It’s been two months since our oldest cat died. On the surface, I feel okay. The lead weight of grief is not as heavy as it was. Still, I’m surprised by how often my mind lags behind current events; the sudden tug of sorrow when I expect to see him, then remember the new truth. But why should it be a surprise? I’m 30 now, and he died at 17 years of age. More than half of my life was built with the shape of him accounted for.
On a frigid morning in January 2004, me, my brother, and my parents loaded into the van and chugged down to Alexandria, Virginia, to meet our new family member. My parents’ cat, Sam, was a temperamental taffy-colored lion. For some reason, when he passed, they decided only another Maine Coon would do.
The cattery they chose was well-known for breeding champions. Inside, we were greeted by a pride of Maine Coons, including an affable pink behemoth named Scoobie. The breeders showed us to a room full of tumbling tabby kittens with white bellies and paws. Our kitten, they explained, had flunked out of the breeding program for a “defective purr.” He had absurd ears and feet for his little body, a striped pipe-cleaner tail, and a voice like a worried sheep. We named him Tucker.
Tucker never grew into his paws, but the rest of him sprouted handsome and huge. His ears had such long tufts on the tip that everyone who saw him said, “He looks like a lynx!” He loved people more than anything; he was our door greeter, couch potato, and bedtime companion. In the world of cats, he was unquestionably the Boss. The exception he made was for our foster kittens, who were irresistibly drawn to his long fur and easygoing temper, although he was firm about manners. All he had to do to smarten them up was to flatten them under one enormous mitt.
Like most Maine Coons, he had a lot to say. “Brhh” meant “I’m here,” with a look directly into your eyes. “AaaaaOOOOWWWW” came after killing Dead Red, a ratty Lazarus who fell to him every night. “WaOW” demanded food. He expressed adoration with his tongue, licking your hands raw, and his paws, which pumped back and forth like pistons when everything was right with the world.
Tucker was good at communicating, but maybe we weren’t the best at listening. He’d been having trouble with arthritis the past few years, which made going up and down stairs a struggle. The vet also mentioned at his yearly appointment that she saw signs of early kidney disease. These were the only two health problems he’d ever had. We put him on Cosequin for his joints, but had to give up on the kidney diet because everyone refused to eat it.
About two months ago, his hind legs started to give up. Our boy couldn’t get into the litterbox, so he peed on the rug. Jumping onto the coffee table, he’d slip and bang his elbows and knees against the wood. The kitchen floor was too slippery for him to stand up on. We took him to another vet, who said it was becoming a quality of life issue.
“Quality of life” is a phrase marking the edge of a precipice. It means, “There is suffering here.” It means, “You have a decision to make.” It means “goodbye” is much closer than you thought.
I recently attended a seminar about companion animal loss. One takeaway was that we never grieve just one soul; each time someone dies, we are drawn back to other deaths. Tucker’s passing got me thinking about Mindy, who was euthanized for kidney disease before her quality of life had a chance to diminish. Sam, on the opposite end of the spectrum, had a prolonged struggle with his failing liver before he died. Tucker didn’t give us many options. On Sunday morning, two days after the vet visit, he tried and failed to sit up on his own in bed. He looked me in the eyes and cried out. It was a sound of such helplessness, such pure frustration, that it brought me to tears. We couldn’t let him live like this. Yet, even as we drove to the emergency vet, my mind raced in circles: was it too soon? Was now the “right” time?
The unspoken pact we make, when opening our hearts to a new companion, is that it will likely fall upon us to choose when and how they will eventually die. Part of what makes it so damn hard is the pressure to euthanize at a specific moment: not so soon that you rob them of precious time, but not so late that they’ve suffered.
Science has tried to make this choice easier on us. The HHHHHMM (H5M2) scale, developed by DVM Alice Villalobos, asks you to assign a 1-10 score to the aspects of Hurt, Hunger, Hydration, Hygiene, Happiness, Mobility, and More Good Days Than Bad Days. For companion animals, the numbers can help owners think more objectively about their animal’s life, and give a yardstick as to how far they want to push treatments. Unless you’re talking about lab animals, who might become automatic candidates for euthanasia at a certain score, these assessments still leave the heavy lifting to us. For example, our cat Jack would score low on the H5M2 scale. His cornucopia of medical and behavioral conditions have made him the world’s Least Adoptable Cat. Since he’s lived with chronic pain his whole life, we might say that he is suffering, and therefore euthanasia would be a kindness.
However, we’d never say a human with chronic pain is incapable of leading a quality life. The difference is the things we assume about the psyche of nonhuman animals. Humans cope with pain because by putting it into context: we rationalize that it’s preferable to death, or anticipate better days in the future, or weigh it against the good things that make life worthwhile in spite of suffering. The popular belief is that other animals don’t really think about the past or future in the same way. If they don’t fear death, can’t mourn the loss of their future, and live in a present full of pain, there’s really no downside to euthanasia.
Except...we don’t know that, do we? When we euthanize, we are making an educated guess about what our animals consider unbearable. Even among humans, our concept of a worthwhile life is highly individual. It might be that Jack’s tolerance for suffering surpasses mine (honestly, it probably does).
This is all a long-winded way of saying that, since Tucker died, I’ve started to believe that the “right time” is a fantasy. Yes, there are times euthanasia is the clear choice. Mostly, however, we face a slower decline, which gives us opportunities aplenty to agonize over what to do. We can’t ask our animals if they want to die. In the absence of certainty, we make the kindest decision we can, with the information we have available to us. Then we try to live with it.