So many of us have been through it, but no one really wants to talk about it or think about it. What follows is a small collection of stories from pet lovers who were willing to share. The first is my own; the second, that of a family member whose cat I grew up with; and the last, that of a local friend who worked as a vet tech for years. No matter our background—we all know the logical advice we will inevitably be told when the time comes, but it doesn’t make it any easier. The hardest part of welcoming a pet into your family is finding the most loving way to put them to rest.
There’s just no easy way to do it. Even when my family had just moved to Austin, and one of our two indoor/outdoor cats just didn’t come back indoors one day and we had the ability to hope for his safe return…it wasn’t easy. My brother and I still joke that he is an immortal cat who found his way back into the wild and is living on as a true feline king, but that didn’t prevent me from posting signs and calling local animal hospitals every day for two weeks after he disappeared. Some tell me that he made the decision for us—that he knew his time was nigh and didn’t want to burden us. None of these stories helps.
It was up to her. O’Neil had been suffering from kidney disease for almost five years, and the decision was imminent. In conversation with the vet, she decided to put the cat on prescription food that would pass through his system easier. She would call her vet weekly to assess her longtime pet’s condition. Her friends thought she should do kidney dialysis—the only other treatment option she had. However, because she learned that the procedure would be expensive and would prolong his life by a small amount while not improving the quality of his remaining time, she decided against it. “The vet said he would start hiding and would not want to be around me. But that never happened. I came home one night and picked him up and he had a seizure in my arms. I was hysterical and called my neighbor who took me to the emergency hospital and we put him down.” Even with as much warning as she had, she grieved for months. An imagined glimpse of a tail in a doorway would cause tears to well. When the vet called her to come pick up his ashes, they gave her a plaster mold of his paw print, and she lost it again. She keeps him now in a velvet bag in her dresser drawer—she can’t bear the thought of him buried in cold ground. That thoughtful gift from the vet stays with his dish and collar. Though she has since adopted another cat—she missed the company—the mark O’Neil made on her heart in their 20 years together will never fade.
As a vet tech, she only had to do it herself one time and couldn’t ever do it again. But she’s seen it lots of times. From the suburban folks who just didn’t realize how much the dog would bark or shed when they got it and thought it meant the dog had to be put down, to the family who couldn’t bear to say it out loud but knew it was best. In her experience, dogs typically live to be 10 to 15 years old, with smaller dogs being on the longer end of the spectrum. “Cats live forever,” she jokes. There are certain breeds that tend to develop the same illnesses: Boxers and Burmese mountain dogs often wind up with cancer; King Charles spaniels will often have cardiomyopathy. However, these patterns primarily exist only in purebreds. For most dogs, when they are diagnosed with cancer—regardless of breed—it is often a precursor to their owner making the decision to put them to sleep. While chemotherapy is sometimes an option, it is hugely expensive and uncomfortable for the dog. On the other hand, many dogs have recovered from ailments like kidney disease, amputations and diabetes. Parvo is a preventable disease that is often seen in young puppies. If a dog is not vaccinated and is in the middle stage of the disease, survival rates are 50 percent. In her experience, most people do whatever it takes to keep their dogs healthy. They keep them on special diets, train them through amputations, surgeries and medications. A human pattern that developed in her work was that people always wanted the professionals to make the decision. “We’d always tell them, ‘you’ll know when it’s time’ and they don’t think they will, but they always do,” she explained. It’s just natural not to want to make that decision for an animal that’s a part of your family. “Nine out of ten people want to stay with their dog or cat while we’re doing the procedure. There’s a lot of paperwork involved, and it’s never easy. But the process itself is really peaceful. They just go to sleep.” And isn’t that they way we all wish it was?