When A Beloved Pet Dies

Photo: wsilver

Several years ago, my wife and I had to put down one of our cats.  Minnie was really my wife’s cat, having journeyed with her from Vancouver to Chicago almost a decade earlier.  At some point during that time Minnie had developed a urinary tract infection that had damaged her kidneys.  After that, according to my wife, her personality changed.  By the time I met her, Minnie was no longer friendly and affectionate but somewhat aloof and disdainful (and, yes, I know this is the baseline personality of many otherwise healthy cats).

Because she had mild kidney damage, her vet had instructed my wife to infuse fluid subcutaneously into her every other day, which, after my wife and I married, somehow became my duty.  I’d have to do this in a particular way:  I’d hang the bag of saline on a shirt hanger, attach it to some IV tubing and then a needle to the tubing’s business end; then I’d gently pick her up, lay her between my outstretched legs away from me, delicately grab a tuft of skin and fur, and insert the needle underneath.  She never seemed to mind my doing it (despite the fact that at room temperature the saline must have felt cold), and neither did I (despite the fact that I’ve always been more of a dog guy).  As I’d start the saline flowing I’d stroke her, and she’d purr.  Once a large subcutaneous lump of fluid had formed, I’d pull the needle out, and she’d leap away.  (But then pause to look cool doing it.  Cats.)

You had to be careful with her, though.  As my wife warned me many times, if you stroked her in the wrong place she’d be more likely to scratch you than purr.  Needless to say, my relationship with Minnie remained a cautious one at best.

Then came the day she seemed, according to my wife, “just not herself.”  I couldn’t tell the difference, but in all honesty I rarely paid attention to her normal behavior, so I was no judge.  We took her to the vet, who drew blood and then informed us her kidneys had failed completely.  He suggested we try a few days of aggressive fluid administration to see if it would reverse the damage, so we did.  Days later, however, we retested her kidney function only to find it had worsened.

Our vet gave us the name of another vet, one who made house calls to euthanize pets in the safe and familiar confines of their homes.  We called him, and he came over that night.

I was immediately struck by his gentle and compassionate demeanor.  He asked us to tell him the story of Minnie’s illness, which we did as he observed her behavior.  When we were done, he said gently, “This seems like a cat that doesn’t feel well.”  We agreed, knowing that the longer she lived the worse she would feel.  My wife and I had said to one another many times in the past how we both believed when people became sick past the point of hope for a recovery and were suffering terribly that the most humane and compassionate thing to do was euthanize them.  My wife in particular has always been adamant about her desire to be “put down” if she were ever to reach that point.  We asked ourselves if we thought Minnie had reached that often difficult-to-define zone and had to agree little doubt existed that she had.

So my wife said goodbye to her stalwart companion of ten years, her tears falling freely.  Then the vet injected Minnie with a medicine to make her fall asleep, which she did, and then with a second medicine to end her life.  It took no more than ten minutes.

I cried, too, hard, both at the loss of a cat for whom, in all honesty, I had only partial affection, and for my wife’s suffering at having to watch her life end.  I well remembered the loss of more dogs in my childhood than I care to count, all of which represented traumas I won’t recount here.  Suffice it to say that, for both of us, it was like losing a member of our family.

WHY DO WE ATTACH TO ANIMALS?

For many people—in fact, I’d hazard to say, for most—pets are family members.  My wife certainly felt that way about Minnie.  Yet the degree of attachment pet owners feel for their pets often baffles non-pet owners.  After all, these non-pet owners argue, you’re a pet owner.  It’s not as if when a pet dies you’re losing a mother, or a sister, or a son.

But for many, including me and my wife, that’s exactly how it feels.  The reason is simply this:  as I wrote in a previous post, The Double-Edged Sword Of Attachment, the degree of attachment we feel for things has far less to do with the things themselves than with us.  Why, for example, do some of us also get upset when we lose inanimate objects like family heirlooms or keepsakes given to us by people we love?  They’re just things without any feelings of their own.

