Natural Death for Cats: Letting Go

July 11th, 2010
Rocky in his younger years

Rocky in his younger years

About 4 years ago, my cat Rocky was euthanized after about 2 years and $20K worth of veterinary visits, hospital stays, expensive tests, injections, pills, liquids, special food, vitamins, and subcutaneous fluids. I didn’t realize at the time that it would add up to so much effort and money just to have the same end result. Every new treatment came with the promise of “fixing” him. It always seemed as though if we could just get past this one thing, he’d be back to normal. Whatever “normal” had become.

In retrospect, I realize that every new treatment brought with it a new set of side effects and problems and none got to the heart of the problem. And every new test seemed to come back with a similar inconclusive result: “It could be [some innocuous problem] or it could be cancer. We’ll try some Clavamox.” It was so predictable that it became a running joke in my household.

After Rocky died, I changed my whole approach to veterinary care for my remaining 2 cats and dog, all of whom by this time were fairly elderly for their species. I have followed 3 new rules fairly religiously:

  1. If he isn’t bleeding or in pain, he doesn’t go to the vet.
  2. If the treatment offered will not fix the problem, but will only mask some symptoms for a while, I won’t do it.
  3. If the expensive test offered only has the potential to find a problem that can’t reasonably be cured, I won’t bother getting the test.
Gregory 2008

Gregory at 14+ years old

About 2 years ago, my beloved cat Gregory started losing weight. He had always been 11-12 pounds (and not overweight) and now he was down to 9. Then closer to 8. After a couple of vet visits I was already starting to see the familiar pattern at the vet’s office emerge. “It might be diabetes, cancer, or maybe just an infection. We could run some tests…..” I had the basic blood tests done, to make sure there was no immediate danger. There wasn’t. The vets, as usual, could not tell me why he was losing weight. They offered various tests that each cost between $300 and $500. All the same tests I’d had done on Rocky that always produced inconclusive results.

By this time, Gregory was at least 14 years old (true age unknown but I took him in as an adult cat in 1995). I accepted that he was a very old cat and would die one day soon, as we all do. I reminded myself of my 3 rules, and resolved to buy him the best food, and give him absolutely the best life I could give him for the time he had left. As it turns out, that time lasted until July 8, 2010 at 4:12pm. Last Thursday.

His quality of life was very high up until maybe a month before. He became quite thin and his back legs were getting wobbly and weak. He suddenly began drooling when he drank water and rather gross-looking saliva was pouring into his water bowl. At that point, I brought him to the vet, thinking he might have an infection in his mouth that could be “fixed” so that he could continue on a little longer. The vets found nothing conclusive, but gave him Clavamox anyway thinking he might have a gum or tooth infection. His teeth really needed to be cleaned but he was too weak to be anesthetized for the cleaning. Gregory continued on with his happy life even with the drooling and the muscle weakness.

Gregory toward the end

Gregory in his last few months

Last Thursday, at the age of (at least) 16, he quite suddenly took a dramatic turn for the worse. He was so weak he couldn’t walk without falling over. He drank and ate a little bit, but mostly could only lay on his bed. I assumed (hoped) that this was the day he would let go, since his quality of life was seemingly gone. I spent the day with him, scratching his chin and listening to him purr. I helped him get to the litterbox or readjust his position when he struggled to get up. I fought the urge to take him to the vet, determined not to make him spend his last day on Earth in an uncomfortable and unfamiliar place with strangers. After a long day of waiting, Gregory began to get a bit fitful, pushing his paws against some force that I couldn’t see – this lasted for several minutes. Then he calmed down, took several very deep breaths, and then died.

Just like with Rocky, Gregory lived about 2 years after his health began to decline. But unlike Rocky, he wasn’t burdened with hospital stays, poking and prodding, and side effects. Vet care for his final 2 years was under $1000. I would have happily paid $20K if it would have fixed him, but I don’t believe it would have. You can’t fix mortality.

Do I have any regrets? Yes, I do have one. I wish I had gotten Gregory’s teeth cleaned again while he was still well enough to handle it. I worry that his tooth and gum issues hastened his decline and made his life a little less enjoyable. That is the only one though. Gregory was just about the luckiest cat in the world. Spoiled, happy, and truly loved by many many people.

