His name was Vito, and was a precious, gentle soul I called my best friend for nearly 16 years. On Sunday, October 25, 2020, around 6 p.m., I was by his side as he danced from sedated sleep across the rainbow bridge, his journey on earth ending. I had chosen in-home euthanasia, and it was the right decision for Vito and me.
How did I know it was time? Was it too soon? Too late? In complete honesty, I don’t know, and I’m not sure I’ll ever really know. But I’m sharing how I framed the decision before I had to make it and what I suggest you think about before you have to make it too. Then, I’ll give a brief overview of who Vito was, his declining health, and how I ultimately said goodbye with in-home euthanasia. My experience may or may not help you make decisions about your own cat, but I hope it at least gives you a little insight into what making this big decision can look like.
When it comes to euthanasia, there are a lot gray areas. It’s very difficult to tell the perfect time, especially with pets unable to verbalize how they feel. I don’t believe in waiting until the last possible minute, especially since cats disguise pain and discomfort extremely well. My biggest suggestion is to outline parameters for yourself, so that if you’re faced with even entertaining the decision, you’ve at least thought about it. My approach was:
- What is wrong? If unknown, is it easily diagnosable?
- Is the problem (or likely problem) easily fixable?
- What is the quality of life?
- Is the pet still acting like himself/herself?
It isn’t a bad idea to also consider what you’d spend cost-wise for treatment, as well as save a small fund for the euthanasia itself. Whether you go to a clinic or do euthanasia at home, there are costs. It’s better to be prepared than blind-sided. You may be able to go to an animal shelter for the service, but be prepared that it’s often an even more stressful environment than a normal vet.
Now, onto to Vito.
Meet the Don
As soon as I got my first apartment, I knew I needed a cat, something I’d wanted for 22 years but couldn’t have at home. Rocky was around five months old when I rescued him from a shelter, and I immediately renamed him Vito after Marlon Brando’s character from The Godfather. He was a playful, shy tabby with a kind spirit and endless energy. It took him a long time to socialize with people other than me, but he eventually became a fixture at a social gatherings: Watching everyone and letting those he deemed worthy to pet him. (Had I listened to him I would have made much better dating and friendship decisions.)
I called Vito my soul kitty. He always knew when I was physically sick or emotionally sad. If I had a migraine, he’d wrap his body around my head; if I had a cold, he’d curl on my chest. Stomach bug? Vito was on my belly or abdomen. Our bond was special, and even as I added a cat or two to the home, Vito knew he was my favorite, always taking the dominant alpha position by my head when I went to sleep.
When Vito was diagnosed with fibrosarcoma, a cancer cats can get from vaccines, I thought I may need to say goodbye. I didn’t want Vito to suffer, and would opt for euthanasia before I let that happen. But, it turned out it was very treatable. He was in remission within a few months, and I was happy to enjoy a few more years with him.
Soon after he was in remission, he got inflammatory bowel disease (IBD) and lost a ton of weight. We managed that, and he adapted fairly well, but was never able to put a decent amount of weight back on.
In 2019, he started having issues with his hind legs, likely from steroids (for the IBD). Using the litter box was too challenging, so I found his favorite pee spots and trained him to use puppy pads. I soon blocked off one set of steps to contain where he wondered and peed so I could stay on top of it better.
In 2020, he was diagnosed with stage 2 kidney disease (stage 5 is renal failure), and I decided to keep him comfortable with lots of wet food and subQ fluids. Although I was able to keep his disease in check, he started getting urinary tract infections, very common for cats with kidney disease, and especially cats on steroids.
With his 3rd UTI in a few months came a new and concerning behavior: Staring at walls, mostly unresponsive and sometimes peeing or pooping himself without noticing.
He started not sleeping with me, and if he slept with me, he often peeped the bed. I couldn’t always find him in the morning because he was behind a couch or other piece of furniture staring at the wall. Normally, he always purred when I cuddled him, but he seemed restless and rarely wanted to cuddle anymore. If he did, purrs were hard to come by. When I was upstairs to my bedroom, he’d typically cry for me downstairs, but he stopped doing that. This was NOT my Vito.
After a pretty generic blood panel, I spoke with a few vets who had treated him in the past, and they felt it was possible he had had stroke. It was clear, his behavior wasn’t normal, and there was likely a neurological piece. To find out what was going on would likely require more tests, and I didn’t want to put him through that. The issue was probably complicated and untreatable (treating 16-year-old cats comes with a lot of limitations).