Because, quite obviously, we have feelings about them.  The word “attachment” is a good one.  We attach our feelings to all sorts of inanimate objects in a way that’s psychologically powerful and that will admit no transfer.  Thus, we mourn the loss of our grandfather’s watch but not his clothes, given at last to a charity by our widowed grandmother.

Animals, however, feel many of the same things we do, including fear, pleasure, and pain.  And as they our pets are essentially in our care all the time, not only do they provide us love, but they also pull out of us the powerful desire to protect them, a desire that feels just like the desire we feel to protect our children.  And sometimes in some circumstances, they pull other things out of us, too.  In nursing home residents, for example, studies have shown that regular animal visits decrease levels of depression and fatigue.

Does it matter that our pets can’t speak English?  They communicate clearly in so many other ways, by rubbing up against us so we’ll scratch their ears or by rolling over onto their backs, paws up, for us to scratch their stomachs.  Does it matter that they won’t go to college or have a successful career?  Watching them learn to run after a ball we throw and trot back to us with it firmly trapped between their jaws makes us proud, too.

No one should judge anyone for the attachments they form, whether they’re to another person, a pet, or a piece of metal.  Our attachments aren’t just to these things but to the way these things make us feel.  This is what we spend most of our time doing:  feeling things about other things.  We care.  We love.  We suffer.  And no one’s love or suffering is made more or less special by the object of its devotion.

I found myself in the midst of my tears for Minnie loving my wife all the more for her generous capacity to love that little gray creature, helpless before us and the vet who came to end her life.  I could see my wife’s conflicting desires playing across her face as we made the decision, her desire to protect Minnie and keep her safe in direct opposition to her adult’s knowledge that she could no longer do so, that by keeping her alive we would only be prolonging her dying.

When it was over, the vet left us alone with Minnie to say our final goodbyes.  My wife stroked her fur while I dried my tears and wrote him a check for his services.  Then he gently wrapped her in a covering and took her away.

My wife still hasn’t entirely recovered.  I don’t know if she ever will.

Next WeekThe Problem With Alternative Medicine

23 comments to When A Beloved Pet Dies

  • Alex,

    What an exceptionally poignant and heartfelt post. I suspect all of us who have been pet owners have similar stories to tell.

    I was particularly heartened by two points that you made.

    First, that there are vets who will come to you home to perform the euthanasia. My wife and I can still remember, 30 years ago (as if it were yesterday), taking our epileptic cat to the vet since her prescribed phenobarbital was no longer effective. She was in a cardboard box and poked her head out as we turned to leave her at the vet. We had to pull over the car as we drove away, both too upset and needing to let out tears flow.

    Second, and certainly more profound, that both you and your wife would consider euthanasia for humans. My wife and I feel exactly the same way, but we feel like we are in the extreme minority in this country.

    It’s refreshing to hear a medical doctor express such views, and we hope it will eventually be reflected in more state laws of this country.

    Thanks for such a touching post.

    Steven: What a difference it made to us to have it done at home. So sorry you weren’t able to as well.

    Euthanasia is a tough one. While intellectually I do believe in certain circumstances it’s the most compassionate thing to do, I don’t know if I’d be personally able to do it. I hope never to be confronted with having to make that choice with a human being. Doing it with a cat was heart-wrenching enough.

    Alex

  • Mary Carlisle

    Aaaaaaaaaaw, I remember little gray Minnie, and I remember when that happened. I have so many memories of her, like Rhea having to shake the birds out of her mouth and her looking up at our window at Cobbler Square in the court yard and hissing at Lucy my cat. LOL Minnie was one of the biggest memories there. I also remember Rhea giving her the injections. Minnie was so fortunate to have such a loyal loving human family, and she brought much happiness and laughs to Rhea and I; all the cats in the court yard knew not to mess with Minnie!

    I don’t understand how some people can’t understand how tragic this is to lose a pet and yes it’s a family member. I can’t even think of the day Lucy crosses over. I’ve had her for ten years and that’ll be a huge loss.

