|Photo © Tony Northrup 2014|
A reader writes: For the last several months, I have been feeding a stray cat who started living in my yard. Since I already have two cats, I decided I’d try to find him a home, but if I couldn’t, I would take him as well. I bought an insulated kitty house and pet bed, and put out food for him in the yard every night. For the last few weeks, after work I would go straight to the yard and pet and play with him. He was very sweet and I got very attached to him. My friend said he would try to take him in, and we agreed that if it didn’t work out (he has one other cat) I would take him myself. As I drove the cat over to my friend’s house last night, he was crying and scared, but I kept reassuring him, "Don't be afraid buddy, I'm taking you to your wonderful, loving, warm new forever home." My friend called me this morning, crying hysterically and saying he’d just had the cat put to sleep.
He said the vet had told him the cat had feline HIV (FIV), and since he already had a cat and so did I, and since nobody else was likely to take him in and they couldn't put him back on the street, it was best to put him down. I was beside myself. I have been crying all day. I thought cats with FIV could live for many years—long, healthy lives until the end stage. I would have found him a home, somehow, that did not already have cats or that had cats already infected. I would never have agreed to put him to sleep unless he was actually suffering or dying. I feel so guilty this cat is dead. I feel like instead of taking him to a warm loving home, I took him to his death. The people I work with must've thought I was nuts, because I cried at work and then left early. I have cried so much today, my eyes hurt. I feel like the cat died needlessly and could have lived a long, happy life in a loving home which he never had in his life. At least he could have had a few years of love, affection and a family.
I feel so responsible and I am so upset. It would have been hard if the cat had little time left, but I feel even worse knowing he could have probably found a home and gone on living for several more years. I feel like it's all my fault he's dead. I keep going outside wishing he'll be out there. I wish I had never brought him to my friend's house. I wish I had taken him myself. I wish I had been at the vet and asked questions as to how long he could have lived. I have never felt so guilty in my life. I really grew so attached to this cat and felt like he so desperately needed help and it took him so long to trust someone and what do I do? I get him euthanised without any reason for him to really be. I just feel like this is all my fault. I just got so used to him being there when I got home from work. Even last night after I dropped him off, when I got home I missed him. I wish I had just gone and gotten him back. I feel like he's needlessly dead and it's all my fault and now he'll never have the loving home he needed. I just am taking this so hard.
My response: My friend, I am dismayed to read your heartbreaking story. I consulted with a trusted veterinarian colleague to get her professional opinion about this case, and I want to share with you her response. She said that you are absolutely correct that a cat with FIV can live a long life. While it is true that you must not put a cat like that back on the streets, there were other options, including adoption to a family without other cats, adoption to a family with a cat that already has FIV, and keeping the cat with the other cat, knowing there was a risk of FIV. She said she’s never heard of recommending immediate euthanasia upon the diagnosis of FIV. She also said that, even though it may not result in any form of disciplinary action, if you are so inclined, you could report this vet’s behavior to your state’s Board of Veterinary Medicine. At the very least, the vet may be advised on how better to handle a situation like this in the future, which could prevent another tragedy like yours.
Unfortunately, in this particular situation it was your friend who was acting as the owner of this cat. Even though he may have been upset by the advice he was given by the vet at the time, it was your friend who had the authority to act on that advice, and it was he who made the choice of whether or not to euthanize this kitty. Sadly enough, he made that decision without contacting you first to consider and discuss any other options. It seems as if mistakes were made by everyone involved in this situation, and my heart just hurts for all you.
The circumstances surrounding this kitty’s death suggest to me that you may be feeling very guilty and even angry with yourself (and with your friend) for whatever part you think you may have played in her death. But at a time like this it's important for you to remember that you did not deliberately set out to bring any harm to this little being. Like all the rest of us, you are human, and there was nothing intentional about this at all. Guilt and anger are powerful emotions that can be frightening, but keep in mind that feelings are neither right or wrong, good or bad. They just are. What really matters is what you do with what you're feeling. When you simply acknowledge feelings of guilt and anger to yourself or to a trusted other without actually doing anything about them, no harm is done, to you or to anyone else.
Anger is sheer, raw energy, but you can find healthy ways to discharge that energy and channel it – through physical exercise, writing and talking, for example.
Feelings aren't always rational or accurate, either. Feeling guilty about the circumstances surrounding this kitty’s death doesn't mean that you are, in fact, an uncaring, irresponsible person who intentionally set out to bring harm to this cat. As I'm sure you know, one of the most wonderful things about our animal companions (unlike humans!) is that they love us unconditionally, they are forgiving of all our human faults, and they never, ever hold a grudge against us. If anyone knew how much she was loved by you for the time that she was in your care, surely it was this homeless cat.
In the end, there is nothing anyone can say to lift from your shoulders the load of guilt that you may be carrying around with you now. The only one who truly can forgive you is yourself. Guilt is one of the most common reactions in loss – and in situations such as this, it is only human nature for you to feel guilt for what you may have done or failed to do. If after examining all the facts you decide that you should have done things differently, then the only thing you can do at this point is to learn from your mistake and promise yourself that if you are ever presented with the exact same set of circumstances again, you will do things differently next time. A sudden, unexpected death like this can teach some valuable lessons about how fragile and temporary life is, and that if we have something to say to someone we had better say it now, because we may never get the chance again to say it. Can you let this be one of this kitty’s legacies to you – one of the precious life lessons you can take from this tragic loss? You know, just by having the courage to share your tragic story with me and with those who may be reading this, you are educating many other animal lovers about FIV. Are there any other lessons here that you may need to learn? Take some time to think about about all of this. It is one of the most important tasks in mourning: to find meaning in this loss.
In any event, my dear, there is nothing you can do now to go back and change what has already been done. Instead, to cope with the guilt you might try to find some way to communicate with this kitty’s spirit and ask for her forgiveness. That may be by meditating, by writing her a letter and saying all you need to say to her, by finding a quiet place and lighting a candle and speaking to her in your mind – whatever way you choose is up to you. The point of all of this is to find some way to forgive yourself, to apologize and make amends to the one you believe you have harmed, to learn from your mistake and to move on. That's the only way you will heal from this loss.
Guilt and anger can eat you alive unless you find someone to talk to about your feelings, someone who will help you look at the situation more objectively. If you find that sharing your story with me here is not enough, I encourage you to find someone you can talk to in person who understands the bond you felt with this cat, who understands the mourning process and will listen to you without judging you. I don't know if there are any pet loss services in your area, but since you have access to a computer, you might try calling one of the pet loss telephone helplines listed on the Pet Loss Helplines, Message Boards, Chats page of my Grief Healing Web site. If you feel a need for more than that, you can go to the State-by-State Guide to Support Groups, Counselors & Pet Cemeteries. Sometimes sharing our story enables us to unburden ourselves and to obtain the absolution we may need from others. None of us is perfect; we are all human, we've all made mistakes and we've all done things about which we feel guilty.
It’s important that you take the time needed to grieve this loss, including the processing of and coming to terms with all that anger and guilt you may be feeling over the circumstances of her death.
I hope you'll take time to follow some of the links I've included below, and I hope this information helps, my dear. Please know that my heart goes out to you at this sad and difficult time.
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Related Articles and Resources:
- Am I Crazy to Feel So Sad about This?
- Radio Interview: Pet Loss, Grief and Guilt
- Loss and the Burden of Guilt
- Is Anger One Of The Stages of Grief?
- Feline Immunodeficiency Virus (FIV), via Cornell University College of Veterinary Medicine
- Cats For Adoption: FIV Is No Barrier, via The Creative Cat