There are more than 75 million housecats in the United States. Each year, over 4.7 million of them age, go into decline and die. Each and every day, more than 12,800 people make a difficult decision: to prolong the cat's life, to terminate it or do nothing.
Cats do not live forever.
Sooner or later, they show signs of "winding down." They exercise less, they stop grooming except maybe around the mouth after meals, and they sleep more often and more deeply. Older cats eat less and may even stop eating altogether. One day it becomes apparent that the cat is declining.
The decline may be gradual and then suddenly accelerate. If your cat refuses to eat for two or three days, irreversible and irreparable organ damage begins. It is imperative that you recognize the warning signs and take action.
Once damage occurs, you must make the difficult decision: should you "play God" and put the cat down (euthanasia) or should you play nurse and make the declining cat comfortable during his or her final days? Deciding on what to do for your aging cat is a difficult decision. And it is your decision; the cat has not signed a living will with health-care instructions. You want to make sure you are not misreading the signs of impending death and condemning a cat that could live months or years longer.
Cricket was 18-1/2 when he experienced a pain in one knee. He would stand and freeze because walking was painful. I wondered if he thought I was restraining or punishing him for something. My heart went out to him.
X-rays at the vet's revealed some bone degeneration. One bone was wearing while the adjoining bone had a buildup. To make matters worse, I was about to leave to run a huge conference. We expected 1200 parachute people from 35 countries. A decision had to be made. I could not carry my cat to his food to eat and to the garden for elimination -- I was going out of town.
I called my friend Patricia Bragg, N.D., Ph.D., at Health Science. She is the nutritionist to many celebrities and her father started the health food movement years ago. She prescribed cod liver oil. She explained that the oil "lubricates the joints."
I bought some capsules, made a hole in one and squirted the contents onto some kitty treats. Cricket loved them. Thereafter, I made sure he received his dose of cod liver oil at least once a week.
Cricket lived another 26 months before some of his organs failed. Patricia and cod liver oil added more than 10 percent to his life. And yes, cod liver oil works for people too.
-- Dan Poynter, Santa Barbara.
Often a change in diet or lifestyle will jumpstart your declining cat to the road back to health. Listen to your vet, your nutritionist and your cat.
"Never, never, never, never give up." This statement, first made by Sir Winston Churchill as the British troops were going into battle during World War II, is as relevant today as it was then. We can use this strategy in any area of our lives.
Recently, my wife Georgia and I had occasion to put this to the test. Our family cat (and friend) Ming had a major kidney disorder. When we brought him to the vet, we were not sure if the little guy would make it. I cannot express in words the emotional impact this had on us. Suffice it to say we were devastated at the thought of losing him. Driving home, we decided that we would not give up until Ming did.
We employed every strategy and technique we knew. In addition to what the wonderful people at the Veterinary Hospital, especially Dr. Tom Schenck, were doing to help our beloved pet, we prayed, called prayer groups and found ourselves turning to faith and developing a belief that all would be well. While we agreed that the outcome was out of our hands, we vowed not to lose faith that Ming could, in fact, survive this. I remember at one point saying to Georgia, "We're not giving up until he does."
We will never know exactly what happened but the next day Ming had improved considerably and was up, walking around the cage in the veterinary center. I believe that, in addition to what was being done medically, our unwavering belief in his ability to recover, along with the faith of the people at Edgebrook and all of the prayers being said, made the difference.
Today, several weeks later, Ming, while still not fully recovered, is back to normal. This experience has reinforced in me the belief that one should never, never give up. Whether in health matters (animals or people), business, or any area of life, it is our duty to do everything we can to affect a situation and, as Sir Winston said, "Never, never, never, never give up." Ming lived two more years.
-- Jim Donovan, Doylestown, Pennsylvania.
What does a cat sense?
You know that your cat has better senses of smell and hearing than you, and many people feel they have an ability to sense danger. A cat can tell if a dog poses a threat, for example. Now you must ask yourself: If you take your cat to the vet to put her to sleep, will your trusting cat feel betrayed? Will she think it is just another unpleasant, routine vet visit? Or, will she feel it is time to go and thank you for helping?
