Ethel, many moons ago
My lovely, sweet, wonderful cat Ethel was put to sleep on Monday. She was 19-years old.
I thought I’d share what happened in this blog post, but just be advised that I might be graphic in details, so if you’re squeamish, stop now. And it’s a long post.
I see a lot of elderly, sick cats as a professional pet sitter, and I thought I would know what to look for when monitoring my own pets. But Ethel still looked very good to my eye. Her coat was still full and soft, she still came over for pets, she still went in the general vicinity of the litter box, she loved food.
On Saturday morning, I noticed that there was bloody urine on one of several puppy training pads that I used to line the area surrounding the litter box. She’d go inside the box about 50% of the time by this point, the other times right in front of the box. I had tried offering her an extremely low-sided litter box, which was actually a large restaurant-style serving tray with sides about 1/4 inch high, but the results were the same, I went back to using the low-sided litter box. I currently use a very soft wood shaving clumping litter, which can be gentler on sensitive older paws. Anyway, I also saw bloody pee and blood clots trailing around the kitchen, living area, and leaking out of her in drips. She was crying, and then I was crying. I knew it was her time and her little body was failing. My first thought was that I didn’t want her to suffer. It was my priority that she be as comfortable as possible.
I cried as I carefully combed her shedding fur, and gave her subcutaneous fluids in a rather futile effort to help her (she was supposed to be getting subcutaneous fluids twice a week to help with her kidney failure). I realized that she had probably started leaking bloody pee the day before, but when I had seen a drop or two on the floor, I had actually mistaken them for my own mess, as I have a medical issue that involves regular dressing changes. But I’m pretty sure it was her, since I’m very careful about that sort of thing.
It was about 8:30am by this point, and the veterinarian who had been following her didn’t open until 9am. I waited, then called as soon as I could get through to the office. But unfortunately, they said they were fully booked for emergency visits that day, and referred me to two other veterinarians. I then tried another local veterinarian office – one benefit of being a professional pet sitter is that I have a short list of veterinarians that my clients really like – and got an appointment for 11:30am.
Three more hours. I think, after seeing a lot of movies and tv shows, we think people can just run into a vet’s office with an animal in our arms and get seen right away, but unfortunately, that’s not usually the case. I try to make sure that my clients are aware of this, as well, because I might not always be able to get their pets to their usual vet in the event of an emergency, if their appointment schedule is full. So it is a good idea to be aware of several reputable veterinarians in your area, in case you need urgent care. Or you can go to a 24-hour emergency veterinarian, but for some that might mean a long drive, along with a wait, depending on the number of patients that day.
I put Ethel into the cat carrier, lined with a puppy pad, and set about cleaning up. I keep a spray bottle of equal parts vinegar and water, and sprayed down probably half the floor of the condo to make sure I got all of the pee. I did a lot of laundry that day. I sobbed the whole time. Then since I figured it would be her last meal, I gave her the “good stuff” – the regular, high end wet food that she hadn’t been permitted to eat for seven months. She’d been on an expensive hypoallergenic diet – the more expensive duck version, since the chicken version hadn’t agreed with her stomach – to help manage her kidney disease and irritable bowel syndrome. It had worked well, but she was not enthusiastic about it, and always wanted what my other cat was eating. So I popped open a fresh can of the good stuff and gave her a bowl. She loved it. I carefully emptied, washed, and dried her microchip feeder, since I figured it would no longer be needed. It had been intended to let her free feed food, grazing lightly throughout the day and night, while preventing my other cat from gorging on her hypoallergenic food.
I sat and pet her. She was quiet in the carrier, and seemed fine with being inside of it, even though I kept the door open.
I shared my pain with some pet sitter colleagues, and a couple gave me a glimmer of hope, suggesting that it might just be a urinary tract infection (UTI), or stones, that could be dissolved with special food and antibiotics. I thought about it, and thought maybe Ethel just had a UTI, and some medicine might clear it up. Maybe I had been sobbing and overreacting for nothing, and wasn’t giving her a chance. Mabye it wasn’t her time. I have had cat clients who lived into their twenties. She was only nineteen (in human years, that’s roughly the equivalent of 92 human years).
