Knowing When to Let Go

Preparing for the Euthanasia Decision for Your Cat

Cat resting head on paws, close-up
Masaaki Toyoura/The Image Bank/Getty Images

Letting go of your feline companion is never easy. Often just the thought of it brings panic. Unfortunately, though, your cat will probably die before you do and you may even have to make the decision to help him or her to die. Death is a difficult subject for many people, but avoiding the topic isn't helpful to you or your cat.

Cats, particularly indoor cats, are now living longer than they have in past years.

There are also so many advances in veterinary care that many cats develop chronic health problems that can be handled with treatments at home, such as administering fluids under the skin. Doing different treatments at home may seem difficult at first, but the staff at your veterinarian's office can usually instruct you so that you feel more comfortable with it. Treatments for some diseases, such as radiation or chemotherapy, can't be done at home, are expensive, and have greater risks and side effects.

Plan Ahead for the Euthanasia Decision, if Possible

The time to think about how far you'll want to go with any type of treatment or when you would feel the time is right to euthanize your cat is before he or she becomes ill. Once an illness strikes, we tend to go into crisis mode and our thinking isn't as clear as it is when we're not stressed. The answer to the question of treatment and euthanasia will differ from person to person.

One way people have found useful in making these decisions is to ask, "If this was ME in my cat's situation, how much treatment would I want? How much pain and suffering would I be willing to endure if there was even a chance that I'd have a better life? When would I just want to say, 'Enough'?" You may find that you have different boundaries for two of your own animals.

It's important to choose a veterinarian that you trust and have a good relationship with. People who do, often find it helpful to listen to the pros and cons that their veterinarian gives them and then say, "And if this was YOUR cat, what would YOU do." Most veterinarians will be very honest with clients about this.

Considering the Cost Factor

Sadly, cost is also often a factor in making a decision. Many people want to help the pet overpopulation problem by adopting a lot of animals. I advise people to consider the costs involved. It's not just the food and litter, but also the veterinary bills, especially as animals get older (although younger animals can develop costly illnesses, also). Veterinarians don't make as much money as you might think when you look at their bills, and they have bills of their own that they have to pay, both business and personal, so very few are able to treat your animal inexpensively or for free. Very few are able to allow you to delay payments, either. It would be nice if there were an easy checklist that you could refer to that would tell you exactly when to let go.

Unfortunately, there isn't, but there ARE some guidelines.

Quality of life is an important issue. If you know that your cat is suffering and has no chance of returning to even an adequate level of quality of life, it's time to talk with your veterinarian about euthanasia. If the side effects of a treatment are going to mean that your cat will be very ill from it and there's less than a 50 percent chance of returning to a good quality of life, you should talk with your veterinarian about whether the treatment is really in the cat's best interest. Again, ask your veterinarian what he or she would do if it was their cat. Sometimes it's hard to let a creature that we love so much leave our life, but once a reasonable level of quality of life is gone, the loving thing to do IS to let go.

The Euthanization Process

Some people have never had to euthanize a furry family member and have no idea what the process is like. Your veterinarian will give your cat a shot to calm him or her and then take your cat to the treatment area to insert an IV. Your cat will then be returned to you and when you're ready, your veterinarian will give an injection that will stop the heartbeat and breathing and your cat will peacefully slip away.

Afterwards, your veterinarian will ask you if you'd like to spend some time with the body. Many people are confused or even upset that the eyes don't close or if there are some last movements after death. This is all normal. Some people choose to have a veterinarian come to their house so that their cat can die in familiar surroundings.

Handling the Remains

Another issue that you should think about long before the time comes is what you'll want to do with your cat's body. There are many options. If you want to bury it on your property, you must check the laws in your area, as this is illegal in many places. Some cities have pet cemeteries and you can get information on cost and services offered so that you can make a decision about this. Some people prefer to have the body cremated and returned to them. Many companies sell beautiful urns that are made specifically to store pet ashes. There are people who believe that the soul is important and the body is meaningless.

These people will tell the veterinarian they do not want the ashes returned. Instead of the cost for cremation or burial, they will often make a donation to an animal charity in their cat's name so that an animal who is still on the earth can benefit. There are also "virtual cemeteries" on the web, such as www.rainbowsbridge.com that some people find comforting.

Take Time for Yourself

Once your cat is dead and you have dealt with the body, it's important to take care of YOURSELF. Some people are lucky enough to have friends who realize what a difficult time this is and send cards and flowers, or make contributions to animal charities in your cat's name. Many charities have beautiful commemorative cards that are then sent to you to let you know about the gift.

If your friends don't understand the relationship you had, you may want to find a chatline where you can communicate with people who understand. The Rainbows Bridge site has one and you can find others on the internet. You may want to make a "Memory Book" and put pictures, poems, prayers, cards, and other mementos in it so that you will always have it to remember this time. There are no rules for making one except that it should have meaning for YOU. Putting a Memory Book together can be very healing. Some people may choose instead to get an inspirational candle that is sold for this purpose and have a special prayer or "good-bye" service.

Any ritual that helps you is a good one.

There are also many books about dealing with pet grief that you can read and get comfort and ideas from. No one wants to say good-bye to a furry loved one, but there is great peace in knowing that when the time came, you were able to do the most loving thing.