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16 Responses to “Natural Death for Cats: Letting Go”

  1. Aunt Kathie Says:

    Beautiful! He was a lucky cat and you are a wise caretaker. We are too quick to try and solve the problems of humans and animals with one more pill, one more whatever… I’m glad Gregory had such a sweet death – on his own terms – wrapped in love.

    I Love You,
    Aunt Kathie

  2. Jenny Says:

    I am so happy I stumbled up on this. I have 3 older cats, 2 of which are elderly. I too have had the same philosophy on vet visits as it seems to just stress them out. All of my cats are indoor cats so I really don’t see a need to get them shots any longer. Like you I wish I would have had my eldest’s teeth cleaned again but he seems quite happy eating pate cat food.

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  4. Marisel Says:

    I just found your site, but this post really got to me. I adore cats and well, cat stories make me really teary eyed, especially sad ones. I’m sorry for your loss. I’m sure even now he creeps into your thoughts. Our family cat died a few years ago at the age of 15. I grew up with him. But he had all sort of problems and he was in pain. After doing all we could, my mom took him to the vet to be put to sleep. And she said that as he got the injection, he pawed his arm in the air. I think it means something like they are going towards the light. Maybe they know where they are headed. It really is difficult finding the strength and heart to let another cat in, but sometimes it is the presence of a new cat that helps with the loss and gives us renewed hope. Anyway, sorry for the long words…

  5. Tracy Says:

    I just spent 10K in 2 weeks trying to save my 19 year old cat – everything they did for her made something else worse and lead to a whole other host of problems. I wish I would have never admitted her to the hospital and treated her as an outpatient instead. At least I’d have some control over what was happening to her and she would not have spent the last full week of her life in a strange place (although I camped out there for 12 hours daily and sat with her in between treatments.)

    She was home for 4 days and I promised her she wouldn’t go back in there again. On her last day she had a seizure of some sort and I knew it was over. I cradled her while she was dying and only brought her back to the hospital when I realized it wouldn’t be quick and to help her pass. She meant the world to me and I am forever heartbroken.

  6. vegangirl Says:

    I’m so sorry about your kitty, Tracy. When my Rocky died I really hoped he would go peacefully in his own time. But he kept hanging on and at a certain point was clearly very uncomfortable. It’s so easy to focus on the last moments or days of their lives but I bet your cat had many wonderful years with you. And it sure sounds like you did everything you could to make her last days as happy as possible.

  7. mac Says:

    I’m glad I found this website. My kitty, Honeybunch, is 17 years old and is dying. I expect it will happen today or tomorrow. She can no long walk on her own. I have researched a lot about geriatric cats and the symptoms of death. It seems hearing is the last of the senses to go. So I’ve been talking to her and petting her a lot. I have told her it is o.k. to leave us. She has never been a sick cat and never cost me a lot of vet bills. She started going downhill this year and stopped eating several days ago. I don’t think she is in pain; just waiting for the end.

  8. vegangirl Says:

    Honeybunch is a lucky girl to have lived such a long life with you, filled with love.

  9. Sarah Says:

    I am quite grateful to have found this website. I have an almost 18 year old cat, Louie, who has always been the sweetest kitty one could hope for. I found him as a teeny stray, laying on the cold winter snow in New York.

    Anyway, for the past 5 days, he hasn’t wanted to eat anything. He was attempting a bit of water, but didn’t seem comfortable and didn’t drink much at all. He does not appear to be in any pain and has always been scared of the car and vets office. I had decided that as long as he did not seem to be in pain, I would just let him go in a natural way. Well, it’s been a good 5 days now that he has been experiencing the signs of imminent death, but my sweet boy is still hanging in there, barely.

    I think he will pass either tonight or tomorrow….he’s been hiding in a spot that he hasn’t moved from for hours. It seems as though all his life force has been leaving him these past days and is finally just about gone. It’s so strange to have watched him all these days, knowing he was going to die. I guess the only sense of peace in this is that he seems to be leaving us due to his age, rather than some terrible illness (I’ve had the terrible illness experience with 3 prior cats). I’ve taken comfort in reading the stories of other loving pet owners who believe in letting their cats “be” when it seems the time, and no pain is involved. Bless you all, and bless your beloved pet family members.

  10. Bob Says:

    I am sitting on my bathroom floor with my 15 year old
    Cat in his final moments. I have the same
    Philosophy. Took him to the vet last year they wanted to test away, masses cancer surgeries. I took him home and showed him twice as much love and attention and we had a beautiful healthy year together. It’s his time to go.