Quality of Life
Seeing Vito lose the parts of him that made him him was hard. I also realized his quality of life was likely suffering, because with all the wall staring, he wasn’t sleeping much. That’s not good for any cat, but especially a super senior.
Beaker, who I got in 2016, started bathing Vito, and Vito let him. The two never got along, so I was very concerned. The night before I put Vito to sleep, Dolly, my cat who had been with Vito since 2009, smelled his head and had a Flehmen response (bearing upper teeth as she gathered a chemical message). She never did that to him before. Not normal. My cats were telling me Vito wasn’t right. That’s when I decided, it was time.
What it really the right time? I wasn’t 100% sure, but I would rather do euthanasia a little early than a little late. I wanted to prevent anymore suffering for Vito.
In-home euthanasia was something I had thought about for a long time. Although Vito was a champ at the vet, I wanted him to have the most peaceful, stress-free transition possible. I researched a number of in-home euthanasia services, and had the best feeling about Love & Dignity In-Home Veterinary Hospice & End of Life Care. After sharing a little about Vito’s situation, Dr. Heba scheduled for the same day, between 5-6 p.m.
After a lot of wall staring in the morning, the afternoon was a gift. Vito was acting mostly normal, and snuggled and purred nearly the entire time. I was able to enjoy him and enjoy our beautiful bond one last time.
As the time approached, I started getting anxious and tearing up. I put on some relaxing music and lit a candle to prepare. Vito was very hungry so I gave him a bowl of his fave: Friskies Pate with Extra Gravy. He sat in “his” spot on the couch devouring the food.
When Dr. Heba arrived and sat next to Vito, he looked at me very confused, possibly because I was wearing a mask (which I don’t normally wear in my house). But the look on his face was kind of like “What’s going on?” and it tugged at my heart a bit.
Vito Earns His Wings
Dr. Heba administered a sedative first, which is designed to help the cat fall asleep, ensuring comfort before the euthanasia solution is given. Vito was almost asleep, and then his head popped up and he started eating the little that was left of his food. This isn’t uncommon, so Dr. Heba was ready and gave him more sedative as he ate. Beaker was sitting on the back of the couch watching the whole thing, whereas Dolly was walking around seemingly clueless. I was crying like a baby.
As Vito fell asleep, Dr. Heba directed me to remove my mask and give Vito lots of loving. I kissed his head and told him I loved him and it was okay. As I did that, Dr. Heba delivered the euthanasia solution, a pentobarbital, which stops breathing and the heart from beating within minutes. Dr. Heba held her stethoscope to Vito’s chest as I continued to pet him. After what seemed like forever, she said, “He has earned his wings.”
There are a variety of options regarding after care, including owner burial, group cremation, or private cremation (ashes returned). I would encourage anyone to do what they feel is right for them. I’m sharing what was right for me, but it may be different for you.
I believe once a living being dies, their spirit leaves the body. To me, the body is only a vessel, and while I feel deceased bodies should be respected, it is no longer my loved one. Therefore, I do not feel an attachment to the physical body anymore.
I chose a group cremation (with other animals) where his ashes would be buried at a pet cemetery. I wanted a paw print to keep, so Dr. Heba imprinted one of Vito’s big paws into special clay that would dry over the next week. She put Vito in a small basket and wrapped him with a towel so only his head was showing. That’s how she carried him out to her car.
Coping & Finding Happiness
Vito predated most of my friends and even my best friends; my job; my home; almost everything that was part of my daily life. I was sad, and even though I wasn’t constantly thinking about it, I was tired. With no desire to do even basic things, I would lie on the couch and watch TV, read a book, or simply sleep. This was depression and it was real.
For me, allowing myself to feel sad and just mourn alone was the best medicine. While I missed him, I didn’t miss worrying about his well-being, which had been a big stressor for longer than I realized. No more puppy pads, baby gate by the steps, or cleaning up pee puddles or poop piles (he didn’t always have the best aim). Dolly took over Vito’s spot on the couch and on my pillow. Beaker was instantly more confident and wanted to play more often.
Through my sadness, I felt there was still happiness. Vito lived a full life, surrounded by love. My life was certainly better being touched by his gentleness, and I’d like to think his was better being touched by my genuine love. Although I’m still too sad to feel him, I do look forward to the day when it doesn’t hurt quite as bad, and I can feel his spirit close.