HOW TO COPE WITH YOUR CAT’S EUTHANASIA
In Memory of SHAELLE (2003-2016)
Our oldest has passed away from an aggressive cancer last December, after sharing 13 years with us. I would like to share our experience while answering some questions I frequently get asked regarding the situation in which we know an animal is living his last days, weeks or months. I will answer questions such as “How does one know that it’s time?” or “What should one do for other pets remaining after the passing?” This will be my own tribute to Shaelle.
I will share my way to cope with grief but that does not mean that it is THE right way or only way. The mourning process is rather personal and, above all, different in every case. Please understand that I am going beyond animal behavior theory, and please read the following as an editorial integrating some behavioral advice. If I am allowing this digression, it is because someone told me recently that my vision of the mourning process helped him/her a lot. So, please take way what you will from this piece and leave out the rest.
HOW DOES ONE KNOW THA THE TIME IS RIGHT?
My own criteria to determine if « it’s time » is very personal, and it is the following: make the decision BEFORE the animal is in pain. Do not wait for the animal to endure pain. The only person to be able to tell that your pet suffers is your veterinarian. Not your family, not Google and certainly not your « cat-lady » friend. The one thing to know with cats is that it is very hard to assess whether the animal is in pain or not, for he is a master in the art of hiding his pain so as not to show any weakness to his fellow animals or his predators. This is why cats often isolate themselves when they sense their death coming near. With a cat, waiting to see the evidence of pain probably means that the cat has been in pain for some time. So, in Shaelle’s case, as soon as we witnessed a significant change in her behavior that persisted over a few days, we consulted with her veterinarian and made the decision.
Having the responsibility of making the final decision for our pet without actually knowing for sure is probably the hardest thing to do. However, you know your pet’s habits. It is when he ceases his usual activities, stays isolated and stops interacting with us that we must take action. Even if this is difficult, we must remain rational and not let our grief decide for us. We must absolutely avoid to keep an animal alive because we have too much difficulty coping with grief or because we need to be sheltered from our own emotions. Do not forget that NOT making a decision is also a decision. If the animal is in pain because you fail to take action, then you need to ask a professional for help.
THE DAY OF THE EUTHANASIA
Comes the time of the euthanasia. For the first time, we decided to do it at home. This has its pros and cons. The first motivation for people who choose to do it at home is to relieve the cat from the stress of transportation and of the veterinary clinic, so that his last moments may not be spent in anxiety. In this view, it is valid option. However, you must know that at home, our cats are more at ease and thus more inclined to struggle and not to cooperate when we have to handle them for the procedure. This can leave a bitter taste and can consist in a significant stress for the owner, the animal and other pets. At the veterinary clinic, a majority of cats will stay inert, which makes things much easier. It is up to you to decide, factoring your cat’s condition and temperament. At home, we can cry as we see fit without the embarrassment of being seen by other clients at the exit. The major drawback of having the procedure at home is that the room in which the euthanasia takes place often remains imprinted on our memories (the living room, the bedroom, the kitchen, etc.). This should make you think twice. Finally, we must consider how other members of the family will deal with the situation: do you have young children? Are they able to understand that the animal must go on?
BEING PRESENT OR NOT
Now we need to decide whether we wish to be there during the final moment. Many people choose to be there for the cat, so that his last moments are not spent in a stranger’s hands. I have to tell you that this moment is VERY difficult to go through. Some people will wish to do it as part of their personal journey, and I respect this view. However, if you wish to do it because you do not want your cat to spend his last moments in a highly stressed state in the hands of a stranger, I have to tell you that this is not necessarily a good idea. Your cat knows you and knows foremost your bodily and emotional routine. Your cat perceives any change in your demeanor and this will become a source of anxiety. So, if you undergo strong emotions that you are unable to keep in check during the procedure, it might not be a good idea to witness the intervention. By being there upset, you might cause your cat more anxiety than if you were absent. If you cannot bear to leave your cat in the care of the veterinarian only, think about asking a friend or a parent who knows your cat to please stay with your cat during the euthanasia. One last bit of warning: cats do not close their eyes naturally when they pass away. It can be upsetting for some people, because apart from your veterinarian’s confirmation, you will not have an indicator to tell you that it is over, and you might have the feeling that you missed the crucial moment, if you were waiting for the eyes to close.
