Deciding to Euthanize – Heartbreaking Even When it's the Right Thing to Do

Published: June 01, 2015
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I had to euthanize my cat, Victoria, over the weekend. I thought I would share her story as a form of eulogy and to once again illustrate that even when the decision to euthanize is obviously correct, it is never easy.

I adopted Vicky in the summer of 1998 at the beginning of my senior year in veterinary school. I was doing a three week rotation at a non-profit veterinary hospital/animal shelter in Washington, D.C. My mentor told me that all I needed to do to pass that rotation was to adopt one of their animals. He was kidding, but nonetheless I left with Vicky, a scrawny, approximately 1-year-old tortoiseshell cat who was recovering from surgery after being rescued off the streets of D.C. She had recently given birth and developed mammary hyperplasia that had resulted in multiple infected wounds along her abdomen.

As a former feral cat, Vicky was extremely skittish and shy. She spent her first six months with me living in my closet. As her trust grew, she gradually spent more and more time out in the world with me, my roommates, and all of our animals.

Over the years that followed, Vicky moved (among other places) to a 24 acre farm in Virginia, a ranch in Wyoming, and our current house in Colorado. She saw me through the milestones of graduating from veterinary school, getting married, multiple career changes, adding a daughter and son to the family, and the death of many other pets. She came down with hyperthyroidism several years back but responded beautifully to radioactive iodine treatment. As she continued to age, she developed heart disease, kidney disease, and cognitive dysfunction, but still enjoyed a reasonable quality of life up until the very end.

On Saturday, I noticed she was keeping more to herself, but in the evening she rallied (an upswing before the final decline is something I’ve frequently observed). On Sunday, though, she became withdrawn, weak, and dehydrated. I had previously decided to honor Victoria’s lifelong abhorrence of being “messed with” and not subject to her to any more diagnostic tests and treatments that could, at the very best, only postpone the inevitable given her age (18) and numerous health problems. She died peacefully on “her” couch while I petted her and reminded her how very much she was loved and would be missed. She is buried under the rose bushes in our backyard.

My brain knew that euthanasia was absolutely the right course of action for Victoria given her health, age, and personality, but my heart kept trying to sabotage my decision with “what ifs.” What if I just ran one more panel of blood work? Maybe I’d find something new I could treat. What if I just gave her some fluids? I knew I could make her feel better even though she’d hate the process. Thankfully, my heart didn’t overrule my head, and we did not proceed down a path that would have been more for my benefit than for Vicky’s.

In the end, we all have to do what’s best for our beloved pets and not what is easiest for us. I hope that knowing the decision to euthanize is heartbreaking — even when the owner in question is a vet and the pet in question has lived a long and full life — provides some comfort if you find yourself in a similar situation.

Dr. Jennifer Coates

Image: fantom_rd / Shutterstock