Can Navigating End-of-Life Decisions With Cats Help Us Later With Human Loved Ones?


I recently saw a TV interview with the mother of Brittany Maynard, who had ended her life via physician-assisted suicide the previous day. I was impressed with the compassion and calmness that Brittany’s mother displayed on national television, and I was impressed with Brittany’s courage and thoroughness about her decision. It was clear that the decision had been made with a lot of compassion and thought. I imagined the courage required by Brittany to make this decision. But then again, I’ve not been in her shoes — maybe necessity and quality of life trump courage. Or maybe she had it all — courage to let go, support from her family, and declining quality of life that made her determined not to suffer more.

I write this not to encourage arguments on the issue. I support physician-assisted suicide, personally. I write this because interesting parallels occurred to me between life and death in the human and animal realms. I think of all the times I (and many of you) have walked this delicate path. Many of us have made the most informed decisions we could about the quality of life, or end-of-life care, for our cats. Many of us have made the decision to euthanize. Sometimes we have to step in and act. It is never easy, and some people seem to go through it with a lot more grace than I do.

The big difference, obviously, is that we bear the burden of the decision-making. Our cats cannot tell us (in language, anyway) when they are ready, and when or how they want to die. On the other hand, some of us get clear signs, or we just know, somehow or another, that it’s time. It depends on the person and the cat, and the unique bond between the person and the cat.

With a human, the ill person might be able to clearly make her wishes known. Brittany Maynard was eloquent, and in my opinion, completely prepared. She thought it through.

What can navigating this situation with humans teach us about the same process with our cats’ end-of-life care?

Although I’ve helped many cats pass over, I’ve only been present at the passing of one close human family member. He did not suffer, and it was not a long illness, but there was a decision to remove life support (his wishes). Did this prepare me for going through end-of-life scenarios with my cats? Maybe.

The experience taught me that death can be a process. It can take time, whether life support is removed or whether a person lingers. I did learn that many beautiful and unforgettable things can happen during this time. I was lucky — I know that is not always the case. Still, even though I went through this with a family member, I felt like a newbie. At that time, I had lost very few cats. When I went through it again with my cats, over and over, I didn’t necessarily feel I had gotten any better at it. It’s different every time.

That leads to a similar issue: Might caring for our cats at the end of life teach us or prepare us for what we might face with loved humans at the end of their lives?

I once had a practical and compassionate veterinarian. He believed that a person really didn’t need to agonize over putting an animal down too soon if the animal was terminal or was going to suffer. I see this as a compassionate and pragmatic approach, and it does the most to ensure a pet does not suffer. However, it has been hard for me to put into practice. And sometimes, things get murky. When is the right time?

We had to put my kitty Karma to sleep last November. I had two weeks from diagnosis to saying goodbye. (She had a very fast growing oral tumor.) We probably put her to sleep a day earlier than needed, but a bad snowstorm was on the way that might have prevented us from getting to the vet’s office in an emergency. It was only a day, but there’s a part of the whole process that still feels incomplete to me. One day should not matter. Maybe I need to let go a little more. Always, it is about the animal’s needs, and getting my own selfishness and longing out of the way. But that can be hard to put into practice.

My bottom line? I wish we could be more compassionate and open, as a society, about ending suffering if that is the ill person’s wish. I am optimistic that we are moving in that direction. Many of us are pragmatic and compassionate when it comes to the end of a pet’s life. Perhaps going through this with our cats and pets can prepare us for when we face this scenario with a human.

I do feel better prepared to care for a loved human who is ill, simply because I’ve spent so much time caring for my cats at the end of their lives. It takes courage — who wants to let go of life? The will to live is strong. I’ve often heard, and agreed, with the sentiment that we do not want our pets to suffer. But I wonder whether it changes when we’re dealing with the care of a terminal human, who can or cannot make choices. I offer this article simply as a way to think about this issue, in light of the recent news about Brittany Maynard.

What do you think? Can end-of-life decisions in the pet arena inform human end-of-life scenarios, or vice versa? Tell us your thoughts in the comments.

More by Catherine Holm:

About Catherine Holm: Told that she is funny but doesn’t know it, accused of being an unintentional con artist by her husband, quiet, with frequent unannounced bursts into dancing liveliness, Cat Holm loves writing about, working for, and living with cats. She is the author of The Great Purr, the cat-themed memoir Driving with Cats: Ours for a Short Time, the creator of Ann Catanzaro cat fantasy story gift books, and the author of two short story collections. She loves to dance, be outside whenever possible, read, play with cats, make music, do and teach yoga, and write. Cat lives in the woods, which she loves as much as really dark chocolate, and gets regular inspiration shots along with her double espresso shots from the city.

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