuesday. By Wednesday afternoon I had called and scheduled. Because I knew the end was nearing and he wasn’t happy. Tuesday and Wednesday were rough days for him. Thursday came and he was a bit better. The appointment was at 2 pm and the guilt was overwhelming. But I knew that Friday would likely be a really bad day. This is a cat that was at the end.

Consider your other animals. 

I read a lot about how to deal with in home euthanasia when Mugsy’s health started to deteriorate. How would we handle Knuckles and Spike? Everything I read said you could have your other animals in the room – many will watch quietly and then come say goodbye when it’s over. We talked to Dr. Suzy about this and also each other. Knuckles is hyper and friendly. Mugsy is extremely anxious. We came to the decision to put the dogs in the bedroom so Spike could have some peace but once he was nearing the end they would be able to come in.

Be mindful that animals approach death differently. 

It’s easy to anthropomorphize. Yes, certain animals grieve obviously. Others do not. Mugsy came over and sniffed around while Spike was still alive but nearing the end. She then went and got in her crate. It was clear she knew something was going on but that she also wanted distance from it so we let her be. Knuckles didn’t seem to notice at all. If he did, he didn’t care. I have caught them catching Spike’s scent and looking around for a few seconds but it is quick. I am happy that they seem oblivious rather than seeing them filled with the grief I am still processing.

Sit a while.

This is the second cat I’ve had to say goodbye to and like with the first, the hardest part for me is when the vet checks and says they’re gone. That moment of confirmation is devastating. In home euthanasia gives you time to sit with your friend for a while and have the closure you need before having them removed. Spike was taken in the blanket he had commandeered the last few months. I struggled with watching him taken from the apartment, but less so than I would have leaving him at the vet. This is also a good time to ask questions. I asked about how he would get to the crematory (don’t ask me why but I didn’t want him mailed there).

Donate.

This comes to mind when a dog is lost: to donate collars and leashes and start fresh with a new dog. Don’t forget that you can help others after the passing of your cat. Rather than throwing out items (like uneaten food or that new box of kitty litter) bring them to your local animal shelter. We had quite a bit of Spike’s food left and had just purchased litter a few days before so we dropped those off at Second Chance the day after. Every little bit helps so if you’re not planning on reusing items, don’t toss them!

Kris and I are lucky to have Dr. Suzy and the rest of the staff at WMAH. It’s never too early to start the conversation with your vet about end of life care and decision making and it helps make the process easier.

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