Never forget throughout this ordeal that the cat lives only in the present. He cannot begrudge you for something that happened some time ago, whether two days, one week or one month. Neither can he regret not to have had the time to do or express something as is often the case with human beings it their last moments! It is very important to keep this in memory to avoid the anthropormorphisms1 that lead to guilt and remorse.
Finally, a psychologist once told me the following on guilt which I found very judicious: « Guilt is only valid inasmuch as you did something VOLUNTARILY in order to harm someone. » It is possible that you made a mistake that led to your cat’s death or that your simply feel guilty to have made the decision to euthanize your cat for several reasons. Please remember that if you did not have bad intents, you probably ought not to feel guilty. You remained rational and you made this decision in order for you cat to suffer less, or not at all.
WHAT TO DO FOR THE OTHER PETS OF THE FAMILY?
Once this though time over, I am often asked what one must do for the family’s other pets. The most important thing is to get back to your usual routine as fast as possible. As mentioned above, any change might provoke anxiety in your other cats. As to the question of your cats’ ability to feel grief, there is some dissension within the scientific community and trends vary regarding different breeds. Nevertheless, in the current state of science, the most commonly held view is that a cat reacts to another cat’s death with whom he was living, but not necessarily because of the death itself. Essentially, a cat will react to the change in his routine, not to the loss of his companion. That is what the family cats will seem to be searching for the lost one: they may be reacting to changes in their routine, to their owner’s emotions, they may check whether some privileges might be claimed or whether « contractually » established resources might be reallocated.
COPING WITH BEREAVEMENT
As to knowing whether you wish to cremate your cat individually, keep the ashes, keep a paw plaster print, well, this is purely personal and will depend on your way of mourning your cat. I wish to discuss the subject even if this has nothing to do with feline behavior. Every person mourns in a different way, but I very often saw people self-imposing unhealthy habits, claiming they have always done so. I would like to share how I changed my own way of mourning so as to show you that some other ways may exist that could make it easier for you to go through this tough time. Here again, I am not claiming that my way is the right one, but I offer it as an option. It might not be right for you, but if it can help you, all the better.
Like many people, I used to mourn by self-inflicting grief and denying myself happiness, by avoiding pleasant activities for several days after my cat’s passing. Feeling pain and avoiding pleasure was my way of showing how deeply I loved my animal. If I forgot that I was grieving too quickly, I felt guilty and I forced myself to go back to a morose state, thus dragging my mourning period. I told myself that it was better to « embrace my pain » to get over it more quickly. Then, one day, a psychologist friend of mine told me something amazing that surely applies to you, if you are reading this column.
He told me: « Daniel, do you realize the luck that you and this cat had to meet one another? Very few cats have such an attentive owner and very few cats would have made you so happy. You have every right to be in denial, to express your anger, to be sad and to go through the stages of grief because you miss his presence, but to forbid yourself to feel happiness to prove yourself you loved this animal is absolutely illogical, for the goal of the union, for both, is to be happy. » Think about it! We have pets even if we know that we will probably outlive them because the pain we feel when they die is nothing next to the happiness they give us while they live. We gain so much more than we lose out of the experience and the beauty of it is that our pet too gains so much. Even if our motives are different than those of our animal, it does not matter. It is a give and take. So, to self-impose pain and being deliberately unhappy goes absolutely against the love contract we make with our pets and if they could feel it the way we do, I am positive that they would tell us that the last thing they wish for us it to be unhappy and that self-inflicting pain to prove our love is not part of the contract.
Well, today, we built a new outdoor enclosure for the cats. Josine and I could not help thinking that Shaelle would have love this enclosure, she who was crazy about getting some fresh air in the poorly designed old enclosure. Instead of being sad, we rather remembered her and thought to ourselves that the love contract we had with her clearly stated that the reason she was in our lives was to make ourselves mutually happy, not mutually sad. Even in death, this contract is binding and we need to honor it. That is why we smiled and christened our new enclosure « Shaelle’s Shack ».
Note 1 : Anthropomorphism consists in attributing human feelings to animals.