(Warning to animal lovers: this is a story of animal euthanasia. Viewer discretion is advised.)
I have definitely rolled this question over in my mind in cases of abortion where a fetus has been diagnosed with some disorder in which doctors would declare the baby or fetus – however you define – “unviable.” These cases, as I’ve read, are usually of a developing fetus without a brain, lungs, and/or complete spinal cord and many, many other situations. I’ve always agreed that it’s better to end that “life” than let the child, baby or fetus suffer. But in cases that involve animals, I’ve always wondered if we’re doing the right thing.
My cat Alex came inside one night in December after his usual stroll around our yard. I didn’t let him in, nor did I see him. I walked by our bedroom a few times to find him nestled, like he normally was, in our big, fluffy duvet. A few hours later, I heard curses from Mr. B coming from our bedroom and trotted to see him take Alex out and put him on the floor in the hall. “He crapped on our bed!!” he said.
But Alex wasn’t the kind of cat to poo in anyone’s bed – especially ours. After all, that was his favorite place. And Alex wasn’t moving. He wasn’t slowly hunching away like he normally did from his crime scenes. He just sat there where Mr. B placed him. I called his name, and he ignored me. I noticed all his medium-length fur around his hind quarters was matted and wet. I carried him into the bathroom to inspect him in better light. There were no wounds, no bite marks. I didn’t understand, but Alex just laid in my arms as I cleaned him.
The next morning at the vet I suspected he would tell me that Alex had eaten some diseased garbage (as he didn’t usually stalk smaller prey – weird, I know) or had gotten into poison. Instead he called me after a few hours of observation to tell me, “Alex has a broken spine. It’s a definite break. I need you to come back in so we can discuss his situation.” When I arrived, the vet told me that it’s unlikely that a fall had caused the break (after all, it’s cat we’re talking about!), but that he was either hit by a car, or someone had hit him with a stick or shovel, or pulled his tail so hard his spine actually snapped between his hips. The break was past his spinal cord, but it seemed he still had lost feeling in his hind end and tail, and the ability to control his bowels and bladder. He told me that the only option besides managed care would be surgery.
I sought out any and every cat society, ASPCA branch and animal hospital I could think of to try and help me, but it all came down to $2000 I could not afford. A lot of places online claimed they would help animals in need, but when I emailed and called, no one returned my messages. I tried to raise funds on my own, but came up painfully short.
I’ve never believed in putting an animal down for economic reasons, though a lot of people encouraged me to. “Just put him down, Amie,” they would say. “He’s just a cat.” Sure, it’s true that I have a lot of feelings for Alex. After all, he was a stray that my sister and I found outside my grandparents’ house on the day I met my now husband. I decided to adopt him, and Mr. B and I named him together. Alex was our first pet. But that wasn’t it. For some reason, in my heart, I’ve always felt an obligation towards animals and all creatures smaller and more helpless than I. Plants, animals, children. Perhaps it stems from sustaining years of physical abuse where I cried out for help and no one listened, but I always have to go the extra mile to help.
I followed Alex around for a good two months with a bottle of 409 and paper towels before one morning we woke up to a house literally covered in poo. Alex must have had a stomach problem because his normal piles turned into puddles all over the carpet. It took three people over two hours to scrub out the mess and Alex was booted to the garage. I felt bad and guilty, but what could I do?
I would go out and feed him and visit with him. I took him his favorite toy and his favorite treats. We would let him in from time to time to eat and play with the other cats, but at night it was back to the garage where he would stand and cry. I felt terrible every time – like I was abusing him. Every time he would come inside and nuzzle against my leg like, “See, I am a nice cat! Remember?” It broke my heart.
Mr. B left for Egypt and I left to spend a couple of days with my father a couple of hours down the interstate. When I returned, I let Alex inside, but all he did was run to the bathroom and howl. I asked my family who watched him for me if there was anything out of the ordinary. They said they hadn’t noticed anything. He purred and nuzzled me in between moments of crying and collapsing on the floor. He kept rolling over to expose his belly, so I reached down to feel it. It was rock hard.
