This weekend saw the biggest annual global gathering of “companion animal” (pet) vets, which takes place in Birmingham every year. The BSAVA congress has 15 concurrent streams of lectures and practicals for eight hours a day, over five days. Vets need to do a minimum of 30 hours of continuing education per year: attendance at this conference allows a full quota to be obtained on one trip.
Diagnostics, medicine, surgery and therapeutics take up most of the lecture time but there’s also space for debate and discussion: one lecture on the ethics of choosing the right time for euthanasia caught my attention, partly because it brought back memories of euthanasing my own much-loved family pet, a dog called Spot.
Euthanasia: vets, owners and pets are involved
The lecture looked at the decision on euthanasia from three perspectives: the vet, the owner, and not least, the pet itself. The big question, of course, is “when is the right time to say goodbye”?
Vets are obliged to fulfil a vow, made on qualifying, to prevent animals from suffering: arguably we may be in a better position to assess quality of life objectively than an emotionally distraught owner. That said, vets cannot dictate the outcome of a situation: owners need to be brought along with the decision. If owners do not fully understand, and agree with, the decision, they may subsequently say “the vet forced me into it”.
For owners, there are often conflicting emotions. There may be intense grief at the prospect of losing a much loved family member, but there may also be a fear of allowing their pet to suffer by going on too long. In most cases, the decision making is made easier by the thought that they are fulfilling their responsibility of relieving their pet’s suffering.
Despite this, afterward, there is often guilt: the feeling that they have “murdered” a loved one, regret that they may have done it too soon, or (more commonly), that they may have left it too late, so that the pet suffered unnecessarily.
What about euthanasia from the pet’s perspective? Do animals experience fear or despair at the thought of dying? Can they anticipate impending death? Can they consider the concept of an extended life of deteriorating quality compared to a shorter life with less pain? Is it arrogant of us to assume that that elderly pets want to stay alive and remain in our company? While each of us may have strong views about these questions, there are no definitive answers.
The general assumption is that euthanasia provides instantaneous relief from pain and suffering, and that animals have no foreknowledge that it’s going to happen. It seems most likely that the experience involves peacefully falling asleep and then into death, without being aware that this is happening. Perhaps how most of us would like to end our days, and that’s why we find it so easy to justify euthanasing our pets.
There is a growing end of life/ hospice care movement for pets, aiming to optimise end of life arrangements for pets. It’s come up with some useful tools, like the HHHHHMM Quality of Life Scale , which can help people reach the euthanasia decision more easily. Euthanasia of pets is a collaborative decision, with human carers and veterinary staff (vets and nurses) working together to find the best answer. For myself, and my 15-year-old dog Spot, I had to wear the hat of owner and vet at the same time. Spot made it easy for me: he had been gradually declining with doggy Alzheimer’s, and when he refused to eat for two days in a row, it was as if he was sending me a message. He was ready to go, and I was ready to help him.
Keeping hospice patients and their beloved pets together.
If you’re a pet owner, you know that a dog, cat or other ‘furry friend’ can truly become a part of your family, a part of your world.
So it’s no surprise that those diagnosed with a debilitating or terminal illness sometimes worry more about their four-legged friends than themselves. What happens if they can no longer care for their pets? Where will those animals live once their owners are gone? Pet Peace of Mind is a nationwide program that helps hospice patients like Donna Sarner keep their pets near them during their end of life journey. The program also helps place the pet after the patient dies.
Here is Donna’s story as told by Kristine Murtz, Volunteer Services Manager and Pet Peace of Mind Program Coordinator at Cornerstone Hospice:
Donna Sarner is 68 years old and lives in a small, rural town in Central Florida. She was diagnosed with adenocarcinoma of unknown origin, a cancer which causes her a great deal of pain throughout her back, abdomen and legs. She has no caregiver, no nearby family, and limited financial resources. Despite the challenges, Donna maintains a positive yet realistic attitude and wants to enjoy the time she has left with her dogs as well as the cats, vultures, raccoons and bears she feeds outside.
