Maybe it’s time, maybe it isn’t. With my other cat, Cleo, it was clear when I needed to put her to sleep. She’d had surgery to remove tumors in her belly. A year later, cancer filled her lungs with fluid and she was panting, her mouth hanging open as she breathed. At the animal hospital, they drained the fluid but said it would come back. I had three more weeks with her before she started panting again. When an animal is in pain and struggling to breathe, the decision is clear—though never easy. I called the hospital and took her in.
But with Gino, it’s not so clear. For months, he’d been losing strength in his back legs. He went from limping, to falling over, to not being able to stand at all within a year. Diagnosed with a degenerative spine disorder, he dragged himself around the house using his front paws, his lifeless legs trailing behind. But his appetite was the same, his energy was the same, his spirit was the same. Surgery wouldn’t fix it, a specialist said, and his functionality would only get worse. But he wasn’t in any pain.
So be it, I thought. He just needs a little help.
I helped him walk upright by looping a cotton sling beneath his back legs and walking alongside of him. When he had trouble getting into the litter box, I cut the front part of it so he could drag himself in and out. I held up his hind quarters while he did his business: Love, it seemed, had no limits.
But little by little he became incontinent, leaving a trail of urine—and sometimes feces—wherever he went. Soon, he bypassed the litter box altogether. I tried puppy diapers, but they slipped off his skinny haunch no matter how tightly I secured them. Most of the time, he stunk like piss and shit, so I bathed him on a towel in the bathtub, holding him so he wouldn’t fall over; soothing him while he cried.
“Maybe it’s time to put him down,” a friend said.
I shook my head. “Not yet.”
I spent a fortune on paper towels, bleach, and Swiffer wet cloths, wiping up urine and disinfecting floors. It was a lot of work and took up a lot of time.
Still, he was my “Gino Love.” The same “Little Man.” “Handsome Boy.” “Sweet Potato Fellow” whom I’d loved for 17 years. Eating his food with gusto; sitting on my lap with a puppy pad beneath him. How could I consider ending his life just because it was getting difficult to care for him?
At night, I used plastic garbage bags and towels on my bed so he could continue sleeping with me. Good thing I was single. I’d lift him onto the bed and he’d pull his body up to my pillow. Nuzzling his head in my neck, he’d fall asleep purring. Several times each night he’d slide off the bed for food or water, crying when he was ready to get back up again. I kept a flashlight nearby so I could find him in the dark.
To be honest, there were days when I couldn’t take anymore. Days when work had been too long and too demanding, and when others in my life were also clamoring for attention. Coming home to a house that reeked of piss, and a cat that kept pissing even as I tried to clean him up, was more than I could handle. I’ve yelled at him. I’ve picked him up roughly to move him to another spot in the house. I’ve wished he were gone. Though I know those feelings are normal for anyone who’s taking care of a sick person or animal, they left me with a guilt that was difficult to shake.
“It’s selfish to keep him alive,” my friend said. “You need to think about his well-being, not yours.”
But it felt selfish to even think about putting Gino to sleep. I worried that I’d be doing it for my own sake: So that my house would smell clean again. So that I could come home, drink a beer, and eat dinner right away instead of mopping floors and washing towels. So that I could go out after work and not fear the mess I’d find when I returned late at night. In short, I worried that I’d be putting my cat to sleep because it would make my life easier; not because it was the best thing for him.
In the absence of pain—or other obvious signs like vomiting, listlessness, and loss of appetite—what constitutes suffering? What constitutes a diminished quality of life for an animal who can’t tell us what he thinks or feels? That’s what it came down to.
According to the American Humane Association (AHA), it’s a judgment call. “You may ultimately need to make the decision based on your observances of your pet’s behavior and attitude.” I wasn’t sure I trusted my own judgment, which was blinded by love and (sometimes) exhaustion. Yet, because I knew Gino so well, there was no one more qualified to make the decision. The AHA provides a list of signs that might indicate a pet is no longer enjoying a good quality of life. Gino displayed two of the seven signs:
- He cannot stand on his own or falls down when trying to walk
- He is incontinent to the degree that he frequently soils himself
Rather than help, this only made it more complicated. We don’t put people to sleep when they can no longer walk, or when they’ve lost control of their bladders and bowels. Should it be any different with our pets? The answer is debatable, of course.
These days, I remain diligent about watching for signs of Gino’s deteriorating health. I take him to the vet for regular check ups, where we no longer talk about treatments, just palliative care. It’s getting more and more difficult to keep him clean, keep the house clean. But he still enjoys lying in the sun curled up next to my other cat, Josie. They groom each other. If I’m late feeding him, he slides over to the electrical outlet and gnaws on my computer cord until I pay attention. He paws at my feet when he wants to sit on my lap. He purrs while I pet him and bats at the ties on my sweatpants. He wants to investigate any new box I bring into the house.
When I look at him, I see an animal still engaged in living and loving, despite his disabilities. And perhaps that’s the best indicator of what he wants.
For now, it’s all I have to go on.