Monday, December 9, 2013

Anticipating the Death of a Cherished Pet

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[Updated September 9, 2017]

What greater gift than the love of a cat.
~ Charles Dickens

A reader writes: My beloved 19-year-old Tabby cat is still with me but for how long, I do not know. He has a tumor and can't move that well since he pretty much drags his back legs. He is now having problems going to his litter box. He tries but has a hard time. I know I’m being selfish but I can't bear to lose him. I have been crying for three days straight, trying to give him all the attention he deserves. He looks forward to eating so I know there is some joy in this world for him but I also know his time is short.
No more pets for me, I just cannot deal anymore with this sense of loss. He is not even dead yet but the mourning process is already consuming my very being. I do not expect anyone to understand. I know pain. I lost my father to cancer last year and I cried over his death but not to this extent. I do not know what kind of person that makes me, but my best friend, my animal companion will be gone soon. Hopefully he goes by himself because it is getting to the point when I will have to make that decision for him and I don’t know if I can live through that. I pray that God will please take my Tabby in his sleep and ease this unbearable pain.

My response: I am so sorry to learn that your beloved Tabby cat is dying; I can only imagine how difficult this must be for you. I understand completely your statement that you did not cry over your father's death to the extent that you have cried over the loss of this precious fur baby. Someone once said the very same thing to me, comparing my reaction to my own father's death to that of the sudden, unexpected death of my beloved cockapoo. She failed to understand that my dog spent every waking moment with me, weaving himself into the very fabric of my daily life, whereas by that time in my life, I had grown accustomed to loving my father in his absence, since we lived a thousand miles apart.

I knew then, as I know now, that the relationship we have with our animal companions is significantly different from the ones we have with humans: totally without baggage, pure, simple, and based on unconditional love. Is it any wonder that we become so attached to our fur babies, and miss them so much when they are gone? You don't need to explain to me why you love your Tabby cat so much, and why it tears your heart in two at the thought of losing him.

Nevertheless, it is clear from what you've written that Tabby has a serious illness and is growing old, and the harsh reality is that one day he will die. Our beloved animals are mortal, just as we human beings are mortal, and one day all of us will die. I know this is very, very hard to accept ~ I went through this myself a while ago; see my blog post about the death of my beloved Tibetan terrier, Saying Goodbye to Beringer ~ but I also think there comes a time when we must acknowledge death as an inevitable fact of life and, because our animal's life span is so much shorter than our own, we must prepare ourselves to say goodbye to them.

I read an article a while ago that comes to mind. Entitled Our Unrealistic Attitudes about Death through a Doctor's Eyes, the author writes,
The family may ask me to use my physician superpowers to push the patient's tired body further down the road, with little thought as to whether the additional suffering to get there will be worth it. For many Americans, modern medical advances have made death seem more like an option than an obligation. We want our loved ones to live as long as possible, but our culture has come to view death as a medical failure rather than life's natural conclusion.
I don’t know what sort of veterinary care is available where you are, but be aware that some veterinarians now offer hospice care, giving support to owners and comfort care to their dying animals until they die on their own and in their own time. Such care seeks neither to postpone nor hasten death, but rather enables animals and their families to continue to receive veterinary care until natural death occurs. To learn whether your veterinarian will support you in this sort of hospice care, you are wise to ask for a consultation in advance, to get your questions answered and to make sure you and your veterinarian share the same understanding of hospice care. (Although a veterinary practice advertises hospice among its services, the term “hospice” currently is being interpreted in a variety of ways, so you will need to know exactly how that term is being used by that particular practice. To help you find out if your veterinarian will support you in hospice care, see holistic veterinarian Ella Bittel’s list of questions.)

My prayer for you, my friend, is that you will come to see Tabby cat’s dying as the natural conclusion to what I am certain has been for him a truly wonderful life ~ and like you, I pray too that he will go by himself. If that is not to be, I hope you will make the right decision out of your deep and abiding love for him, resisting the urge "to push [his] tired body further down the road." I know too that if you decide he needs your help to die, you will be ending his pain, only to begin your own. Whatever you decide, know that others understand and are available to offer the support you need and deserve. ♥

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