Euthanasia Decisions and Your Cat

By Ryan Llera, BSc, DVM; Malcolm Weir, DVM, MSc, MPH; Tammy Hunter, DVM; Robin Downing, DVM, CVPP, CCRP, DAAPM

Our culture has evolved to embrace the human-animal bond with love and respect. Our cats are family members, and many of us describe ourselves as pet parents. Because of advances in veterinary medicine and preventive care, as well as the migration of cats from the barnyard catching mice to the bedroom sharing a pillow with us, cats are living longer and in closer relationships with humans than ever. The longer the relationship, the stronger the bond. The stronger the bond, the more challenging it is to consider the end of a cat's life, including the difficult decisions around euthanasia.

Although it is heartbreaking to think about the fact that our cats' lives are generally shorter than our own, thinking about a cat's eventual need for euthanasia, and making a plan ahead of time, will relieve much of the stress associated with decisions made when the end of life is near.

How will I know when euthanasia is the most appropriate and humane option for my cat?

Open and honest communication with your veterinarian and veterinary healthcare team throughout your cat's life lays the foundation for effective communication when that cat's life begins to draw to a close. Most cats will eventually develop a life-limiting disease (such as chronic kidney disease or cancer). As soon as a diagnosis is made, it is time to measure your cat's quality of life.

Quality of life is a somewhat subjective concept, which is why Dr. Alice Villalobos, a veterinary oncologist, has created a quality of life scale to help cat owners assign some objective scores to everyday aspects of their cat's life (see the handout "Quality of Life at the End of Life for Your Cat"). This quality of life scale helps us identify trends over time, specifically declining quality over days and weeks. Your veterinarian will be better equipped to help you identify the right time for euthanasia if you keep him or her informed about the day-to-day details of your cat's life at home. Discussion with your veterinarian will clarify any specific medical implications of your cat's disease that can serve as benchmarks to suggest that euthanasia should be considered.

"Your veterinarian will be better equipped to help you identify the right time for euthanasia if you keep him or her informed about the day-to-day details of your cat's life at home."

Questions that should be answered when considering the time for euthanasia include:

  • What disease signs and symptoms will I see that will let me know it is time for euthanasia?
  • What day-to-day activities will disappear from my pet's routine?
  • How will I measure the day-to-day quality of life?
  • How often will I measure my cat’s quality of life?
  • How often will I discuss quality-of-life trends with my veterinary healthcare team?
  • Which categories on the quality of life scale will be the most important for my cat?

What if my spiritual beliefs prevent me from actively or willingly ending an animal’s life?

In this scenario, speaking with your veterinarian about your cat's approaching end of life is even more critical. It is certainly possible to honor spiritual beliefs that prevent euthanasia while still providing appropriate pain management and comfort care. In this case, your veterinary healthcare team may need to be more involved in measuring quality-of-life trends to prevent your cat from suffering unnecessarily.

Where will the euthanasia happen?

Most often, euthanasia is provided at the veterinary practice or in your home. In general, the location can be left to the family’s discretion. If you choose euthanasia at home, your primary care veterinarian may be able to provide that service. If not, there are mobile veterinarians and veterinarians who dedicate their practice to providing in-home euthanasia services. Veterinary professionals can help you, your family, and your cat to be comfortable during this challenging time.

What should I consider or plan for regarding what will happen after my cat’s passing?

Several questions should be asked and answered in preparation for the approaching death of your cat:

  • How will my cat's body be handled and transported?
  • Do I want my cat to be cremated or buried? (You may be prevented from burial in your own yard based on local laws.)
  • Do I want to keep a memorial, such as a lock of hair or my cat's footprint in clay?
  • Do I want my cat’s cremains returned in a keepsake, such as an urn or jewelry?
  • What should I do if my cat dies on her own?

By having a detailed plan in place ahead of time, you may feel a sense of quiet or peace that will allow you to focus on the remaining time you and your cat will share.

Your veterinary healthcare team will be an important partner as you negotiate the difficult days and decisions before your cat's euthanasia. It is best to communicate your wishes clearly so they can be honored appropriately. A bit of planning can make this heartbreaking event a little less painful.

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