The word euthanasia comes from the Greek word εὐθανασία, which means ‘good death’, and its purpose is to end pain and suffering. Most pet owners hope a sick or old cat will pass away peacefully in his or her sleep. Unfortunately, this does not happen very often, which means we are faced with having to make the heartbreaking decision to euthanise a cat.
Euthanasia is performed due to a terminal illness or when the cat’s quality of life is affected by debilitating pain which can no longer be medically managed. Unless the disease is acute, or a trauma has occurred, it is often possible to extend the cat’s life with medical intervention, but at some point, this will no longer be effective.
During the medical management of disease, pet owners and veterinarians must work closely together to treat the condition to alleviate symptoms and monitor the cat’s progress.
When is the right time to euthanise a cat?
Your veterinarian can guide you when the cat’s quality of life and suffering are at a point where it is kinder to say goodbye, but ultimately it must be your choice. When we bring an animal into our lives, it is with the understanding we will have to make a difficult and painful decision to end the cat’s life when his or her suffering is too much. This goes against our instinct to protect and fight for those we love but we do so because it is in the best interests of the cat, even though we desperately want more time.
The window where the cat transitions from some quality of life to almost none is hazy and finding that exact right time is difficult to pinpoint. When all that is left is pain and discomfort, the cat is not leading any quality of life whatsoever. Medicine is wonderful, but it can go so far. No matter how much we love our pets, we owe them a dignified end.
In hindsight, we kept our first cat Eliot alive longer than we should have because we were clinging to the hope she would improve. After her death, we made a promise that we would never do it again and have followed through with that with all the cats who followed Eliot. One week too early is better than a day too late.
Questions to ask yourself
- Am I keeping the cat alive for the cat or me?
- Is it possible to manage the condition and relieve suffering or have all options been tried?
- Does your cat still enjoy his or her favourite things such as chasing flies, lazing in the sun, greeting you at the door?
- Can the cat move around reasonably well? Walk to the food or water bowl, use the litter tray?
- Is the cat still eating and drinking?
- Do you want to keep the cat alive because they are still enjoying life or because you can’t bear the thought of them not being around anymore?
- What will the cat miss if he or she is not here tomorrow?
- Is the cat having more bad days than good?
Signs a cat is dying
Most chronic diseases become progressively worse, and dying is a process that can take weeks or months. Signs the cat is nearing the end of life can include the following:
- Loss of appetite
- Extreme weakness
- Low body temperature
- Unkempt appearance
- Decreased urination and bowel movements
- Urinary or fecal incontinence
- Difficulty breathing
- Restlessness, unable to get comfortable, difficulty sleeping
Veterinarian Dr Alice Villalobos created the HHHHHMM Quality of Life Scale, which stands for:
- More (good days than bad)
Each of the above is graded from 0-10, with ten being ideal. A total of 35 or more represents an acceptable quality of life.
Scheduling a euthanasia
Before you schedule the appointment, decide if you would like the cat to be euthanised at home or at the veterinary practice. If you are taking the cat to the veterinarian, schedule a late day appointment when it will be quieter.
The choice of who to have there is a personal one. My daughter has always wanted to be present at the end; my son chooses not to. Have this discussion with family and don’t force it on a child who doesn’t want to be there.
If possible, stay with your cat during the euthanasia for comfort. If you feel you can’t be there, or your distress will stress the cat out more, then don’t be there. Don’t be afraid to cry in front of the veterinarian; they understand how difficult this is for you.
How much does euthanasia cost?
The average cost for cat euthanasia is $60-80. Home euthanasias will cost a little more.
What happens when a cat is euthanised?
The veterinarian administers an overdose of an anesthetic agent into the vein in the front leg which renders the cat unconscious within seconds. The only pain the cat experiences is when the needle is inserted.
There may be some muscle twitches, and the cat may go to the toilet after he or she has passed.
What happens after euthanasia?
It is up to you if you bury the cat at home or choose to have a cremation. The ashes will be returned to you if that is what you wish.
Feelings of guilt after euthanising a pet
Aside from the sheer grief of losing a pet, many pet owners also deal with feelings of guilt.
- Did I let my cat down?
- Could I have done more?
- Did I wait too long or not long enough?
- It was not my right to end my cat’s life
- I am glad it is finally over
These are all normal reactions, euthanising a beloved pet goes against our very belief that we must do everything we can to help our pets. But we must remember that deciding to euthanise a cat with a terminal disease or unbearable pain is the kindest thing we can do for our pets to relieve their suffering.
If grief or feelings of guilt are interfering with your day-to-day life, seek professional help. Your doctor can refer you to a grief counsellor. Don’t let people dismiss your feelings or tell you ‘it’s just a cat’. Losing a pet can be just as devastating as losing a human member of the family.