  11. Melissa Says:

    My sweet little cat is passing as I write this response. I was finding it difficult not to take her to the vet. I believe she is not in terrible pain and want her to feel safe and loved and feel the peace that surrounds this home we have created together. And so she is at my feet and I watch her breathing become more and more shallow. The dog has been on the bed with us these past few days too; just quiet and sleeping. I love her so much and tell her that.

    What I’m experiencing is something quite sacred. I had no idea it would be like this but I feel like I’m witnessing something and supporting something that is profound and mystical. I am very blessed that she is not in acute pain and we are able to have a natural home death.

    On behalf of myself and my little cat thank you for reconfirming my commitment to an at home death.

  12. Barbara Says:

    Just lost my precious 18 yr old kitty yesterday. She had stopped eating and was not acting right early last week.I suspected that she was ready to pass but went ahead and took her in for a check up just in case. She had lost quite a bit of weight and was running a temp and was dehydrated. Left her there a couple of days for treatment of kidney infection in hopes that she would make a complete recovery. The blood work showed that her kidneys were functioning well. The day I picked her up I was excited to see that she was a little more alert and got my hopes up that she would pull through even though the Vet suggested xrays to check for cancer and possibly even more bloodwork to be sent off to check for hyperthyroidism since she was refusing to eat that morning. I chose to take her home and see if I could help her along at home. Unfortunately it continued to get worse over the weekend. I have no regrets, she lived a long happy life in our home. I only wish it would not have been so hard for her to pass. It seems like it took so long and she seemed in pain. I’d planned to take her first thing Monday morning if it hadn’t happened Sunday. We buried her in our backyard under her favorite tree.

  13. Arnie Says:

    This has just happened to me, the Vet said feline aids but he was never ill, lost a lot of weight 2 years a go and a slow decline. Sick 3 times in the last few weeks, 2 bad teeth but I did have a sore throat, slowen glads and wondere if my cat had caught it from me. 17 year old.

  14. Arnie Says:

    This has just happened to me, the Vet said feline aids but he was never ill, lost a lot of weight 2 years a go and a slow decline. Sick 3 times in the last few weeks, 2 bad teeth but I did have a sore throat, slowen glads and wondere if my cat had caught it from me. The 17 year old twin sister is fine, running around like a 3 year old but her teath are perfect…

  15. Amie Says:

    I’m grateful to find this site. My 17 year old tiny brave kitty is close to passing on and I needed comfort because I want her to be able to die with dignity at home, surrounded by her human and animal family and was having some insecurity about my decision.

    I’ve been moved to tears reading the sweet stories kind people posted here. I’m so sorry for the loss of your loved kitties and feel heartened by the stories of kindred souls.

    My little gal was only 5 weeks old and all alone in a humane society cage when I brought her home 17 years ago. Never weighing more than 8 pounds, she was the bravest cat I have ever seen. She was always the one to break up fights among the other cats (and dogs) in the house many times her size and ruled over the household as the matriarch. We did a lot of rescue fostering and at one point she backed down a 100 lb rottweiler foster dog that had taken after one of our male cats. It was quite a sight to see.

    Her name is Shahala. She’s under 4 lbs now and showing confusion and having difficulty moving around. She’s had multiple tests and there isn’t anything the vets can do – she’s just at the end of her long life. She has always been so tough, brave and dignified. I think she wants to go here where she has lived most of her life surrounded by those she loves and has cared for all these years.

    Thanks for sharing your experiences and letting me share mine. This is so sad for me but reading your comments has helped me. Take care.

  16. Kerry Says:

    My little Layla is actively dying as I write this. I have been so fortunate to have shared 17 years with her. She does not seem to be in any pain–though cats can be so stoic. I feel fortunate to have happened upon your site. You have affirmed my decision to let her die at home surrounded by love and family. So much pain is washing through me, and the tears are endless–I thank you all for sharing your heartfelt stories, they are comforting. My little spirited Layla will always be a part of me, and she has certainly touched many lives. Thank you again. Layla will soon be joining her long lost love Baloo in kitty heaven–I keep telling her that he’s waiting for her and that although we’ll miss her dearly, we want her to let go and pass peacefully.

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