Donna was admitted to Cornerstone Hospice services in October of 2015 and is supported by a dedicated team who go beyond the call of duty. The many programs we offer are about helping patients and families feel like things are going to be “ok”.
In particular, Pet Peace of Mind demonstrates the holistic approach that is at the heart of hospice . The emotional connection that people have with their pets is one to be respected and nurtured.
Donna has taken better care of her pets—including the buzzards outside—than she has herself. She wants to have her dogs with her as long as possible, “until the very end.”
Donna’s Social Worker, Renee, had to wait several months before approaching advance directives and funeral plans with Donna, but PPoM visit opened the door to this by discussing how her “babies” will be cared for when she no longer can.
Donna spoke with pride about each of her dogs: Ozzie, a 6-year old Australian Shepherd/St. Bernard mix (I know, right?!); Roxy, a 5-year old Chow mix; Bertie, a 4 year-old Catahoula mix; and her beloved old guy “Highknee,” who is a 15-year old poodle mix. He’s only about ‘knee-high’, hence the name. Along with caring for the dogs, our program arranged to have the stray cats she feeds spayed, neutered, and vaccinated. We haven’t really considered what the buzzards might need!
Pet Peace of Mind volunteer Karen Sanders transported each of the dogs to one of our partner veterinarians to get them vaccinated and any necessary medications; she continues to deliver dog and cat food to Donna. We’re providing little Highknee with some medication for his congestive heart failure, and I’ve promised Donna I would personally care for him after she cannot. She also understands that it may not be realistic to have the three large dogs with her until the end, and we are already looking for loving homes for Ozzie, Roxy, and Bertie.
During the early 19th century, it was not uncommon for the mortal remains of a beloved pet cat to be buried in the family garden. By the Victorian era, however, the formality of cat funerals had increased substantially. Bereaved pet owners commissioned undertakers to build elaborate cat caskets. Clergymen performed cat burial services. And stone masons chiseled cat names on cat headstones. Many in society viewed these types of ceremonies as no more than an amusing eccentricity of the wealthy or as yet another odd quirk of the elderly spinster. Others were deeply offended that an animal of any kind should receive a Christian burial.
In March of 1894, several British newspapers reported the story of a Kensington lady “of distinction” who held a funeral for her cat, Paul. An article on the subject in the Cheltenham Chronicle states:
“Except that the Church did not lend its sanction, the function was conducted quite as if it had been the interment of a human person of some importance. A respectable undertaker was called in, and instructed to conduct the funeral in the ordinary way; the body was to be enclosed in a shell which would go inside a fine oak coffin. There were the usual trappings, including a plate on which was inscribed the statement that ‘Paul’ had for seventeen years been the beloved and faithful cat of Miss —, who now mourned his loss in suitable terms. The coffin, with a lovely wreath on it, was displayed in the undertaker’s shop, where it was an object of intense interest and not a little amusement.”
Though Paul’s burial service was not sanctioned by the Church, this did not stop other cat funerals from adopting a religious tone. An 1897 edition of the Hull Daily Mail reports the story of a clergyman who held a funeral for his cat. This particular cat is described as an obese, black and white female who was known to go for walks with her master. Upon her death, the clergyman and his household were “thrown into mourning.” The Hull Daily Mail reports:
“For three days pussy, whose remains were placed with loving care in a beautiful brass-bound oaken coffin, with inner linings of silk and wool, lay in state in the drawing-room. At the termination of this period, the rev. gentleman hired a cab, drove to the station, and took a train for the North, bearing with him the oak coffin and the precious remains. Where the funeral took place seems to be somewhat of a mystery – at least there are conflicting accounts – but of one thing people seem to be certain. The ceremonial respect which had been accorded to the deceased was maintained to the last, and the burial service, or part thereof, was recited at pussy’s grave.”