    Thanks for this heartfelt post, Alex, and thanks for loving Minnie so deeply!

  • Aileen

    Thank you for this post. I recently had my 19-year-old cat euthanized and even though I thought I had mentally prepared myself for it, I was surprised at how devastated I was. But even though he was blind and deaf at the end, I feel like he saw me at the end and I read “thank you,” in his eyes.

    I miss him every day, and so does his kitty friend at home. We comfort each other, I think.

    Thanks.

  • Deborah

    I had to make the same decision about my companion cat of 14 years for the same health problem (kidney failure). We are very fortunate in that we also had a kind and compassionate vet that came to the house to euthanize her, and he took her body with him. I still have her ashes at the house. It was the first time I’ve had to make that decision, but it was obvious she was suffering and wouldn’t have lasted a day or two at the most, which made it easier. I highly recommend a book by Gary Kowalski titled Goodbye Friend: Healing Wisdom for Anyone Who Has Ever Lost a Pet.

  • Brendalee

    Alex, thank you so much for this blog as I often try to explain, without much success, my attachment to my animals. It brought fresh tears to my eyes remembering when I had to put my beagle down due to CHF about 5 years ago. I still have her ashes in a tin, unable to part with her as of yet, wanting to take her with me when I move, whenever that might be. I grew up on a small farm and had plenty of animals that died. It has always been difficult for me to part with them and plenty of tears have been shed over the years. I now have two dogs, a guinea piggie, a cat, and koi. I love them all soul deep. They give me so many intangibles. I think maybe it’s because I can love them without fear of rejection and they love me back regardless of who I am, what I look like, how smart I am, etc. When I put my beagle down, I went out the next day to find me another dog. I just needed one to love and to love me. I am sure there are all kinds of theories out there concerning this subject. I don’t really care about them. All I know is that I don’t feel complete without my animals. The koi might be pushing the envelop, though :-) They do, however, give me pleasure and serenity watching them move about in the water. Anyway…thank you so much.

  • robert ingram

    Thanks!

  • Kat

    Alex, I found your blog last night, and having read just a few of your posts, I already feel tremendous gratitude for your honest, insightful, personal and touching writing. Especially for this post in particular. Thank you.

    I am an animal lover and fervently believe that when you take on the care of an animal, you take on tremendous responsibility, akin to that of having a baby. Their little lives are totally dependent on your care and attention, and too many people shirk this responsibility.

    I applaud you and your wife for your care and compassion, particularly in helping to ease Minnie’s transition. I also agree with your sentiments on euthanasia, for both animals and humans. Veterinary euthanasia is a gift, and I’m delighted you found a veterinarian who practices as such.

    I wish the cynics would try to understand these attachments. My boss in particular, who scoffed at my need to take a few hours off from work to bring my desperately sick pet to the vet (despite my never having to take sick leave from work since I began the job over 20 months ago). I would love if people like this would read your post and learn to empathize with their grieving companions/colleagues. Or at least not belittle them.

    Kat: Me, too.

    Alex

  • Kay

    I lost a pet hen many years ago. Till today I still have occasional dreams of her and wake up feeling disappointed.

  • Tony

    They say things do not “grow” without water. Thanks.

  • gloria morey

    Pets don’t speak English?

    I was given a Shi Tzu who spoke Spanish until she became bilingual and a mini Pinscher that spoke both Romanian and English!

    I believe you just haven’t conversed with your pets!

    Great article—I’m forwarding it to my sister—

  • Diana

    I’ve had to say goodbye to several of my cats, euthanized by my vet. A bedroom wall is covered with framed photos of each of them. Only by enlarging and framing photos could I get over the pain in my heart. When I had to euthanize the last one because she was so ill, my vet sent me a wooden plaque, at no charge to me, engraved with her name with a metal imprint of one of her paws and a place for her photo. It’s on my living room wall. Three of my cats are 13 and 14 years old. I often tell the oldest “five more years!”

