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How to Make Difficult Decisions at the End of a Cat’s Life

Think about quality of life in terms of what matters for your individual cat.

Key points

  • Although many people think they will know when the right time comes to euthanize a pet, it can be a tough decision.
  • Quality of life scales may help and can identify changes that will improve the pet’s quality of life and give them more time.
  • Think about what is important to your cat, and have regular check-ins to see how things are going.
Peng Louis/Pexels
Source: Peng Louis/Pexels

Having to say goodbye to your beloved pet is the hardest part of being a cat guardian. Here are some of the things to consider when you are beginning to wonder if it is time.

Quality of Life and Euthanasia

There is a commonly held belief that pet guardians will “know when it is time” for their animal’s euthanasia, but this assumption glosses over the emotional difficulties of making such a decision and the very different experiences people may have had getting there. Ethical considerations, the human-animal bond, and the circumstances all play a role.

From an ethical perspective, the “right” time is when the cat no longer has quality of life but before they begin to suffer. But that time is hard to gauge. There is a risk of making the decision to euthanize a pet too soon when they still have some good days, weeks, or months left and, conversely, of waiting too long, by which time the pet is suffering.

The human-animal bond may also play a role in this decision. In some cases, the strength of the bond with the pet may cause people to want to delay euthanasia because they cannot bear to lose their pet, potentially prolonging the animal’s suffering.

However, a strong bond may also cause some pet guardians to elect for early euthanasia sooner than is necessary because they don’t want to see the animal suffer.

Having to consider euthanasia when your cat has had a traumatic injury, such as after a road traffic accident or attack by another animal, is different from making that decision when they are ill, such as with cancer, and their quality of life changes day by day, including some ups and downs, over a long time. Knowing whether one bad day is the day to make the decision, or is no different from the other bad days that were followed by better days, can be difficult.

Your veterinarian’s opinion can often help. Veterinarian Adrian Walton of Dewdney Animal Hospital in Maple Ridge, BC, says that both the pet’s and the owner’s quality of life are important parts of the decision-making.

“One of the things that I say as a veterinarian is my job is not to save the life of your pet; my job is to save your relationship with your pet,” he said. “One of the things I’d be saying is if you’re finding that this is negatively impacting your life, then euthanasia’s on the table. But as for the pet, the simplest way is, when the bad days outnumber the good, then certainly euthanasia’s on the table.”

Several quality-of-life scales exist to help people make decisions about their pets. Most of these are designed for specific conditions such as cancer or arthritis and are to be used with a vet’s involvement. It’s important to know that quality-of-life scales are not designed purely for euthanasia decisions, but they may help identify proactive steps you can take to prolong the time your kitty has a good quality of life. Medication, environmental changes, or routine changes are all possibilities.

Many people seem to equate good quality of life with eating or playing, but of course, it is important to pay attention to the full picture. For example, a cat who is not eating may have dental issues or sores in their mouth. If you can alleviate those conditions, the cat may start eating again and have a good quality of life for some time to come.

Remember that other behaviors also represent a positive quality of life, including having a good appetite, purring, kneading the paws, looking for attention, seeming happy, being affectionate, and being interested in things.

Making End-of-Life Decisions and What to Expect

Kat Littlewood is a veterinarian in New Zealand and a lecturer at Massey University, where one of her studies looks at how owners decide to euthanize their cats and how vets can best support them. She spoke to fourteen people who had euthanized their senior cat, as well as to their vet, to find out more about the process.

The cats discussed in the study were very old. She said her participants included "a lot of cat owners that were very, very attached to their cats, so they found it really difficult. Particularly when it was a slow progression, and their cat went downhill quite slowly. They found it really hard to make that call. And because cats live so long as well, a lot of the cats in my studies were 19 years old. That’s a long time to be with someone."

I asked Littlewood what advice she had for people making end-of-life decisions about their cats. One thing she said was to think about things that are important for the individual cat. For example, some cats may like being outdoors, so not going outside could be an important sign for the owner. For other cats who are not so keen on going outside, it may not matter very much if they choose to stay indoors.

She found that people were willing to help their cat eat and drink, such as by finding tastier foods or hand-feeding the cat but felt less sure of what to do about changes in their cat’s interactions with them.

She said, "Because a lot of the cats were older and so there was a little bit of difficulty that the owners had distinguishing between changes that resemble an aging cat versus changes that are like, hmm, it’s not really so great.

"So being aware of where that cat’s heading and what’s normal on a weekly or even monthly basis [can help]. Maybe having a little check-in with things like how much is my cat eating, what is my cat doing. Just having a little checklist of things and checking it over to see how that’s doing would probably be ideal."

Adapted with permission of the publisher from the book Purr: The Science of Making Your Cat Happy by Zazie Todd. Published by Greystone Books, May 2022.

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