Tuesday, March 31, 2009

Permission to Think About the Unthinkable

I took the cat to the vet today. I took her about a month ago because the vomiting and loose stools seemed to be getting out of control. At that point she was sneezing a bunch, but the vet didn't seem to make much of that. Since then, her sneezing has seemed to turn into some sort of upper respiratory infection, she sneezes all the time, she's lost a tooth, her mouth is irritated, and now suddenly there's a whole bunch of mucus coming out of her mouth and nose. Plus she's not eating (probably because of the mouth irritations) and she lost a pound in a month. The vet says she has a heart murmur.

It's hard to know what this all really means without a lot of expensive testing. But I don't really want to spend a lot of money prolonging the life of a cat that's really lived a good, long, mostly happy life and whose life is really not very high quality any more. I told the vet that I really just want to make sure she's comfortable. At that point he gave me the option of putting her down. (And, of course, waterworks that I am, I started crying.) So anyway, we decided today to give her shot of antibiotic for whatever infection she my have, give her intravenous rehydration, and switch her diet to wet food to see if she'll eat and gain any weight back.

So now, after the vet opened up the discussion of putting her down, I feel like I have permission to think about it and really examine the cat's quality of life and comfort to evaluate when is the right time. The thought of it makes me feel horribly sad, guilty, and, at the same time, a bit relieved.

There's a lot to think about, including how to discuss this with the kids. Steve thinks that we shouldn't let them know that we're ever choosing to end the cat's life, in case they think we might do that to them. Perhaps we might tell them that we're bringing the cat to a place where they care for very old animals until they die. (Kind of a stretch of the truth -- a very long stretch.) It's not that we want to completely avoid the topic of death, just anything that might scare them into thinking they might die in their sleep or that we might choose to get rid of them. Has anyone had experience with explaining such things to their kids?

I have to say, writing this down just now has felt very therapeutic. I hope there's no one reading this that takes offense at how I am caring for my cat. I really just want to do the most humane thing. She has been a dear friend to me for almost 17 years.


ooolia said...

When Cappie, bless his heart, passed away someone recommended _The Tenth Good Thing About Barney_ by Judith Viorst. We didn't use it with T, but I still have it for when the inevitable will come. I found it to be a good book that is honest about the death of a pet.

I'm sure that Nikita knows that you're doing what is best for her, and that's one of the most important things. She's been a good friend. She's also been very well loved.

Ann in NJ said...

I recommended that book, I'm glad you still like it.

I think you have to be honest with the kids. Lying to them, even with the best of intentions, is not a good idea. Death is a natural part of life, even if you are choosing to help it along in this case.

When we had Jenny put to sleep a year ago December, I went through the same things that you did. She was 16, and had stopped eating, and was having trouble breathing. The x-rays showed a mass by her lungs, and her kidneys were asymmetric. Both of those conditions COULD have been treated. Maybe. But the only way to find out was a lot of tests. The decision really came down to her age. If we were able to pull her through this crisis, we would probably be dealing with another crisis in a year or less. And quality of life really is a consideration - Jenny did not deal well with the stress of being at the vet, and was clearly in pain on a regular basis.

If you choose to "help her along", I think you can let the kids know that without scaring them. Let them know that Nikita is in a lot of pain, and she is sick in a way that can't be cured. Emphasize to them that taking care of animals includes the responsibility of recognizing when they are in pain, and that she has lived a long and happy life.

You can even bring up the differences between animals and humans, and how humans can tell us when something is wrong, and how we have more medicines to help. And how when people are too sick for medicine, we use medicines to make them comfortable and let them die. Remind them that animals don't live as long as humans do, and their bodies wear out.

Expect lots of tears from everybody - we ended up spending an evening crying and telling stories and remembering.

Momo Fali said...

We have always been very honest with our kids about death. Mostly because we have a big family, and it's been unavoidable. We didn't really have a choice when they were attending funerals and all. But, they never fear for their own lives (that I know of) or worry about ours. They know that everything and everyone dies someday. Our dog is almost 11, so this topic has been coming up a lot lately and it will be a horrible, tragic thing for them when our dog dies...but, I think they comprehend death and I'm glad we can talk openly about it if they have questions.

Jill in MA said...

Thanks for your advice, all of you. I'll have to look for that book. The past few days I was thinking that the cat was doing better, and she might hang with us a while longer. But tonight the congestion is getting worse and you can hear that her breathing is a bit more labored. If the antibiotic shot didn't help that, then I fear that we may be closer to the end. On the plus side, it appears that she wasn't eating because she couldn't chew the hard food. Now that I'm giving her wet food, I think she's finally eating until she's full! I'm dreading deciding if and when she's too uncomfortable to go on living, though.