Help us manage kitty's end-of-life.
May 12, 2016 1:18 AM   Subscribe

How can we manage our kitty's end-of-life well, and help our 10-year-old daughter cope? (Recs for age-appropriate, non-religious books on separation, loss, sickness, or death welcome.)

It looks like kitty has a tumor on his brain stem. He most likely has a few weeks to a few months left.


What can we use to gauge how much intervention would be best as his health declines? He gets very stressed out by trips to the vet.

I don't want him to be miserable in his last days, but I don't want to euthanize him before it's time. Where is the sweet spot? (We are planning to do home euthanasia if it is financially feasible.)

Aside from comforting him during unpleasant episodes and giving him extra cuddles and treats, is there anything I can do to make this time better for him?

We had a week of travel planned in June for a family reunion (my side of the family). He is very attached to me; I am his person. I feel like leaving him would be a bad idea, but I have no idea what his health will be like at that time. Looking for advice.

Our daughter:

She has a history of being very anxious about and preoccupied with death. How can I help her cope with this? How do I explain his end of life and euthanasia in a way that won't give her nightmares?

(Today I told her that, as she knew, our kitty is very old, and that he has lived a long and full life. I said that people and animals who live long, full lives often feel ready to go at the end, and they let us know. She asked a couple of questions that led to me saying that yes, kitty's time might be coming up, and she seemed okay, but then again, she's been having a lot of trouble at school this week.)

I'm really broken up about this, and while I did okay with our very brief conversation today, I wonder if it would be a good idea to let her super stoic dad explain things. I think seeing me upset will upset her. On the other hand, maybe seeing sadness in this situation would be okay and even good, in a sort of normalizing way?
posted by moira to Pets & Animals (22 answers total) 4 users marked this as a favorite
Best answer: Firstly, I am so very sorry about what is happening to your kitty. This stuff is always VERY hard.

I don't have kids and so can't address specifically how to help your daughter(1), but with respect to the "how do you know it is time?" question, one of our previous vets said something like: when your kitty stops doing kitty things, it is time. In other words, when your cat is no longer interested in or able to do most of the things he always did do (eat, drink, play, purr). And stopping any one of those things on its own might be sufficient. And even when you know it is TIME, it will still be hard. But that doesn't therefore mean that it isn't time.

Give that kitty lots of pets and cuddles in the meantime. And tell him what a good friend he has been to you all.

(1) My intuition would be to let her see how much you love your kitty! Feelings aren't bad/wrong. Least of all love.
posted by Halo in reverse at 1:47 AM on May 12, 2016 [1 favorite]

For your daughter: Goodbye, Mog
posted by mymbleth at 1:53 AM on May 12, 2016 [1 favorite]

The Tenth Good Thing About Barney by Judith Viorst is another classic.

I'm so sorry.
posted by jrobin276 at 2:13 AM on May 12, 2016 [3 favorites]

As someone who had cats who died when I was young:

- take her grief seriously (not a real concern given that you are asking this, but try to make sure other adults do, too)
- you probably want to show her that you are sad too
- there are two kinds of people, the "must grieve alone before I want a new pet" and "must get a new animal immediately". Both are fine and normal methods of dealing with grief. She may or may not match your version, so be prepared for her to want something that might strike you as monstrous. (My sister and I are both "new animal now"; my mother is not.)

Do you have a petsitter your cat likes and trusts while you are away? Cats will often go and hide in order to die, and you really don't want to come back to a note from your petsitter saying they could never find the cat, and having to hunt for a corpse. (Sorry for the bluntness.) You might want to lock the cat up in a room/few rooms for this period; you probably don't want to bring him to a shelter or to a different house.
posted by jeather at 4:51 AM on May 12, 2016 [2 favorites]

Find out if your vet offers hospice services. You may also look for one that does house calls and will come to the house when it is time.
posted by honeybee413 at 5:10 AM on May 12, 2016 [2 favorites]

Best answer: I'm so sorry you are going through this. Do you have a vet you trust to talk to about the timing? I found I had to give up the idea of having a perfect sweet spot. It seems like everyone I have talked to felt in retrospect like they waited too long-- even if they felt like they were rushing things at the time-- and I did too, but I'd had a long talk with the vet who seemed most sympathetic, and set some priorities and tried to stick to them. And, you know, I think that's the best you can do. It seems much more confusing when you are right in the middle of it.

A memorial ceremony of some kind is good for kids, I think.
posted by BibiRose at 5:16 AM on May 12, 2016

As a cat sitter who had to arrange for the euthanasia of a very ill cat when the owner was away and probably in denial, I would ask you not to put someone else in the position of making the decision.

