Feline euthanasia – some personal reflections

Euthanasia for cats, or other companion animals, is a complex and sensitive topic. I am not a veterinary professional, but my views are informed by my experience as a cat owner, and as a former medical doctor who has worked with many dying humans in hospices and cancer wards.

In an ideal world, I believe that euthanasia should be reserved for animals who have incurable conditions and whose symptoms cannot be adequately controlled. In the real world the wishes and practical circumstances of the owners play a large part in the decision, but these are not always aligned with the best interests of the animals themselves.

I suspect that many animals get euthanised too soon, or when they do not need to be. The owners may not have the motivation or practical resources to continue caring for them when they are sick, or they may find the situation so upsetting that they just want it brought to an end. Sadly, some animals who get euthanised are not sick at all, only unwanted or homeless.

Conversely, other animals are left to suffer too long because their owners have moral or religious objections to euthanasia, or cannot face the prospect of witnessing the process or feeling responsible for killing their beloved pets.

I hope I did not delay too long before making the big decision for Felix. I had accepted that he was not going to recover from his illness, whatever the diagnosis, but did not consider that in itself an adequate reason to euthanise him. Two other cats of ours had been euthanised in the past, and although I have no doubt it was the right decision in both their cases, I found it an agonising experience. I hoped that Felix would die naturally like another of our cats, Floella, who slowly and peacefully faded away at the age of almost nineteen years.

It did not work out quite like that. One morning, after Felix had been going quietly downhill for a week or so without apparently suffering, he began to show signs of distress. I felt it would be cruel to let this situation continue and arranged for him to be euthanised the next day, when the vet would be available for a home visit, for Felix hated being taken to the surgery. Meanwhile I had a sedative analgesic prescribed for him. Soon after I gave him the first dose he fell asleep, and died a few hours later. I was very thankful that he did not need to be formally euthanised. If the medication which was needed to relieve his pain and distress hastened his death a little, I consider that a blessing.

Another aspect of this topic to consider is the impact of euthanasia upon the staff who carry it out. They have to develop a certain emotional detachment in order to be able to do it at all, but it must still affect them at some level. I suspect this is one of the reasons why the suicide rate for veterinary surgeons is so high compared with that of the general population, and also higher than that of other healthcare professionals.

Only a minority of human patients with terminal illness say they would want euthanasia provided that their symptoms can be controlled, and with good palliative care they usually can be. Maybe the same is true for animals.

The older writer

Young authors with the potential for a long future career, especially if they are photogenic or have an unusual background, are the ones most likely to find favour with agents and publishers. But many wellknown authors have continued to produce new work of a good standard in old age. I have just finished reading Angela Bull’s excellent biography of Noel Streatfeild (1895 – 1986), who wrote numerous books besides the famous children’s classic Ballet Shoes, and who published her last novel when she was in her mid-eighties. Other English women authors who continued writing in their later years include Agatha Christie (1890 – 1976), Iris Murdoch (1919 – 1999), and P. D. James (1920 – ) who is, I understand, currently working on another book at the age of ninety-four. There are many more examples.

A few successful authors did not seriously begin their writing career until late in life. For example Mary Wesley (1912 – 2002) wrote the first of her seven novels for adults when she was seventy-one. Her books were original, sexy and regarded as slightly shocking and several of them, including The Chamomile Lawn, became best sellers. As the saying goes “It’s never too late to become what you might have been.”

Creative writing is one of those skills which is often well preserved, and may even improve, as age advances but there is a limit. It has to be acknowledged that books written by older people are not always of top quality, and sometimes only accepted for publication on the strength of their authors’ previous reputations. Mary Wesley knew when it was time to stop, and wrote no more novels after she turned eighty-three. Other older authors, in contrast, have continued to publish more books after they are past their peak. Linguistic analysis of the later works of both Agatha Christie and Iris Murdoch reveals signs of cognitive decline: a limited vocabulary, a vagueness of expression, and the tendency to repetition. Does this mean they should have stopped writing? I don’t think so; even if the later books by these remarkable women are not quite so good as the earlier ones, they still display outstanding talent and are valued by many faithful fans.