I called the vet. Something inside of me knew at that time that the news would be grave. There wasn’t much more we could do for Alex except wait for Spring and teach him to be an outdoor kitty. I cried as Alex meowed from his carrier. I tried to talk to him and make him calm, and while it was for him, it was for me as well.
The vet decided to xray and check for blockages. He returned and said the were none, that the problem had to be neurological and had not allowed Alex to empty his bladder any longer. I didn’t really know what to do. I asked the vet if there were any more options. He told me they could try to catheterize Alex, but it would be painful, and who knew how many times we would be back to do the same thing. I watched Alex circle around on the floor and collapse and meow in pain. I didn’t want him to suffer anymore.
I fumbled with my cell phone through my tears to try and reach Mr. B, but my international calling card wouldn’t work. I had to decide on my own. I wanted Alex to be in peace and I wanted him to feel better. I was tired of punishing him and feeling like I was a bad person for locking him out of the house only to listen to his endless crying. And though I wish it hadn’t, the cost of constantly visiting the vet crept into my mind. I had already spent at least $500 in vet bills for this situation alone, and I knew it would be more. I decided to put him down.
The vet asked me if I wanted to be in the room, and I did. I picked Alex up and put him on the table and hugged him. He purred. I hated myself. The vet gave him sedative which Alex never took to well. When he started to stumble around, the vet came back in with his assistant and wrapped Alex in a towel. He took a pair of clippers and trimmed some fur off his paw which fell in tufts on the table. The lump that had already been in my throat grew to drastic proportions and I felt it hard to breathe. As disgusting as it sounds, I wanted to sweep his clipped fur into my purse and keep it forever, but I didn’t. I just stared.
The vet felt for a vein and installed an IV to administer the chemicals. Alex struggled in the towel, and as he did before, like every time he’s been sedated, he started to wretch and eventually vomited his last meal I had fed him. I cried harder. I wanted to scream out for them to stop, but I didn’t. The vet tried to assure me it was just a reaction to the medications – which I knew. However, I wanted Alex to be at peace, not throwing up violently in his last seconds of life. I started to cry uncontrollably as the vet inserted a syringe filled with the infamous “pink solution of death.” My sister and I had named it that the day the vet came to put down our childhood dog who was suffering with cancer. I’ll never forget the color of Pepto Bismol, baby pink.
I reached out to hold Alex and to pet his ears as his body twitched. I told him I was sorry. I was sorry. I told him I loved him. The vet cleaned the vomit from Alex’s mouth as his tongue pulsated as if he were panting. Then the vet listened for his ending heartbeat with a stethoscope. I pet Alex and hugged him as I watched his eyes change from round pupils with a rim of bright green to nearly solid black. I apologized over and over to him, and to the staff. I made sounds I’m sure don’t usually come from humans as I cried. I asked to be alone with him for a moment.
The vet’s assistant came with a box of Kleenex for me. “Don’t worry,” she said. “If it was one of ours, you can bet we’d be bawling too. You did the right thing. You did everything you could.” I was riddled with guilt. Did I do everything? I couldn’t think of anything I could’ve done differently besides be more patient or maybe empty his bladder by expressing it more often. What did I do wrong?
She came back with a paper I needed to sign that said I did consent to euthanasia. Yes, I did. I consented to killing Alex. They asked if I wanted them to handle the body or if I wanted to take him home. I wanted to take him home. She came back in the room with a box, and picked up Alex’s limp body to place it inside. “Hmm…” she said. “We have a bigger box. Do you want that? I think he’ll lie out flat better in that one.” I cried more.
I put Alex’s body in the passenger seat beside mine and sobbed as I backed out of their drive and down the highway. I couldn’t breathe. The lump in my throat had grown too huge. I sobbed and gasped for air that wouldn’t come. I stopped my car and threw up in someone’s lawn.
I sat the box in the garage and went to my room to collapse, wailing, on my bed. I felt so guilty.
Maybe I shouldn’t have watched. Maybe it was just my pregnancy hormones in overload. I don’t know, but I felt…I feel horrible. I didn’t find any peace or solace in the fact that Alex is “at rest” and I still haven’t. Maybe that comes with time.
That night I called Mr. B again to tell him what I did. He told me, though he was very upset too, like everyone has, that I did the right thing for Alex.
I don’t know.