The decision to undertake euthanasia is often very hard for an owner, and the advice of your vet will be invaluable in making difficult choices.
When there is no reasonable alternative, to enable a cat to die in peace and dignity can be a tremendous relief. Euthanasia can be one of the kindest things a caring owner can do for a suffering cat. Owners and vets together have a responsibility not to allow unnecessary suffering to occur and to maintain a reasonable quality of life for our cherished feline friends. When this is not possible, euthanasia that allows a peaceful end to avoid suffering is extremely important.
What happens when a cat is euthanased (‘put to sleep’)?
The actual procedure of having a cat euthanased is usually very simple and painless. It involves giving a large overdose of an anaesthetic agent that will simply cause the cat to lose consciousness and then die rapidly and peacefully. Most commonly, this is achieved by giving an intravenous injection, using a vein in the front leg. Unconsciousness and death usually occur within seconds of the injection being administered.
Sometimes, as the cat loses consciousness it will take a deep breath, or gasp, and occasionally there may be some involuntary twitching or spasm of muscles for a few moments after death has occurred. Urination and defecation often also occur soon after the cat has passed away. All these signs are quite normal, and should not be mistaken for ‘signs of life’. Euthanasia carried out in this way is usually quick, controlled, stress-free and painless. However, if a cat is very nervous, sometimes a vet may administer a sedative, to calm it down prior to euthanasia, to ensure that its final moments are completely free of distress and discomfort. Your vet may also place a catheter into the vein in the leg before euthanasia is performed to make it easy and stress-free to administer the injection.
Some old and sick cats will have very fragile veins, and it can sometimes take a few minutes to find a suitable vein for an injection. The important thing to remember, if you are with your cat throughout this period, is for you to stay as calm and quiet as possible in order to comfort your cat through this process. Any panic or upset that they pick up from you is likely to cause the cat distress.
Sometimes for various reasons it may not be possible for your vet to administer the injection into the vein. In these cases, the injection is sometimes given into the abdomen. In this situation the process should still be peaceful, however it will take longer for unconsciousness to occur.
Planning for euthanasia
Your vet will hopefully go to great lengths to make sure that the whole process of euthanasia is as gentle and compassionate as possible, both for your cat and for you. You should not feel afraid to ask questions about the process in order to help you with planning, and coming to terms with what will happen yourself. This is a very important time for you and your cat. Talk through the process with your vet first, and ask any questions you want to. If anything is not clear, it is much better that you ask beforehand, rather than be upset afterwards if everything didn’t go as you had imagined it to.
You can choose how much you wish to be involved with the process, whether you want to be with your cat and holding your cat when they are euthanased, and whether or not you wish to take the body home. If the cause of the cat’s illness is unclear the vet may also ask whether you would like a post-mortem examination to be undertaken. This process helps vets gather valuable information that will benefit other cats in the future, and may help provide answers to questions you had about your cat’s illness.
Can I have my cat euthanased at home?
Some vets do not make house calls (other than for emergencies), but this is not because they are being difficult – cats can react differently in their home environment, and without the facilities within the veterinary clinic, the process can sometimes be more difficult and risk more complications. However, most vets will be willing to perform euthanasia in the cat’s home. If a home visit is not possible or appropriate, the vet can arrange an appointment at the clinic during a quiet time, when there are no other people around, to avoid undue stress to both you and the cat. You can also request a quiet moment or two with the cat’s body afterwards.
Can I be there?
You can chose to be present when euthanasia is performed, or to leave the cat with the vet. It is entirely your choice. Many choose to be with their cats at this time, but you should not feel guilty if you find this too hard or distressing. If you stay, it is helpful to your cat to try not to get too upset initially, as this can be communicated to the cat and cause some distress.
What will happen to my cat after it is ‘put to sleep’?
After euthanasia has been performed you will be able to choose what you would like to happen to the body of your cat. Options will include having your cat cremated (usually there will be an option of having your cats ashes returned to you if you would like), or having your cat buried – your vet will be able to arrange this, or you may want to do this at home, if circumstances allow.
Grieving for your cat
It is entirely natural to feel upset and emotional when your pet dies. Don’t be afraid to show your feelings in front of the vet – he or she will completely understand.
It also takes time to get over your loss and you may go through a mixture of emotions – bewilderment, sadness, loneliness and even anger. This is all quite normal and part of the process of coming to terms with your loss. You should not feel guilty or blame yourself for your cat’s death – the decision for euthanasia is usually reached only as an act of real kindness to avoid suffering.
Treasure your memories; remember the good times and what you loved most about your cat. It can help to talk to someone about your feelings too.
Helping children to cope
Children may also have difficulty coming to terms with euthanasia. This may be a child’s first experience of death and it is important to be honest with them. Tell them the truth and encourage them to talk about their feelings and share your feelings with them. Talk openly about your cat and try to concentrate on the good times. If you have the cat’s body it can be helpful to go through the ritual of burial with the children and let them be involved in marking the grave or writing a message to the cat to be kept in a book with pictures of the cat. A new pet may help, but it is often better not to get another cat too soon as you and your child will need time to get over the death of the old pet.
Euthanasia of healthy cats
Sometimes owners consider euthanasia of their cat if, for example, they are moving and can not take their cat with them, if they have behavioural problems (such as house soiling) that cannot be controlled, or a family member is allergic to the cat.
Obviously this is a difficult decision, and many owners can’t see another option in these circumstances. Some vets may be able to suggest alternatives, and there are also often organisations that may help in rehoming a healthy cat. Nevertheless, there may be some circumstances when euthanasia of a physically healthy cat is needed, and this may actually relieve or prevent significant mental distress for some cats. For a pet cat though, this is generally regarded as a ‘last resort’.