Cats do not think that they are little people. They think that we are big cats. This influences their behavior in many ways. When we provide food, they admire us as great hunters.
Reasons people give to put down an aging cat
Your cat has a terminal disease such as kidney, liver or thyroid failure. When organs fail, your cat will degenerate from toxicity and the poisoned body will die.
Your cat has a terminal injury such as when your cat has been mauled by another animal or hit by a car. When everything that can be done has been done and even the most sophisticated surgical operation will not help the cat recover or its quality of life will be seriously compromised.
How we behave toward cats here below determines our status in heaven.
-- Robert A. Heinlein, (1907-1988) one of the most literary and sophisticated of science-fiction writers.
Your cat is suffering with pain that cannot be cured or alleviated by drugs (See chapter four). Many people feel that you have a responsibility as a cat guardian to care for your cat. If your cat is in pain, they say you should do what you can to relieve or end that pain. Causing or allowing pain is cruel. Unlike a human being, you can't explain the situation and choices to your cat.
Only the living, continue to feel the pain.
You know your cat better than anyone else. Other people will rarely notice changes in eating and other behavior. If your cat cries out to you (yowls), he or she could be in pain.
Your cat has become vicious, dangerous or unmanageable. As cats mature, some become irritable -- sometimes due to arthritic pain. If the cat becomes a danger to children, the behavior has to be changed or the cat has to be separated from the children (re-homed).
Your cat has special needs -- such as diabetes (it affects one cat in 400) requiring daily treatment. Or getting weaker -- and weak to the point where your cat can no longer walk so that you have to carry her to the litter box or garden).
Your cat has a treatable but recurring disorders such as hairballs, urinary tract infections, ear infections, fleas, ticks, allergies, digestive challenges, irritable bowel syndrome, or arthritis.
Your cat has an age-related condition that cannot be alleviated such as advanced senility, or urinary incontinence (uncontrolled urination).
Quality of life. Cats age just as people do. They slow down and may become sick or injured. Your cat is to the point where she is just existing but not acting like a cat. The quality of life has degenerated.
Change. The cat is not the kitten you adopted years ago; animals grow up and change. Some people get tired of their cat.
Economic. Some people just cannot afford the upkeep and occasional vet bills. People who are financially challenged are quicker to make the decision to destroy. See The Lifetime Costs of a Cat in chapter nine).
Convenience such as when the guardian moves to an apartment or senior facility where cats are not permitted).
Condition of will. Some people place instructions in their will that the pet be destroyed when the guardian dies. Of course, others set aside funds to make sure the pet is taken care of.
The throwaway cat. We live in a quick-to-dispose society. When something is no longer new and useful, we often discard it. Many animal shelter workers have stories of people in the U.S. and the UK trying to trade in an older cat for a kitten.
Economics and convenience are not sufficient reason to terminate your cat. The cat has not done anything to deserve this punishment. Good vets are reluctant to destroy a cat for convenience or economic reasons.
They will not put a perfectly healthy cat to sleep for the convenience of the guardian.
A cat is a 15-year-plus commitment. In return for the joy they bring, they cost time and money. People without the resources for upkeep are morally obligated not to take on the responsibility of a cat.
Abandonment. Cats are often dropped off at barns where they presumably will find mice to sustain them. Discarded cats often starve, die of disease, become "lunch" for a predator, are killed by cars or wind up as someone else's cat problem.
The more people I meet, the more I like my cats.
-- Leo Grillo, D.E.L.T.A. Rescue , Acton, California
Most housecats, though resourceful, cannot fend for themselves. Some are good hunters but others have had that instinct dulled by domestication and selective breeding. Forced to fend for themselves, abandoned cats may scavenge and eat things that will injure them. After a couple of days without food, some organs begin to fail.
For more than a year after I moved into my home, a male orange tabby did a lot of damage trying to get in under the house and through window screens. I thought he was a feral cat, but I heard rumors he was abandoned by the previous owner of the house (who was unmistakably irresponsible in many ways). The cat, unable to get into his own home, managed to survive two severe northern winters by scavenging for food and finding shelter in garages and under porches.
