By John Andersen, DVM
Lucy came to me on almost a whim as a veterinary student. She was found as an 8-week-old kitten right on Duck Pond Drive on the Virginia Tech campus. My then girlfriend (now wife) Michelle told me there was a really cute kitten that needed a home and let’s just say I was eager to impress. The rest is some really good history.
For the past couple of years, we could tell that Lucy was slowing down. Probably just a combination of older age and some older joints, but she would generally sleep about 22 hours a day and had a very strong routine.
Every morning when either Michelle or I would wake up early for a run, Lucy was up with us, meowing and squawking loudly all the way to the coffee pot until we finally picked her up. She was the most content thing in the world to just be in our lap, purring, while we drank coffee and woke up.
She would sleep in our dog Ruby’s bed all day long. Ruby didn’t stand a chance, despite being about 8 times bigger than Lucy.
Every night, she would stay up until I went to bed. Her hips had a lot of arthritis in them, and so instead of jumping right on the bed, she would go under the bed, walk on some plastic wrapped cardboard box (wedding dress?) and then jump from there to the window sill, and then to a bedside table, and then jump on my chest where she would purr loudly until everyone was asleep. Every single night this was the routine and it definitely brought us both a lot of comfort.
Although she was older and her life was quite simple, Lucy ate well, never lost weight, and lived the fortunate life of a spoiled pet.
Then we noticed she didn’t finish her food for a couple of days in a row. The next day she didn’t greet me for coffee in the morning. The next night she didn’t do her loud getting-into-bed routine, and the next day she didn’t eat anything at all. Michelle and I both knew something was wrong and I planned to bring her into the clinic the following day. However that night, she started having difficulty breathing which started to progress over night. After listening to her chest, we could tell that she had a lot of fluid around her lungs, and there is pretty much no good reason for that to occur in a 16-year-old cat.
Making the decision to either euthanize (put to sleep) your cherished elderly pet, or to do more diagnostic testing and treatments, is never an easy decision. On one hand, we want to do our best for them and if there is a treatment that can make them better, we always want to try. On the other hand, we don’t want them to suffer, and when the prognosis looks really bad, sometimes letting them go is the best decision for both the pet and the owners.
Making this decision was no less difficult for us, both veterinarians. Harder was that we were having these discussions at 2:30 a.m. while watching our poor little girl have a hard time breathing. I made a middle of the night trip to the hospital to get some medications, but she was continuing to have a harder time breathing despite this.
We both struggled with the decision to bring Lucy into the hospital the next day to do some more testing and get her on oxygen. We knew our cat. She hates traveling in the car and that would definitely have been a disaster with her already having difficulty breathing. Further, when picking between the possible diagnoses of congestive heart failure or cancer, we really did not want to put her through any treatment that was only going to prolong her life, with no real ability to return her to a quality state. By about 5 a.m., we knew that the best decision was to say goodbye to our dear friend for the past 16 years.
Complicating this was the fact that we have a 10-year-old son, an animal lover, who has never had a day in his life without this cat. But I have learned over my years of practice that kids are amazingly tough and resilient as long as we are honest and up front with them.
At about 6 a.m., I went into our son’s room and woke him up. Before I could say a word, I started sobbing, trying to be tough, but failing. I told him that Lucy hadn’t been feeling well the past few days but last night she got a lot worse, and that right now, this morning, we were going to have to say goodbye to her. He surprised me with a big, warm hug, grabbed his best stuffed animal friend, and we headed downstairs together.
Instead of holding her down and trying to give an injection in her vein, we gave her a shot of the medicine that would put her to sleep for good, under her skin. This took about an hour to work. While Lucy began to slowly get sleepier and sleepier, we all sat on our bed together, taking turns crying and showering her with hugs and stories of when she was younger. It was both a time of great sadness, but also instant healing.
Involving kids in a euthanasia is another very difficult decision, but for older kids (let’s say 7-8 and older), they can be surprisingly mature and have an amazing perspective. Our time on this earth is indeed finite, and there is no sense in hiding that fact.
Slowly, and finally, Lucy took her last breaths, ending a very long night and a very wonderful 16 years. It was a sad day for our family, however we all had a sense of gratitude for her life and it amazed me how much that broke though the cloud of sadness.
Our pets come into our lives at different times, and if we are lucky, they will be with us through some great life changes. They become a part of our daily routines and they give us as much as we give them. Making the decision to say goodbye is always difficult and deeply personal. However, our job as humans is to care for them until the end, and often times that means ending their suffering, even if we are not ready. When we make these decisions with our best intentions, and with a sense of gratitude for the years of friendship we were given, there are no regrets.