The majority of historical reports on cat funerals from the Victorian era are recounted with humor. Others show a darker response to pet burials. A September 1885 article in the Edinburgh Evening News relates the story of an “old old woman” in Abercromby Street intent on giving her deceased cat, Tom, a “decent burial.” She applied to the local undertaker to build Tom a suitable coffin and employed a gravedigger, by the name of Jamie, to dig a grave for Tom in the local burying ground. As the article states:
“…the funeral, which took place in the afternoon yesterday, was largely attended. Miss — carried the coffin, and on the way to the graveyard the crowd of youngsters who followed became exceedingly noisy, and being apprehensive that the affair would end in a row, ‘Jamie’ closed the iron gate with the view of preventing any but a select few from entering. The crowd, however, became even more excited, scaled the wall, hooting and yelling vociferously, crying that it was a shame and a disgrace to bury a cat like a Christian.”
Whether this uproar was truly a result of outrage over Tom being buried “like a Christian” or simply an excuse for rowdy youths to misbehave is unclear. Regardless, the results of the riot that ensued were exceedingly unpleasant for Tom’s elderly, bereaved owner. The Edinburgh Evening News reports:
“The coffin was afterwards smashed, and the body of the cat taken out, and ultimately the uproar became so great that the police had to be called to protect the gravedigger and the old lady. The latter managed to get hold of the dead body of Tom, and with the assistance of Constables Johnston and Smith escaped into a house in the neighborhood, where she remained for some time. In Abercromby Street, where she resides, a number of policemen had to be kept on duty till a late hour in order to protect her from the violence of the crowd.”
Perhaps the main cause of outrage lies in the fact that Tom’s owner was attempting to bury a cat in the human graveyard. This was not an uncommon complaint. Many graveyards did not allow pets to be buried in consecrated ground. As a result, pet cemeteries were established. One of the most well-known was the Hyde Park Dog Cemetery, opened in 1881. As the name denotes, this was primarily a burial ground for dogs. However, according to author Gordon Stables (qtd. in Animal Death 22), the cemetery also admitted the corpses of “three small monkeys, and two cats.”
Other pet cemeteries existed throughout Victorian England, both public and private. The pet cemetery at the Essex seat of Sir Thomas Lennard had pet monuments dating as far back as the 1850s. While the pet cemetery at Edinburgh Castle originated as a burial place for 19th century regimental mascots and officers’ dogs. And I would be remiss if I did not mention author Thomas Hardy, who had a pet cemetery at his home at Max Gate in Dorchester in which all but one of the headstones were carved with the famous novelist’s own hands.
Unsurprisingly, the majority of headstones and monuments in pet cemeteries of that era are for dogs. Dogs were incredibly popular pets during the 19th century. They were typically viewed as selfless, devoted friends and guardians. While cats were, to some extent, still seen as sly, self-serving opportunists (for more on this, see my article Peter Parley Presents the Treacherous 19th Century Cat). In addition, as author Laurel Hunt points out in her book, AngelPawprints:
“Queen Victoria’s fondness for dogs strengthened their role as companions in the Victorian era.”
This bias in favor of dogs had no effect on Victorian cat fanciers whatsoever. Cat funerals continued to take place with just as much pomp and ceremony as dog funerals. The public reaction to both was very much the same – amusement, outrage, and occasionally scorn. One of my favorite examples of the latter is from an article in an 1880 edition of the Portsmouth Evening News which reports on a lady who sent out “black-edged funeral cards” upon the death of her dog. As a sort of disclaimer, the article states:
“It is superfluous to affirm that the owner of that lamented Fido is a maiden lady.”
It does seem that a great many reports of pet funerals in the 19th century news involve some stereotypical variety of spinster – the Victorian cat (or dog) lady, if you will. Though humorous, I do not believe this was the norm. The simple fact is that, throughout history, there have been people who have grieved at the loss of their pets. During the Victorian era, this grief took shape in elaborate pet funerals. For cats, who were still persecuted in so many ways, these ceremonies strike me as especially poignant.
I close this article with poet Clinton Scollard’s 1893 elegy for his cat, Peter. In her book Concerning Cats (1900), author Helen Winslow claims that this tribute to a deceased cat is the “best ever written.” I’ll let you be the judge.