Older writers do possess certain advantages. They have a wide life experience to draw upon for material. If they are free of work and family responsibilities, they have ample time to write. They are likely to be driven by a genuine love of writing and the wish to create a quality product, rather than by the slim hope of achieving fame and fortune.

I had reached my sixties by the time I began to revisit my childhood passion for writing fiction, and I hope to find enough inspiration to continue for a good few years yet. Having no desire to produce best-selling books, I write mainly for my own satisfaction, however I only consider the activity worthwhile if at least some people read and enjoy my work. My second novella Blue Moon for Bombers: a story of love, war and spirit has just been published; I will post an extract of the text and details of purchasing options on this blog next week.

Farewell to Felix

My beloved cat Felix died last week. This post is wriiten in his memory, with some reflections on love, loss and the euthanasia of companion animals.

I have had many cats in my life and loved them all but Felix was somehow special. He came to me as one of four kittens needing foster care when they were just a few weeks old. Most people would probably have seen him as just another ordinary black and white cat but for me, for some inexplicable reason, it was love at first sight  and I knew at once I wanted to adopt him permanently. The close bond between us was maintained throughout his life, though he was a self-contained cat who did not relate easily to most other humans or felines. He became a skilled rat-catcher.

Felix was nearly fourteen years old when he died – not a great age for a cat, and yet he did well to live as long as he did considering all the health challenges he experienced: separation from his mother at a very young age,  a near-fatal attack by a feral tom cat when he was a few weeks old, a bladder blockage and a separate bowel blockage. His final illness lasted several months, during which he manifested a puzzling range of different symptoms, and temporarily improved on courses of antibiotics and steroids. No definite diagnosis was ever made but it gradually became clear that he was not likely to recover.

When the vet first suggested euthanasia I said no, feeling that neither Felix nor I was ready for such a serious step. Another course of steroids brought a little improvement over the following week but then he declined again. Some cats hide away outside when they are near the end of life but Felix stayed at home and continued responding to my touch, walking from room to room, trying to eat a little, grooming his paws, and using his litter tray. He was clearly fading away but did not appear distressed, until the day came when I knew it was time to make the heart-breaking decision. I arranged for him to be euthanized at home next morning and meanwhile the kind vet gave me three vials of a sedative painkiller, Temgesic, to calm him until then.

After the first dose was given at 4 p.m. Felix fell into a peaceful sleep, and stayed asleep all evening in my office. At 10 p.m. I left him to get ready for bed, then lay down to read a book until his next dose was due. About 10.30 p.m. I remember feeling a strange wave of cold. When I went down to give to Felix his medication at 11 p.m. I found that he had died.  I was overcome with grief yet thankful that the euthanasia did not have to be carried out after all.

Next day we had a small ceremony for Felix, a dear friend sang “Ave Maria” for him, and we buried him in the grave which we had prepared in the corner under the plum tree where he used to lie. I continued crying for days, and still miss him so much, but it is getting easier and I am thankful for the time we spent together, the memories and photos. I would like to believe we will meet again in an afterlife but I don’t know if I do.

It is not always easy to tell when an animal is suffering and sometimes I wonder if I should have agreed to “put him out of his misery” earlier – but I sensed that, until the last day, he did not want to die. There is much debate about euthanasia for humans at present and there are certainly complex “pros and cons” around the topic. During my medical career I worked in a hospice for several years and it was my impression that only a minority of the patients there would have chosen euthanasia if it was offered – is the same true of sick animals? We cannot know. Sometimes there is no doubt that euthanasia is the best thing for the animal concerned. In other cases, rightly or wrongly, it is carried out more for the benefit of owners who either want to avoid the trouble and expense of caring for a sick pet, or who can no longer bear their emotional pain while watching nature take its course.