  • Doulton

    I am in tears! Of course I weep for myself and my animals, but can clearly transfer my emotions to Minnie and to you and your wife. Attachment and love are peculiar: I would gladly dispense with many acquaintances and family members if I had to choose between them and a dear cat. I am so grateful that music, poetry, and beauty is always here for us—that we will not lose Mozart or Monet. And the spirits and images we have of indomitable influences in our lives can be sustained and retrieved long after the physical loss. I am still closer to a cat who died in 1970 and a sister who died in 1975 than I am to the slightly more sentient beings in my life.

  • peeky moose

    Thank you, Alex.

    As an RN who has long been owned by my kat, Peeky Moose, my tears reading your posts wash my soul. Having lost my brother to heart disease a few weeks back and now facing the almost certain fate of my 19 year-old-man cat (who is in alarmingly good health for any age), I needed a good cry. When you wrote “Pronouncing Someone Dead” I could hardly look at the title and named you cruel for the timing. But having since read such a tender and real piece on the nature of ritual and the cycle of dying and death as a part of the Great Circle, I am grateful to you for having written such prose. As a home health nurse in Alaska, we are able to pronounce death. I remember the first time I was called to do so, New Year’s Eve of 2008. The man was an elderly Alaskan Native and his passing was only a matter of time. I happened to be on call and was more or less expecting it. I happened to be at a party with another RN friend when the call came. Even though I knew the “business” end of my job, I so appreciated the way you described the event. The hopeful look on the wife’s face as I lay the stethoscope to her husbands chest, explaining my processes as I went, which I usually do for a patient to take the fear out of any medical procedure; seeing the opacity of the eyes, the cold waxiness of the skin, knowing he was gone before I pronounced, the sheer magnitude of the ritual and the ceremony was something I had never consciously been aware of before. I was in awe of Larger Forces the entire night, even after I completed my “job” and left this huge, assembled family to grieve the passing of their loved one in their way. I have never been so humbled as I was that night.

    You have helped me to cope with the passing of my brother and have given comfort to the future of my very best friend when his time comes. Namaste, my fellow traveler.

    peeky moose: Thank you so much for sharing your story. It gives me comfort to know others give of themselves as you do.

    Alex

  • Emily

    I’ve never had a pet so I can’t identify with this pain, but I’m passing along your blog to someone who had to put her cat to sleep just last night.

  • peeky moose

    Thanks, Alex and Emily.

    By the way, it is my peeky moose’s 19th birthday today.

  • Jane Sullivan

    With the first dog I owned as an adult I remember thinking, how am I ever going to make the decision to end this dog’s life? Even as she developed complex medical conditions (including twice daily insulin injections) I couldn’t imagine it. When the time came, though, I knew instantly. She was seizing continuously, her organs were failing and the thought of prolonging that even for a minute was not an option. I could not put her down fast enough. I’ve learned since then that owning animals requires a committment to stewardship. This takes the courage to know when to act in the animal’s best interest, even when breaks your heart.

    My husband, not an animal person, asked when I got home, “How can you go through this over and over with multiple dogs? It’s so sad.” Well, I still tell stories about that dog and smile when I think of her. To me, that’s worth the burden of someday having to to the right thing.

  • juli

    I understand your statement that while intellectually you believe in euthanasia for humans under certain circumstances, you don’t know that you could personally do it. I also believe in euthanasia for humans, but it’s kind of like abortion. I believe in a woman’s right to an abortion, as I believe in a human’s right to euthanasia or assisted suicide, but I don’t think I could personally have an abortion or assist in my own or someone else’s euthanasia.

    I wonder why we can do that for animals, but not for humans?

    Juli: I don’t know.

    Alex

  • Gail T

    Thank you for the beautiful writing, so descriptive of letting go of a family member. My sister sent your message to me. She just had to let her cat, Clancy, go and I know it was losing a member of her family and I know his brother Mickey misses him as well. I am sure your message and the following comments helped her.

