I once had a good, compassionate, and very practical vet, until we moved. At one point, when I was making end-of-life health care decisions for a particular cat, the vet told me not to wait too long if the cat had to be helped over the Bridge. He added something to the effect of, “You would want the same consideration for yourself or for loved ones.”
That certainly is true. When he said that, I realized that I (thankfully? Fortunately?) have not yet witnessed a tortured human passing via terminal illness. I am probably very lucky. But when that vet said those words to me, I wondered if I might be biased and not act aggressively enough in the cat’s best interest, when it came time to make the decision. After all, our cats can’t tell us in words if and how they are suffering. And, after all, the two humans that I have been with near their deaths seemed to suffer little.
Are the decisions I make at the end of life for my cats shaped by my experience with human death? Here are two examples concerning people close to me who died.
Young woman holding tabby cat, looking up by Shutterstock.com’>
1. A family member
A close family member died almost 15 years ago. Like a lot of things in life, his death did not go as he had planned. He had a degenerative disease of the muscles, but he took a fall on his large, three-wheeled bike, which he used for exercise and to stave off the disease as best as possible. That fall laid him up, and he quickly went downhill. He aspirated fluid into his lungs and contracted pneumonia. In the hospital and on a respirator and feeding tube, we had an ethical dilemma. My family member had a living will (a good thing), but anyone who has been through this knows that it’s still not easy.
This death, the first human death I witnessed, seemed peaceful. He did not seem to have pain, he got to say goodbye to all his friends, he was cognizant almost until the end. It was emotionally traumatic, of course, and exhausting, but it was not like the horrible experiences I’ve heard from those who’ve witnessed a person passing who is in extreme pain. Sometimes I tend to want to put on the rose-colored glasses a bit too much, and I wonder if this experience colored my experience of deaths to follow. After all, our memories and experiences create filters for how we perceive new events.
Young girl holding adorable British cat by Shutterstock.com’>
2. A friend
Several years after the family member passed, a good friend of mine became very ill. There was very little information about what she was actually ill from, but it seemed likely to be cancer (due to past medical history and symptoms). This friend did not want to receive chemotherapy. Instead, she hired a hospice nurse who happened to be a friend, and I witnessed one of the most loving, thoughtful transitions possible. My friend got to die at home. She wanted me around a bit, so I experienced much of the process. My friend was given morphine for pain and never did she indicate out loud that she was suffering.
Cat under sun, St. Sebastian, Spain by Shutterstock.com’>
These were both huge and moving experiences. But because these were relatively “good” and not horrible deaths, I worry a little that this might be a personal bias I should be aware of. If I had an experience with someone who was passing and was suffering terribly, would I have an easier time intervening when a cat has to pass on? Would I have an easier time imagining the pain that the animal might be experiencing, and acting accordingly?
As for our animals, I have been all over the board. There are animals where I probably waited too long to make the dreaded decision. It did not seem that they were suffering, and if you take certain palliative measures (sub Q fluids, for example), quality of life, in some situations, can really be made better. There was at least one situation where we probably put a cat down a day too early — I still feel conflicted about that. And there were a few deaths where the timing seemed just right. I still wonder, though, whether my experience with human deaths has biased me — good or not — in my approach to end-of-life decisions for my animals.
What do you think? Have human deaths shaped your approach to end-of-life decisions for your cats? Let us know in the comments.
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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.