Unfortunately we all die, and today had to come. If anything it’s a relief. Between my old age and failing kidneys, every day was becoming increasingly uncomfortable — These last few weeks, especially. None the less, I did my best to enjoy each and every day.
Since today could not be avoided, we decided to make an event out of it. Who doesn’t want to spend their last moments having a good time with loved ones?
You can’t start any day without a healthy breakfast — let alone second breakfast, or elevensies, but I digress. Today was no exception, but we had to take it over the top.
My human, Michael, made me a wonderful decadent breakfast with my favorite things: Fancy Feast Gravy Lovers (Beef) with Archetype powered rabbit mixed in. It may not sound great to you, but YUM!
I think I overate. So good. So full. Need to relax.
Look! The sun!
Oh wait, I am in the middle of telling a story…
Brushing and reminiscing
Once I recovered from my breakfast-sun coma, I spent some time with my humans, Mike and Tracy. They brushed me, petted me, and we talked about my life.
We talked about how I was born in New York City in 1994.
We talked about my first human, Sui and how much I miss her. I used to climb up the ladder of her loft bed, in the East Villiage. I’d follow her too close and occasionally she’d end up stepping on me. She made an awesome t-shirt based on me.
We talked about how my human, Michael, won my heart with his constant affection. I claimed him as mine in 1999 — When he would go to work, he would pet me goodbye. The day I decided he was mine, I grabbed his hand when he went to leave, and pulled him back. Literally! I didn’t want to let him go, and stayed with him the next 16 years.
We talked about my bully of a brother, Mulder (1994–2009), who I still loved, and miss. He was always the outgoing one, and twice my size. He wasn’t so bad most of the time, but occasionally he was so mean to me.
We talked about moving to Colorado and all the years there.
We talked about the years with the dog, Ripley (2005-?) — I never liked him. He was never mean to me, he was just a dog. Tried to smell my butt all the time. Ick!
We talked about my adopted sister, Newt (2006–2009). She was annoying, but truly I didn’t mind her as much as I let on. Such a young ball of energy, and sadly lived up to the bit about curiosity and cats.
We also talked about moving to Seattle, and how I decided to stop being so shy. One day I was curious, so started going out and introducing myself to people. It was amazing!
We talked about my final human, Tracy. She was reluctant, at first. Eventually I won her over and claimed her as mine. She was always so affectionate to me. She was always there to help Michael take care of my health needs this last year.
After so much talking and affection, I needed a break
Resting and Health
When cats get as old as I do, it often comes with health complications. I’m certainly no exception. because of it, I need to rest. More and more every day.
After a year, I’m barely able to walk any more. My body aches and I’m so tired. After a final vet visit, we discovered my kidneys are in the final stages of failure. At this point my health is declining by the day. Don’t even remind me of the grand-mal seizures, they suck!
Rather than have me slowly suffer over the next few weeks (at most), we decided to have a relatively happy ending.
Not long after getting into my bed did I finally fall asleep. I was so tired from the day’s activities that I didn’t even awake when the vet arrived. That’s a good thing, it would have made me anxious.
While laying there I felt a prick on my side. By time I realized what was happening, the drugs were already sedating me.
After that, Michael picked me up one last time, and held me as a drifted away.
One of the things Michael always loved about me is that no matter how tough life was for us, I was always affectionate and loving. I always adapted, and tried to make the best of a situation, faster than any other cat he’s known.
If you don’t try to enjoy every good moment, why bother living? We should enjoy every moment we get.
Oh yeah, and and last night I left a gift for my humans to remember me by. Don’t ruin the surprise!
When a cat or dog gets lucky, they can spend over a decade in a home with abundant affection. They are accustomed to unconditional love; they’re used to getting their belly rubbed and love to snuggle on their favorite part of the couch. Until one day, everything changes, and these animals are ripped out of their home and dumped at the shelter.
If a pet’s owner dies and nobody planned ahead, this could lead to problems. Animals are often dumped at the shelter or just thrown out. The Shenandoah Valley Animal Services Center said this is a problem; they’ve recently saw more animals come in because their elderly owner died, in situations where none of the children could or would take care of them. Often, these animals do not survive at the shelter.
