Deciding When to Euthanize a Sick Cat

It’s a gut-wrenching decision influenced by many factors.

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Deciding when to let go can be difficult. By: Stephen Holdaway

When our tortoiseshell Kilah was almost 16, my vet had to remove a cancerous toe from her left hind foot.

She came through the surgery beautifully, her long striped tail waving proudly. And for the next year, we monitored her carefully and made regular trips to the veterinary clinic.

When your vet hands you a hard-hitting diagnosis, it’s hard not to jump mentally to the worst-case scenario. Kilah’s cancer went into remission for a while. However, when it did come back, it was a slow-moving one.

Intervention or Not?

My vet and I made the decision not to put Kilah through chemo. He was against amputating the foot. He said she was too old to have to learn to get about on 3 legs. Besides, surgery might just cause the tumor to grow faster.

This is something we all wrestle with. How much do you intervene medically? For instance, we’ve frequently had to deal with kidney disease in our cats. Sometimes we’ve done subcutaneous fluids; other times, when the cat in question has been very old and/or high-strung, we’ve chosen not to.

Both Phoenix, our ruddy Aby, and Topaz, our Flamepoint Siamese, lasted a year and a half to almost 2 years with kidney issues. We didn’t give them fluids until near the end and then only to keep them comfortable.

Each pet parent has to determine what is best for his/her cat. There’s never a one-size-fits-all answer. Take chemotherapy, for example. In general, cats do better with it than humans, but that’s not to say they don’t experience some of the same side effects.

Obviously, it’s costly. And you have to keep in mind, as the Louisiana State University (LSU) Veterinary Teaching Hospital/School of Veterinary Medicine points out, “the cancers we treat are very rarely cured. Almost all of our patients ultimately have recurrence of their cancers, and their caretakers will ultimately have to make the difficult decision to euthanize their pets.”

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They add, however, that the majority of cats and dogs receiving chemotherapy do “have an excellent quality of life both during and after treatment. It is often possible to provide many additional months, or sometimes even years, of happy life with chemotherapy.”

Still, I can’t help recalling the woman in an online discussion group that I belong to. She spoke about the beloved Aby she’d lost to cancer. Yes, she’d tried chemo for him. But his personality changed drastically during the process, and she could tell he was unhappy. So, no, she would never put another cat through chemo.

Is It Time?

It’s a lot like walking a tightrope, I think. You don’t want to act too soon, but you don’t want to wait too long either. With Solstice, my first ruddy Abyssinian, I did the latter because I couldn’t bear to be without her. By the time I brought her in to be euthanized, my once sleek 9.5-pound girl was anemic and weighed about as much as a 6-month-old kitten. Her mouth had become necrotic, and there was a strong uremic odor permeating her fur.

At some point, the law of diminishing returns sets in. Cleveland Amory wrote poignantly about his beloved Polar Bear’s losing battle against renal failure in The Best Cat Ever.  He recalled how the fluids “at first seemed to help so much — and indeed sometimes lasted as long as to give him 4 good days. But then, in between the treatments, it would be 3 good days, and then just 2. And, finally, the treatments would last — at least toward making him better — just one day.”

Setting Them Free

Sometimes the cats themselves let you know. Artist/writer Bernadette Kazmarski (The Creative Cat) got that message from Emeraude, her lovely long-haired senior cat.

Emeraude was definitely “ready to go,” reflects Kazmarski, “and stumbled into the study to be with me, and that was where we put her to sleep…. I usually get a sense from the cat that their confusion has cleared, and they see a straight path ahead. For all the doubts I had in the previous week, it was perfectly clear yesterday morning.”

In Kilah’s case, The Powers That Be found their own way to let us know her time had come. She had one last hurrah, then went very gently into her good night.

T.J. Banks

View posts by T.J. Banks
T.J. Banks is the author of several books, including Catsong, a collection of her best cat stories, which was the winner of a Merial Human–Animal Bond Award. A contributing editor to laJoie, T.J. has received writing awards from the Cat Writers’ Association (CWA), ByLine and The Writing Self. Her writing has been widely anthologized.

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