Over several weeks, I left food and water for him on the deck and he ate ravenously. When I tried to touch him he cried in terror with a sound I'd never heard from a cat. Eventually he came into the house and spent up to 8 hours at a time just sleeping. It was obvious this had been his home.
I already had two cats and really couldn't afford a third, nor was I willing to risk whatever disease, like feline leukemia, he could bring to my healthy cats. But he looked underweight and undernourished and I couldn't bear to let him deteriorate.
I scooped him up, took him to the nearest vet and discovered he was full of parasites and very near death. Our veterinarian is certain this cat was terribly abused. I brought him home and isolated him for 2 weeks.
The very next day my neighbor appeared at my door asking if I had her cat. She couldn't describe his markings and even volunteered she thought he was dead. I said it couldn't be her cat if she couldn't describe it, and being a nurse as she was in the healing professions, she couldn't possibly have allowed a living creature to become so desperately ill.
An hour later the police were at my door; she'd accused me of stealing her cat. When the policewoman saw the condition of the cat and the two-page vet bill, she just rolled her eyes and left.
A year later Jasper is a healthy affectionate cat, purrs as loud as a lawn mower, but still flinches in fear of any quick movement.
-- Andrea Reynolds, Lake City, Pennsylvania
Your belief system. Some people believe that life is sacred and do not wish to take a life -- any life. They treat animal life as they do human life and let the cat die a natural death. Others believe that animal life has little value, so when the cat becomes inconvenient, they eliminate the inconvenience.
Many people fall somewhere in between but rank human life above animal life. For example:
And God said, Let us make man in our image, after our likeness: and let them have dominion over the fish of the sea, and over the fowl of the air, and over the cattle, and over all the earth, and over every creeping thing that creepeth upon the earth.
-- Genesis 1:26.
The Book of Genesis says that God gave man stewardship over the animals. With that privilege came the responsibility of caring for the animals properly. God may be trusting you to make the correct decision.
While you have the power of life and death over your pets, you also have the authority to decide the type of death. A quick and humane end may be preferable to both your household and the cat than a lingering, suffering end.
By medicine life may be prolonged, yet death will seize the doctor too. -- William Shakespeare (1554-1616) English poet, dramatist and actor
Drawing the line. Having the power of life and death is a great responsibility. How far do you want to go? Where do you want to draw the line?
Destroy the cat at the first sign of decline.
Withhold medical treatment
Relieve pain but let Nature take her course.
Hydration, medication, force feeding.
Life support such as intravenous feeding for nutrition and hydration. Utilize every means to keep the cat alive as long as possible regardless of the cat's ability to function or the expense.
The decision. So you have a big decision to make: Do you plan to play God by taking your cat to Doctor Katvorkian? Or, will you play Florence Nightingale and make your cat comfortable during his or her final days? You must estimate and weigh the cat's chances for recovery, potential disabilities and long-term medical challenges.
These next few chapters will tell you what to expect whatever your choice.
The Cat's Prayer
Although I am too proud to beg, and may appear to be a very independent creature, I ask for your loving care and attention. I rely on you for my well being much more than you may realize.
This I promise you, my benefactor, that I will not be a burden on you nor will I demand more of you than you care to give.
I will be a quiet peaceful island of serenity for you to gaze upon; a soft soothing body to caress, and I shall purr with pleasure to rest your weary ears.
Since I am a gourmet who appreciates different taste sensations, I pray you will give me a variety of nutritious foods and fresh water daily.
You know dear friend, how I love to go. Allow me, I pray, a warm sheltered place where I can rest peacefully and feel secure.
If I am wounded in battle or suffering from disease, please tend me gently, and see that loving and competent hands treat me.
Please protect me from the inhuman humans who would hurt and torture me for their own amusement. I am accustomed to your gentle touch and am neither always suspicious nor swift enough to avoid such malicious acts.
In my later years when my senses fail me and my infirmities become too great to bear, allow me the comfort and dignity that I desire for my closing days and help me gently in my pain or passing.
Hear this prayer, my dear friend, my fate depends on you.
Copyright © 2003 by Dan Poynter