Death of a cat
Shortly before my cat Paul died, I fell asleep on the couch while watching a movie, as I sometimes do. And when I awoke 1 a.m., I had every intention of getting up and going to bed. But then I noticed Paul purring softly in my lap. Rather than disturb her, I closed my eyes and went back to sleep. Paul could be a bit standoffish, and her friendlier moods were always a bit of a treat.
I began worrying about Paul around the end of October, although I had a hard time pinpointing what exactly was bothering me. She (yes, she had a boy’s name) seemed less active. She was sleeping in places she didn’t usually sleep. She seemed smaller and frailer. I assumed her age — she was 14 — was finally starting to catch up with her. But I scheduled an appointment with the vet for Monday anyway. Perhaps he could give me some tips on how to care for an older cat.
The vet did a basic examination, then looked at Paul’s chart. She had lost weight — about three pounds, which is a lot for an average-sized cat. And her breathing was a bit labored. The vet drew some blood for a test, and promised to phone with the results the next morning. I wasn’t particularly worried. For the most part, Paul seemed fine. When I brought her home, she ran and hid under the bed. When I came back from work, she greeted me at the door. Later that evening, she fell asleep on the window sill. She ate and drank and used her litter box.
But Paul wasn’t fine. The next morning the vet informed me that she had kidney failure and a hyperactive thyroid. “The kidney failure explains why she’s less active,” he said. “But the thyroid probably explains why she’s been pretty energetic until recently.”
I brought Paul back to the vet on Wednesday morning. He showed me how to administer subcutaneous fluid treatments — to stick a needle in Paul’s fur and inject her with fluids that would help flush out toxins and keep her hydrated — prescribed pills for her thyroid and gave me special food for cats with bad kidneys. Armed with a giant bag filled with medicine, I realized I had become the type of pet owner I thought I’d never be: the type who takes all kinds of crazy measures to nurse an ailing pet. That for the rest of her life, I would be required to treat her with fluids and pills.
I was ready to do it, of course. I loved Paul. And I felt optimistic: Paul had always been so spry and healthy, and I fully expected her new regimen to work wonders. But it turned out that Paul only had a few more days to live. On Thursday, she stopped eating and moving, and during the night she woke me up every hour or so with pitiful, pained cries. I knew immediately what was going on: Paul was dying. I called the vet, fighting back tears. “You’re stuck between a rock and a hard place,” he said. The only other option was an expensive hospitalization that would entail pumping fluids into Paul’s body for four or five days and monitoring her vital signs closely. “But I wouldn’t recommend it,” he said. “If she isn’t responding to the medicine you’re giving her, she’s probably not going to respond to the more intensive treatments.
At that point, I didn’t care about Paul’s prognosis. I cared about her quality of life. I scheduled another appointment with the vet for the next morning. Until then, I would continue giving Paul her medicine; maybe she would perk up and rally. But if she didn’t, I would put her to sleep. Unfortunately, Paul didn’t rebound. When I put food in front of her, she swiveled away from it, actively rejecting my offering. She rarely moved more than an inch or two. And she cried frequently during the night. Occasionally I moved her to a new spot in an effort to make her more comfortable. But nothing worked. Her pain was internal. By the time morning rolled around, our trip to the vet couldn’t come fast enough.
When you get a pet, you know that the animal will eventually die. It’s part of the deal. But I had tricked myself into thinking this day would never come. I had imagined that Paul would live to be 22 or 23, like my childhood cat Dumpy. Unable to sleep, I got up and took a shower. Then I laid a blanket in Paul’s crate and loaded her into the car. “Don’t worry,” I told her. “This is our last trip.”
As soon as the vet asked me what was going on, I began to cry. He handed me some tissues. “I’m sorry,” I said. “I’m normally not a very emotional person.” He nodded sympathetically. We discussed Paul’s decline. “She’s just not very happy,” I said.
The vet mentioned the hospitalization option; I said I wasn’t interested. He nodded again. “We just want to make sure you’re comfortable with your decision,” he said. “We don’t want you to leave thinking you didn’t do everything you could have done.” But my mind was made up. From where I sat, there was nothing left to do, other than put an end to Paul’s suffering.
The process was humane, and quick. I took care of the paperwork beforehand, which enabled me to leave as soon as everything was over. The vet administered a sedative, then left me alone with Paul while she drifted off; when I was ready, I rang a bell, and he returned. This only took a few minutes: Paul rested her head on my arm, whimpered once or twice, and fell silent. The euthanasia was also quick. After a minute or two, the vet checked for a heartbeat. Then he nodded at me, closed Paul’s eyes, and stepped out. I spent a minute or two with my Paul. Then I picked up the empty crate and went home.
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