Feline Old Age Through to Bereavement - Knowing When to Let Go

by Sarah Hartwell
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Unfortunately, there may come a time when the kindest and most caring thing you can do for him is provide a gentle exit from the increasing ravages of age. Ultimately it is not fair to prolong his life any longer. Degenerative changes are too far gone, a terminal illness has reached its distressing final stages or his behavior and habits are now unmanageable.

Ideally you would like him to die peacefully in his sleep, and he may well do this. You may be familiar with the idea that injured, sick or very old cats 'go off to die', but unaware that they die from dehydration, starvation or self-neglect because they are unable or unwilling to drink, eat or even seek attention. If he goes missing and never returns, you will never know whether his end was painless or protracted. Disappearance or sudden death causes much anguish because you had no time to prepare and no time to say goodbye in the way that you wanted. As your cat grows older, you have an opportunity to come to terms with the inevitable, but when the end comes it will always be "too soon".

With recent advancements in cat care and medical knowledge, your cat can enjoy reasonable health into old age. Many old cats die peacefully, but some reach a point when life is no longer enjoyable and the owner must decide if euthanasia is kinder in order to prevent further suffering. Euthanasia is an act of love towards a cat no longer able to enjoy life. "Euthanasia" literally means 'gentle death'. Other terms you may hear are 'put to sleep', 'put down', 'put out of its misery' or, less kindly, 'destroy'. Veterinary staff may use the term 'humane destruction' which is another technical term for euthanasia. It is a caring act, not a callous act therefore it is not "murder".

The decision to end a life is never easy. It causes much soul-searching and it takes courage to assume this last responsibility to a much loved pet. In most countries there is also no easy human comparison although many would like to see the same compassionate act made available for suffering humans. The cat/owner bond is very special so it is easy to become emotionally caught up in keeping your cat alive when your own common sense tells you the end is approaching. A good vet helps you to decide when it is time to let go, but only you can make the decision.

Put yourself in your cat's paws and consider things from the its viewpoint:

  • Is his quality of life now reduced so much that he is no longer happy?
  • Is he so old and frail that life is a burden to it, not a joy?
  • Is he distressed and there is no way of relieving its distress?
  • Is he suffering incurable pain or discomfort which cannot be alleviated by drugs?
  • Has he been severely injured with no hope of recovery?
  • Does he have an progressive or age-related condition which can no longer be alleviated or managed?
  • Has he reached the final stages of a terminal illness?
  • Have degenerative change made him behaviorally unsafe to himself and/or his owners?

The bottom line is: Is this any life for my much loved pet, or is it merely an existence?

Cats live for the here and now. What matters to a cat is the current quality of life not its life expectancy - cats have little concept of future time. An illness may be temporarily treatable, but ultimately reaches a point when the cat no longer enjoys life. He is visibly distressed, withdrawn or incontinent. Having seen him when he is happy and healthy, you will recognize when he is miserable. A caring owner understands their final duty towards their cat is to prevent further suffering by procuring a swift, painless release from life. Sometimes, a terminally ill or injured cat is given life-prolonging treatment because the owner cannot yet come to terms with its condition. It is hard to come to terms with mortality in general.

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