Coping with the loss of a cat

For animal lovers, grief over the loss of a much loved pet can be just as severe as that which follows a bereavement in their human families. I know this not only from my personal experience, but from what I have heard from friends and clients who are mourning the death of feline or canine companions. It is also backed up by published research. However, the death of a companion animal is not always recognised as the major trauma which it is often perceived to be. What can bereaved pet owners themselves, and those around them, do to ease the pain? This post outlines some things which I have found helpful since Felix died.

The support of family, friends and veterinary staff: I have been greatly comforted by all those who have sent a sympathetic email or card, brought flowers for his grave, or offered healing therapies. I expect there are some who cannot quite understand the depth of my sadness, but everyone has been kind, and noone has trivialised my loss with comments like “it was only a cat” or “you can always get another”.

A funeral ceremony and a marked grave: It felt right to hold a small ceremony for him, and to bury his body in a secluded part of the garden which I can visit every day – although, as one perceptive friend said “You’ll never be able to move house now.”

Expressing feelings through talking and writing: Many bereaved pet owners benefit from talking with an understanding person, whether in a formal counselling setting or in everyday life, and I have a number of friends with whom I have been able to talk about Felix. For me, writing is the best medium for self-expression. I initially created this blog just as a private site where I could store photographs of Felix, but writing about a few cat-related topics has proved quite therapeutic, and drawn a few messages of support from strangers round the world.

Happy memories: I remember many happy times with Felix. There were also some worrying ones, because he suffered several episodes of serious illness during his life, but I can honestly say that I always looked after him in the best way I could.

Other cats: I am glad there are other feline presences on our property. Our female cat, Daisy, seems quite pleased that Felix is no longer around and Homer, a male cat who officially belongs to me but decided to move next door, has been making more return visits here. It would be impossible to “replace” Felix and I have no wish to try, though maybe I will fall in love with another black-and-white kitten at the SPCA one day.

Bach flower remedies: I took Star of Bethlehem, which is the main remedy to be considered for shock or grief. Other remedies could be suitable in certain cases, for example Pine for owners who feel a sense of guilt or self-blame, or Sweet Chestnut for those in deep despair. Remedies from the Bach series can also be useful for treating emotional distress in animals themselves.

The passage of time: Life goes on, and though I will never forget Felix and always miss him, it is getting easier as the weeks go by.

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.