Also, even if you don't want your daughter to be there when it happens, you need to be if you can.
posted by zadcat at 6:35 AM on May 12, 2016 [5 favorites]

Best answer: Some may disagree with how I handled this, but with my first dog and my first cat, I had the same problem each time where they were near the end and I had upcoming travel. In both cases, I waited as long as I could but I did euthanize them before my travel even though they maybe could have held out another week or two or three. I just couldn't in good conscience leave them with a relative stranger in case they went downhill while I was gone, both for their sake and the sake of the person who would be caring for them.

I sometime still have guilt about it; when I'm feeling shitty about myself for other reasons my brain gets mean and I tell myself I'm horrible for making the timing about my convenience. But deep down I know it was the right, compassionate thing to do. Maybe they would have been okay while I was out of town, but if things needed to end without me there I could never have forgiven myself. And dogs and cats, they don't conceptualize life and death the way that we do. They don't know that they maybe could have had another week of life. They just know that they are feeling poorly and, I hope, are relieved when their pain is over. I am very glad that I was with my beloved pets during their last moments, even though the memories are painful to this day and I am crying now thinking about it. I am thankful I could let them go hearing my voice comforting them and telling them I loved them.
posted by misskaz at 6:39 AM on May 12, 2016 [6 favorites]

I'm very sorry.

We went through this in January with our sweet kitty. She had cancerous tumors as well, and I really thought it was going to be difficult to decide when to let her go, because she was still eating. But one morning we woke up, and she couldn't use either set of legs, or use the bathroom on her own, and that was, to me, a sign she had made the decision for us.

I would cancel your trip if you can. I would not leave an ill cat with a sitter if at all humanely possible.
posted by roomthreeseventeen at 6:56 AM on May 12, 2016

Best answer: I'm so sorry. I've been doing a lot of reading about this recently (just from web searches), and what I've read seems to break down into two categories:

1. It's time when there are more bad days than good. These pieces usually point to behavior (eating, affection, using the litterbox normally, playing, etc) as an indicator of quality of life. The danger is that sometimes a decline is to gradual that you might not notice how far it's gone.
2. Better a week too soon than an hour too late. When families wait until they are 100% sure it's necessary, the animal is suffering, which in turn makes everything more traumatic for the family. Also, people who have had pets who have had long illnesses tend to make the decision to euthanize subsequent sick pets earlier, based on their previous experience.
posted by amarynth at 7:17 AM on May 12, 2016 [3 favorites]

Cat Heaven by Cynthia Rylant is really wonderful. I do think letting her see you cry is a good thing -- I say that having been through three cat deaths over the 13 years that my kid has been alive.
posted by BlahLaLa at 7:31 AM on May 12, 2016 [1 favorite]

I'm sorry I can't offer you any advice about end-of-life care, my cat was fine at dinner time and two hours later died very suddenly. A book that helped me when my cat passed was Goodbye, Friend. Another great little book, more lik an illustrated poem is Weep Not for Me: In Memory of a Beloved Cat.
posted by Rob Rockets at 8:46 AM on May 12, 2016

Best answer: I know it may sound heartless to you, but it's really not and I have to second this: Better a week too soon than an hour too late.
Your sweet cat won't know that he's missing out on an extra week that he could have had. And the quality of that week is unsure. It might have been a horrible, bad, no good week. What good is that to anyone?

Please either cancel your trip, or arrange for him to be euthanised before you leave. You can't leave an old and sick cat with a sitter: at the very best, he'll be unhappy and lonely while feeling poorly.

This is horrible and I really feel for you and your family (cat included). I'll be keeping you in my heart.
posted by Too-Ticky at 8:55 AM on May 12, 2016 [4 favorites]

Response by poster: Thanks so much for the answers so far. It's a relief to have the validation about it being okay to err on the early side, and also to cancel the trip if he is still alive.

For the book recommendations, I just want to clarify that reassurances of heaven and various mentions of God are things I want to avoid. Rob Rockets, do you remember if Weep Not has any of that? It looks like it doesn't, from the Amazon page.
posted by moira at 9:15 AM on May 12, 2016

Best answer: My parents had an elderly and sick dog who very well might have died during a vacation they were planning to visit me. They decided that only one of them would visit and the other would stay home. I expressed that I was fine with both of them staying home but, ya know, parents. The dog lived until the next weekend and the whole family got a chance to say goodbye in person or on Skype.

However, it's my opinion that the dog was suffering long before it died and it would have been easier on everyone, including the dog, if he had been put down. The dog died naturally but the vet was literally on his way to their house to euthanize him. Your vet probably makes house calls, too.