My 5-year old came with me to the vet. I thought it was important that she understand what was happening to Ethel. She’s experienced a couple of our hamsters dying, but each time we had just awakened to a dead hamster. When she was about three, she had hysterically repeated “Bunny is dead! Bunny is dead!” for days, even weeks when she’d seen our dead hamster, Bunny. In this case, she was older and there would be more of a process, we might possibly be euthanizing Ethel. I explained to her that Ethel was very sick and very old, and that it was important for her to be comfortable and not in any pain. She’s read a lot of books and seen videos about viruses and bacteria (there’s a pathologist in our family who encourages this interest), and so she understood about antibiotics. She thought maybe Ethel just had a virus, and taking some medicine might make her feel better.
She also did what she had done when Fred, our hamster, had died over a month ago. She immediately started planning for a new cat, saying she was going to think of a new name for “Ethel” – meaning, a name for the new cat. But, as I had done when Fred had died, I told her firmly that we wouldn’t be getting a new cat any time soon. I have in the past gotten a new hamster as early as the day after a hamster has died, but I knew in this case that I was not planning on replacing Ethel anytime soon, if at all. Ethel was friendly to people, but had never been social with our other cat, Olaf, and I don’t think Olaf is the sort of social cat who requires another cat for companionship. Also, I knew that I wouldn’t be emotionally ready to get another cat for a long time. If ever.
I was apologetic when we got to the vet’s office, as I shared how some of my colleagues had the idea that Ethel might just have a UTI. The vet tech and vet were very kind, and agreed that it was possible. They kept her at the office for another couple of hours to try to get a urine sample, but Ethel was totally empty, which means they couldn’t get a decent ultrasound or x-ray, either, so we were given antibiotics and painkiller to try for the rest of the weekend, just in case, and an appointment to drop off Ethel for a urinalysis on Monday to see if it was helping.
Ethel came home, and I put her back on the hypoallergenic food. She missed dinner, though, which is very unusual for her. Her head came up, she knew it was dinner time, but then it went back down again so she could keep sleeping, which she did about 99% of the time. And she never made it back to the litter box, instead peeing a few feet away in the kitchen. And on a bag of corn, which I promptly threw out.
Quality of Life
I carefully watched her, but the painkiller and antibiotic weren’t improving her condition.
I wrestled with myself. I worried I was being selfish in wanting to euthanize her, as I worried I wasn’t being devoted enough to constantly clean up the urine. Maybe she just needed a diaper. I had often been concerned about the expense of her special food, medication for the kidney failure, and subcutaneous fluids. I gave her a green lipped mussel supplement to help with the arthritis. The heated pad I had gotten her to help keep her comfortable got too hot, and I had been thinking of what sort of heating pad I should get to replace it. She went through quite a few puppy pads. I felt shame that I might be leaning towards euthanasia in a bid to avoid these expenses.
I ran through the quality of life scale for pets (there’s a calculator here: https://journeyspet.com/pet-quality-of-life-scale-calculator/ ), and found that she scored a 12 out of 80. She slept 99% of the time, unless she was eating or using the litter box. She rested on a large towel I folded for her, but peed through it and continued laying in it. She couldn’t groom herself. She missed meals. Her back left leg started dragging, so she was basically crawling around using her two front paws, and was very wobbly. It seemed like all movement was difficult for her, even just sitting or moving a few feet to the water bowl, either from her arthritis or from further deterioration. Instead of wrapping her tail around herself tightly, it hung out straight. Her urine had cleared of blood with the antibiotic. I put down puppy pads in the kitchen, which she sort of used. I was 99% sure. She was ready to go. I was ready to let her go.
I met with a friend, who saw how upset I was, and took me to tea and helped me talk through all of these things. She helped me realize how much different and worse Ethel’s life was now than it had been a short time ago. I felt more confident after talking it through with her for several hours. It’s good to have that kind of support during these tough times.