“Once they come here, the chance of them making it out is slim,” SVASC Assistant Director Tracey Meadows said. “When they come into a shelter environment, it’s very stressful for them. Sometimes they can’t overcome. They grieve themselves to death.”
Sometimes animals at the shelter miss their human so much, they won’t eat or drink. It is an entirely different lifestyle for them that they cannot get used to.
“I think they’re heartbroken. They’ve been with their family their whole lives and all of a sudden their routines changed, it’s not the same,” SVASC worker Hope West said. “They give up. They feel like they have nothing else to live for.”
They can develop medical issues and even die as a result of being depressed. Dr. Leti Hansen, a veterinarian at Greenbrier Emergency Clinic in Charlottesville, explained.
“I think the hardest issue that animals face when entering the shelter after leaving a home is depression,” Hansen said. “The shelter is a very stressful place to live. The staff works extremely hard to decrease the stress of its animals but it is impossible to replicate the home environment that these animals have come left. Animals that become depressed when entering a shelter can become immunocompromised, rendering them more susceptible to some of shelters’ more common upper respiratory diseases such as kennel cough or upper respiratory diseases of various causes in cats.”
“Depression can lead to anorexia. Anorexia in cats can cause a condition called hepatic lipidosis. Hepatic lipidosis is a condition where the liver is overwhelmed by the attempt to metabolize the body’s fats in order to create energy for the body. These cats will become systemically ill and risk dying if left untreated,” she added.
The shelter affects behavior as well. For an older animal, they just can’t take the stress and change of lifestyle and shut down.
“Dogs will often become reclusive when spending time in a shelter. It is very difficult for a potential adopter to understand how this dog will behave outside the shelter,” Hansen said. “This high stress environment often causes behavioral changes in the dogs, such as tail biting, hiding in the back of their run, loud barking, and anorexia.”
Young or old, death does not discriminate. Shelter officials said the most important aspect is to be prepared. If a pet owner is prepared, cases like this will not happen as much. They recommended people write a living will with a special clause for their pets.
“We take care of our kids in our wills, we need to take care of our animals,” West said. “If people aren’t prepared at all, they end up here. A lot of them, this is where they spend their last moments. Some, they get so old and they’re so devastated, this is the last place they see. It’s sad because they’ve been in a home. Somebody loved them.”
When somebody does their will, they should ask which family member is able to take on the responsibility of their animal, SVASC members explained. This way, everything is planned for and there is no fight or confusion. If no family member steps up, they recommended people ask friends or neighbors. Again, if nobody is able, people can search online for local rescue groups that help senior animals.
“Go a little bit above and beyond. Try to rehome them to somebody before just dropping them off at your local shelter. Try to find them a home. Being in this cage is just not fair for them,” West mentioned.
If pets lose their owner, they lose their life, Meadows said. This is why it’s so important to have a plan. Hansen agreed.
“I strongly recommend people talk to their families ahead of time to ensure that their pets will have a safe home in the event of their owner’s death. Adding a clause to your will is also recommended. We see a lot of animals come into the shelter after an owner has passed away because provisions were not made ahead of time. To those family members that step up to take care of their loved ones pets, we extend our gratitude,” she stressed.
People need to be prepared, and expect the unexpected, West said, adding that animals are a commitment for life and beyond. If a pet loses its owner, it doesn’t need to lose its freedom as well and end up in a cage.
“I think people don’t take it seriously. It’s like taking care of an elderly parent. If you’re going to commit you need to commit for life. If not, don’t adopt,” West said.
West said it is up to the owner and children to make sure their furry friends are safe if the unexpected happens. With the right precautions, people can rest assured that everything will be taken care of.
“Take your parents in consideration. If your parents had these cats from the time they were kittens until they’re 13 or 14 years old, apparently they loved them,” she explained. “You parents wouldn’t want to see them in a shelter—nobody wants to see them here. They waste away to nothing a lot of them just grieve themselves. I just don’t think people think it through.”