So I would prioritize quality of life for the cat and your family being able to say goodbye. Putting the cat down before vacation might make the trip a needed diversion for your kid after all the emotion of losing a beloved family pet.

I'm sorry that your family has to go through something so sad.
posted by thewestinggame at 10:10 AM on May 12, 2016

"How do I explain his end of life and euthanasia in a way that won't give her nightmares?"

I don't believe you should try to explain death, or try to pre-emptively deal with her reaction. Don't cue her that this is a horrible thing that she has nightmares about. Let her drive with regard to what you say about it.

"Daughter, Cat has a brainstem tumor, which would make him suffer and die soon.
We can't save him, but we can give him a painless death. A Vet will do it,
and we'll get his ashes back after he's been cremated.
We don't know exactly when. It depends on how Cat feels."

Start visibly spoiling your old cat. Don't tell your daughter that she has to attend the euthanization. When the time comes, let her make her own choice.
posted by the Real Dan at 10:33 AM on May 12, 2016

Best answer: This past November, I had to make the decision to euthanize an elderly cat who was terminally ill when I had a trip coming up that I could not cancel. I was not 100% sure that it was "time" yet, and it was a very difficult decision. Like misskaz, I still have days when I feel guilty and regretful about it, and wonder if I should have waited until after I got home from that trip. But I don't know if she would have survived that long, and I really needed to be with her at the end. (As with your cat, I was her person.) Also, everyone who knew and loved this cat, including my husband and daughter, think I made the right call, and at a rational level, I think they are right. I just really miss that good little cat, and always will.

Afterwards, I found this AskMe thread, and it was very helpful to me. This post in particular was my favorite in the thread, and I still go back and read it from time to time, for solace.
posted by merejane at 10:46 AM on May 12, 2016 [1 favorite]

Best answer: people and animals who live long, full lives often feel ready to go at the end, and they let us know

Yes. And sometimes ... it's the opposite.

We made absolutely the right decision to euthanize our senior FIV+ cat with terminal brain cancer, who had stopped eating, even sushi. But he did not want to go. He no longer recognized food, but still had an appetite, so he was asking for food the whole time. He fought our vet, and we had to help hold him down. The vet kept telling the cat it would be alright, and stuck the needle in, and the cat died.

It was horrible. It was traumatic for me for a long time, and I'm old enough to know that the cat only knew he didn't want to have his fur shaved off or be poked with anything.

With a previous cat, we had waited too long -- and so the euthanasia felt and looked peaceful. Obviously, you don't want your cat to suffer so that your daughter feels better. So be prepared. The most helpful thing anyone told me, after the death I've described above, was that that's the price we paid for doing the right thing: that there was a price that could either be paid by our cat, or by ourselves, and we chose to pay it ourselves.

Your daughter sounds too young and too frightened to pay it herself. (I'm not a parent, though, so may be clueless.) Given that death scenes are unpredictable, I would arrange things so that she could not witness or overhear the actual death.

If I were you, I would be present with your cat (since you are his person), and have your super stoic husband be there for you, and allow yourself a buffer of time to process the event and pull yourself together. That way your daughter can see that you are sad, but not see you wrecked.

Very sorry for your coming loss.
posted by feral_goldfish at 2:44 PM on May 13, 2016 [1 favorite]

Best answer: If I could go back and do my old cat's death over again, I would start administering subcutaneous fluids earlier and skip force/assisted feeding entirely. The fluids were relatively easy and painless for both the cat and me and kept him from getting dehydrated whereas the assisted feeding was pretty much torture. :(
posted by Jacqueline at 11:52 PM on May 13, 2016 [1 favorite]

Response by poster: Thanks again, everybody. Your advice has helped a lot. Meds aren't helping, and vet is on the same page. We'll be euthanizing him tomorrow at home. Husband will take Little Girl out to the beach, and I'll be with Kitty. I'm so glad we had the opportunity to give him a good end-of-days.

I'll miss him terribly.
posted by moira at 10:54 AM on May 17, 2016 [2 favorites]

Best answer: I'm so sorry, moira. Our cat was euthanized at our home last week. Some people say that this is the last gift we can give our pets. I've found that thought comforting this week, and I hope it comforts you.
posted by amarynth at 11:06 AM on May 19, 2016 [1 favorite]

I'm sorry for your loss, moira. It is very hard to lose our kitty friends but it sounds like you did the right thing. Hugs to you and your family.
posted by misskaz at 12:54 PM on May 19, 2016 [1 favorite]

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