On Monday, I dropped off my daughter, warning her that I thought Ethel wasn’t getting better, and that I might be taking her to be put to sleep while she was at school. I didn’t want to surprise her with the news after the fact. She said she’d miss Ethel, but understood. I felt bad for sending her to school on such a low note.
I called the veterinarian’s office as soon as they opened, to change my drop off appointment into a euthanasia appointment. We scheduled it for the afternoon, so that I would be able to pick up my daughter from school and take her with me to say goodbye to Ethel after all.
I tried to make Ethel’s last day a good day. I fed her her favourite food several times that day, whenever she got near her food bowl. I took her outside for a few minutes, as she used to like sitting by the window, but she quickly went back inside. It could have been too cold. She still cuddled up to me, despite walking very shakily, and I pet her and cried until my eyeballs were totally empty.
When it was time to go, I put an old towel down in her carrier, then put a puppy pad on top. We picked up my daughter as early as possible, and went over to the vet’s office. The vet – a different vet from the one we had seen on Saturday, did her best to make sure I made an informed decision, first mentioning that some of the symptoms I mentioned could have been caused by the painkiller. I had to close my eyes to keep enough composure in order to speak. I hated that little sliver of hope. But the vet later said to me that the dosage of painkiller that Ethel had been taking was too low to have caused the leg to stop working. It wasn’t the painkiller. She did her best to be neutral, which I appreciated, but also it drove me a little crazy, since I was having trouble coming to terms with it being me alone as the person making the decision to euthanize Ethel. I had made my decision. She wasn’t going to get better, and her quality of life was extremely poor. I knew it was the best decision for her, but to have the responsibility and weight of a life in your hands, and having to make the call to end that life is crushing. And having to explain it to my young child was difficult. I kept wanting to say that we were killing Ethel, but instead used phrases like “putting her to sleep,” “making her comfortable because she’s not going to get better,” and “she’s going to die.” I wanted to educate my child about death and grieving, but in an age-appropriate, sensitive manner.
I had worked with a former vet tech once, who had confessed that the reason she had changed careers had been that she couldn’t handle all of the euthanasia they had to do. To have to hold the animal as you watched and felt the life slipping from their little bodies.
There are decisions you have to make when you put your pet to sleep. I had euthanized a hamster a number of years ago, and was familiar with some of the questions. As with everything, some decisions would be based upon price.
Do you want to be there with your pet at the very end? I had read an article about a vet talking about how a pet frantically looks for their owner when they are put to sleep, and I knew that I would want to be there for Ethel from start to finish. I have not had to euthanize a client’s pet, but if necessary, I would be willing to be there for them, too.
Do you want the body, or do you want the body to be cremated?
Do you want the remains cremated individually, or group cremation?
Do you want the ashes afterwards? Sometimes you’re offered a special box you can keep them in.
I signed forms. I signed a form authorizing the euthanasia. I signed a form indicating that I wanted Ethel’s remains to be cremated in a group, rather than individually. This meant the vet’s office might hold the remains for up to 30 days before sending them all in a group to the crematorium. I did not want the ashes, or a little box or urn with her ashes. I paid beforehand, so that I could more easily leave afterwards.
While I was settling the bill, they put a catheter in Ethel’s leg. She was pale and a little dehydrated, and also had always had tiny veins that were hard to access. So they put in a catheter to make sure that the sedation and euthanasia would happen quickly.
We were in a small, soothingly-lit private room. We put Ethel on the table, which had a nice fluffy blanket laid down on top of it. Probably half for comfort, but also to help absorb bodily fluids that release after death. I crouched down next to the table, which was about the height of a coffee table, and cradled Ethel’s head in my hands. She was a floor cat, and had never enjoyed being on your lap very much, and I didn’t want her to be uncomfortable in her last moments even though I wanted to hold her close to me. I held and stroked her soft furry head, as she leaned into me, as the veterinarian first sedated her, which instantly put her to sleep. I felt her head relax within seconds. Then she administered the drug to stop her heart, and I held her as she died.
