When Do You Put Down the Family Pet?


I cannot tell a lie: I read Dear Prudence to feel smug and get outraged at the ridiculous people who write in. But today’s column, which featured a question about “tabby termination” (you can’t be tasteful all the time) was more heartbreaking than anger-inducing. When do you put down a beloved pet?

The question, which Prudence began answering by recognizing that she’d need witness protection after her response was published, concerned an 18 year-old-cat; deaf and without teeth, the cat (who may or may not still be alive) was wreaking havoc upon her owner’s lives, not allowing them to sleep and becoming terrified when faced with an opening door. And, according to the letter writer, the cat costs more than $200 a month and doesn’t allow the family to go on vacation. The vet, according to the owner, refuses to put the cat to sleep because according to them “she’s healthy” with “manageable concerns.”

Prudie calls bullshit.

After I give this advice, I’m going to have to go into the witness protection program, but here it is: Put down Fluffy. You are being held hostage to the emotional demands—probably driven by feline dementia at this point—of a cat that is about 90 in human years. Ol’ Fluff has lived a long, long good life. You will live a much shorter, less good life if you don’t get some sleep and a vacation. Yes, one has an obligation to an elderly, beloved pet, but you’ve more than met yours. Of course your vet won’t put down Fluffy; she’s a gold mine. But you can take her to the nearest humane society shelter. When you explain she’s 18, deaf, toothless, and has a host of medical condition, they will break out the Fatal-Plus. You explain to your kids that you have loved Fluffy since before they were born, but she is very old and sick now—she can’t sleep at night, she is going down hill, and you don’t want her to suffer. (OK, maybe she’s not suffering, but you are.) I do know what you’re going through. Yes, I am a late-life dog person, but I’m a lifelong cat person. I have had cats since I was 25, and I have two now. I’m in an abusive relationship with one—I love him, feed him, and stroke him, and he will only give affection to my husband. One is a 15-year-old who any minute should start his daily howling for food which lasts all afternoon. (Yes, I give him a snack, and yes, I have had him checked out with the vet to the tune of a college semester’s worth of tests. He’s fine! He just likes to send me to the brink of mental collapse.)

Aside from Prudie’s comments about The Humane Society and Fatal-Plus and her cavalier attitude about pets dying, she’s not exctly wrong. First, putting an animal to sleep is a deeply personal decision and the pet’s quality of life must come first. Something a vet told me once was that “if the decision is easy, you’ve waited too long” and I’ve taken that to heart. While that doesn’t mean that one should put down their pet at the first sign of suffering (because, trust me, I know people who have) it does mean that one shouldn’t prolong suffering more than is necessary and that letting your pet die with dignity is one of the kindest things you can do for them.

What Prudie doesn’t add, because she is too busy discussing her own pets, is that even when the decision is the right one it is hard on everyone involved. Yes, it will be painful for the letter writer’s children to understand that the cat is going and it will be more painful to the letter writer themselves, because despite the fact that they have to take care of the cat and miss vacations, the sense of relief that their new freedom will bring will also be tinged with sadness.

And, actually, I am going to take issue with the Fatal-Plus comment. First of all, if you have the opportunity, you should try to take your pet to a vet to be euthanized and you should make every effort to be with them during their last few moments (regardless of the trauma it may cause). Animals may get very frightened about what’s about to happen and being surrounded by the people that love them in their last few moments is something that’s both important and kind. And they deserve it. I say this only partly because an acquaintance thought the same thing Prudie did, took their animal to a shelter to be euthanized and left them there. When the acquaintance had a change of heart about the process, he returned and found that his dog of 13 years was not only gone but had been euthanized in a group; not by injection, but via gas.

So while I don’t think anyone needs to go into witness protection, this letter is a strong reminder of how in control of our pets’ lives we are, how much we owe them and also how awful some vets can be. (I know that wasn’t the main thesis, but you’re going to shame someone for putting a sick cat to sleep? Come on, man!) (Now, if you’ll excuse me I have to go bear hug all three of my healthy and happy — healthy, at least — pets.)

Image via Shutterstock

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