    It’s been five years since we had to say goodbye to our beloved yellow Lab, Gretchen, who was one of the most beautiful souls it has been our privilege to live with. We were devastated, but time has eased the hurt and allowed us to remember so many of the good times we shared over her 12 years we had together (from when she was eight weeks old).

    It is a privilege to be able to love as we did and receive so much more from her as we gave her.

    Thank you so much for your insight and understanding.

    Gail T.

  • Jill MacGregor

    As I sit here with my 15 year old cat, I really hesitated to read this post.

    I become a surprising tender heart when it comes to the animals. Especially with my best loved cat.

    Thanks for sharing your story, Alex.

  • Tara

    I have not yet had to personally decide on euthanasia for anyone, animal or otherwise, but I know without a doubt it will be a wrenching decision. My first pet dog died 3 years ago suddenly of a stroke, so it was not my decision, but it was the most painful loss of my life so far at the age of 44. He and I were bonded so closely, it felt like I could not go on without him, and it took many months before I could think of him without tearing up. I am grateful to have had him in my life, and because of the bond I shared with him, I immediately opened my heart and home up to two more dogs. When he entered my life, he filled a place in my heart that I didn’t even know was empty. Animals are so precious and give us so much, asking so little in return. Thank you for your beautiful posts.

  • Ali

    Dear Alex,

    I was taking my 16-year-old dog to the vet this morning, profoundly uncertain of outcome. The vet, who is by no means reticent about euthanasia, walked us through thoughts about symptoms and vital signs. For today, we got a reprieve. The balance of well-being and joy are still tipped in my guy’s favor, so home we came, determined to make the most of each day or hour that we have. But wow. It is so hard to articulate the depth of the emotion that shot through every aspect of the day. Thank you for sharing your own story of love and loss and thoughts about the dual-edged blade of attachment. I would not trade the certainty of the love I feel for my pet for anything, but I recognize that one day that note will come due.

    Ali: You’ve got the right idea. It’s so hard to put out of your mind that “note coming due,” but enjoy every moment you can.

    Alex

  • Laurie

    Hi, I came across this entry today via an article in the New York Times. When I met my soulmate (er, human that is), I was also lucky enough to acquire three wonderful stepcats…having never lived with pets before, I had absolutely no idea just how wonderful and intense these relationships can be. One adopted me as his particular special person and we had eleven wonderful years together; not a day passes that I don’t miss him and we had to say goodbye almost three years ago (our vet came to our home, truly the only way!). As we were driving out of the city to our place in the country that painful afternoon, there was a rainstorm…and then the most amazing rainbow I have ever seen. I like to think that he was sending me a message that he was, in fact, at the rainbow bridge waiting for me.

    I hope that you and your wife find comfort in other four-pawed family members in the future. No one can replace Minnie, nor our three almost-perfect felines…but we now have two other shelter refugees with charms all their own (though the little feral kitty is Marley in seven-pound feline form and takes disgraceful advantage of the fact that I adore her!).

  • Steven P

    I have owned dogs since I was 11. I am 57 now. Except for my last year in law school and my first year practicing law, I have always owned a dog, often two, and a few times three when it meant rescuing one. I don’t think there is one among them that if I think of their passing cannot bring tears to my eyes. And yet I think mostly of their living and the time we shared at different points of my life. Eleven different dogs, some mixed, some pure AKC registered pure breeds and each of them with a different personality and a joy to share my life with (including the two I have right now, one of them hard up against me on the bed as I type this entry).

    So while the worst thing about dog ownership is that their lives almost always end before ours, there is the wonder and the joy of raising them from puppies and they truly know that you love them and care for them their whole life. And if there is any benefit to be found in their lives being so short, it’s this: their nature teaches us how to value greatly the time we have with them and by having to deal with their death we come to learn how to deal with death, for surely we will have to deal with that issue when it comes to other loved ones who walk on just two legs.

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