It all only took seconds. Ethel was ready to go. When I had had my hamster euthanized, she continued to twitch for many minutes after her heart stopped; Ethel had immediately gone to sleep and stopped moving. I cried because I was killing her, and because I loved her, and I already missed her. There was still that 1% of me that wondered if I was doing the right thing. I know it was the right thing to do – she was in pain and she wasn’t going to get better. There was no dignity to her life, and when I thought back to even a year ago, she had had more enjoyment and less pain. It was no way to live as she had been living that weekend.
Her head was still warm, maybe from my hand in her fur. Her eyes were still open. Her ears were still perked up. But she was gone. She was at peace. And I sobbed and sobbed. My daughter hugged me. I tried to do the mom thing and explain to her that it’s ok to cry when you’re sad, and that mommy was very sad. She asked permission to touch Ethel, and I said of course. The veterinarian gave us privacy, and told me that when I was ready to leave, and if I didn’t want Ethel to be alone, I could call the front desk and they would send someone to be with Ethel so she wouldn’t be alone. I thought that was a thoughtful gesture.
I let myself cry for a few minutes, holding Ethel and using many tissues. They keep a box in that room, with a waste bin discretely in the corner. I think I used half of it. I don’t think my daughter quite understood. She kept asking if I was still sad, if I was still crying. And I kept saying yes. It was hard to understand that Ethel was gone, but I could see that she was no longer there. She looked like she was sleeping, curled up peacefully into a ball like she always was.
When I thought I had it together enough to leave and drive home without getting into an accident, I used the room’s phone to call the front desk, and they sent a vet tech to come be with Ethel so we could leave. We took the empty pet carrier, and I ugly cried on the sidewalk all the way to the car. I’m still crying now as I write this. It’s grieving. It doesn’t just brush off.
I finished up cleaning pee, including one of daughter’s adorable backpacks that Ethel unfortunately took to laying on during her final days. It took all day, and a lot of vinegar and Oxy-Clean, but at last it passed the smell test and has never looked cleaner. In the next couple of days I’ll take down the elaborate litter box area, which involved plastic sheeting lining the area, puppy pads, and anti-tracking mat, which I had to thoroughly clean. Olaf has always been a tidy cat, he’s only about 8-years old, and he won’t need all of that. I’ll have to deal with the leftover hypoallergenic food, of which I have an unopened bag of dry food and a whole case of wet food. If the veterinarian’s office won’t accept the return, I might donate it to SPCA Montreal. I have dropped off even open bags of cat food to the SPCA for clients, and they have gratefully accepted them. It would hurt a bit not to be able to recoup some of the expense, but I have never had great luck selling items online.
The following day, I considered cancelling a visit from a new friend, but ended up going through with it to give me something to do. After an incredibly busy summer, I was in a brief lull in work, so had the luxury of time to socialize now. I was grateful that I had had the time to care for Ethel during her last moments instead of being busy. I took out my big teapot with the broken lid, made up some tea sandwiches for us to have a little “ladies who lunch” experience, and tried not to cry during the visit. I tried to scrub everything I could, and a lot of the kitchen and bathroom gleamed (the living room was a lost cause, and littered with the usual things in a home with a small child – wooden train tracks, books, and other kid-related and non-kid-related detritus).
My friend very kindly brought me a beautiful little flower arrangement, with a yellow rose in the center because yellow roses mean friendship and lifting up the spirits. I have only received flowers a few times in my life (partly because Olaf likes to eat them), and was touched that she had so carefully thought out such a nice gift. I was glad I went through with the visit, and we talked about cats and other things as we sipped tea and ate sandwiches, with the lovely flowers on the table.
Beautiful flowers, in honour of a wonderful cat.
Ethel was a great cat. She was my first cat, and she taught me so much. I adopted her as a single young woman working four jobs and living in a studio apartment that didn’t allow pets. Fortunately, the building administration tolerated cats. She was 5-years old, was the first cat I looked at at the shelter, and had been there for at least five months when I came to look at cats. She was part of a pair – her litter mate’s name was Lucy, a dominant, longhaired tuxedo cat (Ethel was a submissive grey and white shorthair). The volunteers wanted to adopt them out together, and I didn’t think I could support or house two cats, so I left. A couple weeks after my visit, I got a call from them that Lucy had been adopted, and Ethel was crying for her. I went over, and brought Ethel home. I kept her in the bathroom for the first few days. When I let her out, she cautiously explored, then peed on my bed because she didn’t know where the litter box was. So started my education on cats and how to clean cat messes (an enzyme cleaner helped to finally remove the pee smell from the mattress).
She was my first cat, and I remember being afraid to trim her nails. The how-to videos always made it seem so easy, but I worried she’d bite or scratch me. This is one of the reasons why I regularly post nail trimming videos on facebook. I understand that it can be awkward to trim your pet’s nails the first few times, and that it takes practice.
As with many cats who spent a lot of time in a shelter, she initially had no control over her appetite. If you filled her food bowl, she would empty it. If you put twice as much food in the bowl, she would empty it. I had to carefully measure her food, to fix the resulting paunch that developed. In her final years, she was able to graze lightly without gorging. With the exception of the hypoallergenic food – I suspect because it only comes in two flavours and one gave her diarrhea – she was not a picky eater and would eat anything you put in front of her.
She liked belly rubs
Ethel was extraordinary in several ways. She had six toes on each of her paws, and during her younger years, had been able to catch and hold a ball in her paw. She could also speak words, at least during her first year with me. She loved waking me up at increasingly early hours, softly yet clearly saying “cat food” over and over into my ear at 4:30am. She stopped saying cat food when I refused to feed her at 4:30am. Instead, she resorted to various methods of waking me up, including flopping down next to me on the bed, and “running” in place on my face with her paws. When I would finally get up, she’d meow and excitedly run back and forth to the food dish as if to lead me there. Y’know, in case I forgot where it was or got lost. She continued to meow at me loudly and lead me to the food dishes every morning up until a couple weeks ago. I guess that should have been another sign that she wasn’t herself.
Ethel was a scaredy cat. Usually gentle, if a loud noise scared her while you were holding her, she’d leave deep bloody claw marks on you as she leapt to the floor. I thought of her colouring as akin to a Great White Shark – grey on the top and white on the bottom. But she was not a predator; she was very much prey. I used to have to schedule her vet appointments carefully, as the timid, mild-mannered cat would scream bloody murder loud and wide once put into the cat carrier.
As with many cats, Ethel had two names. Her official, formal name – Ethel – and the name she actually responded to, which was Kitty. Unfortunately, Olaf also responds to Kitty, so when we added him to the family a number of years ago, it became harder to call just her, as they’d both come.
Ethel and Olaf
She liked to sleep on the bed, either next to me or by the foot of the bed, but as her arthritis progressed she stopped doing it. I tried lifting her onto the bed, and positioning a step stool by the edge, but it didn’t work for her. She liked to look outside the window, and when we lived in an apartment with a small balcony, she liked sitting on it, enjoying the fresh air. This summer, she parked herself right at the door all of the time, so you had to apologize to her every time you left and came back inside.
Ethel had a secret handshake. The best way to pet her was to use both hands to stroke her sides until she started purring, then let her sniff you hand. She’d rub her head against you, which meant that you could then pet her head and cheeks. But if you tried to pet her head first, she’d run away. She liked being brushed, but would run away first so you had to catch her, then she’d start to enjoy it as you progressed. During shedding season twice a year, she shed enough fur to mold into several new cats.
Ethel was sweet and affectionate, and very much a dignified lady. She hate traveling to the veterinarian’s office, but once she was there, she enjoyed the attention and adoration she received from the staff.
She moved with me through two states in the US, across the border, and through several apartments in Montreal. She was my companion for fourteen years. She was with me before I got married, then after I got married, and also after becoming a mother. She cuddled me when I was sick, and kept me warm at night. She greeted me when I got home at the end of the day, and helped send me off in the morning. Even as she was dying, she still rubbed against me and wanted to cuddle. She was amazing, my Ethel. She was such a great cat.
5-year old Ethel, looking out at the world.