When is it time to say goodbye to my old cat?

Some time ago, while Stew was lying in bed trying to read, our sixteen-year-old cat Paco sat on his chest to demand his nightly dose of head-rubbing and general coochee-coochee. Paco doesn’t quit easily: He’ll purr, meow, shove his head against whatever you’re reading, climb on your head if all else fails. No point in yelling at Paco either, for by now he’s deaf as brick.

Stew then said something that has stuck with me. “It’s amazing the complete trust animals have that you will never hurt them,” he said, to which I added, “Yep, I guess that’s what you call unconditional love.”

That brief exchange now echoes in my head, as old age and a failing body are rapidly catching up with Paco, forcing us to think just when our most loving decision might be to end his life or “put him to sleep” as that tired euphemism goes.

Paco has long been a loyal but demanding friend. We found him at the Chicago animal shelter one afternoon, sitting forlornly in a cage apart from the other cats which were wiggling in theirs, trying to catch the eye of any potential adopter.

Paco immediately caught our attention because it was Halloween, and he had beautiful long fur and was completely black, except for his green eyes and white whiskers. We’d heard that on Halloween black cats in some parts of the city were tortured or killed by kids because they were considered bringers bad luck, or just for the hell of it.

Paco sitting on the mantle of the fireplace of
one of our first homes in San Miguel. 

Stew and I naturally fixated on Paco, as we usually do on animals with some sort hard-luck story, real or imagined. Not only had this kitten been abandoned but he wasn’t likely to survive the night unless we took him home. So we did. 

Not too long after we took him home, though, we realized that Paco was in fact damaged goods and that it had nothing to do with Halloween. The cage he was in was reserved for animals that had been adopted but then returned to the pound.

Paco’s defect was not insignificant when you live in the confines of an urban dwelling. It consisted in not peeing inside the litter box regularly. In fact his batting average was about sixty percent. It’s gotten worse with old age.

He doesn’t pee in some remote corner of the house but in close proximity of the litter box, as if he meant well but, by golly, just couldn’t aim so good.

Returning him to the pound a second time, when he surely would be euthanized, was not an option. Instead we consulted vets and books, tried different types of cat litter and litter pans, even bought a covered pan in case Paco’s problem was the feline equivalent of pee-shyness in men.

Nothing worked and over the years we just put newspapers around the box that we would change whenever we cleaned or changed the litter.

Animals being totally unself-conscious beings, Paco never caught on that there was anything wrong, except possibly that his litter options inexplicably, and annoyingly, kept changing.

Today, his problems are much worse. His digestive system is incurably on the fritz, likely liver failure. He eats large amounts of food that go through his scrawny body with no visible result, except constant diarrhea. His formerly luxuriant fur is now stringy and knotty though he still makes an attempt to groom himself.

A few weeks ago we took him to Dr. Vazquez, a gentle and experienced vet, who described Paco’s terminal condition and suggested we consider Paco’s deteriorating “quality of life” and when to terminate it. Not yet, we said, and took Paco home.

We’ve had to make such decisions before with other pets and they were painful but obvious. The animal couldn’t eat or walk or sustain any serious pretense of living.

Paco, visibly frail as he is, is not giving us such an easy out.

He sleeps most of the time, as cats usually do, but maintains a strict schedule the highlight of which is marching to the kitchen a couple of times a day to demand a piece of sliced ham, a late habit Stew has created and encouraged, and which Paco laboriously accomplishes with the few teeth he has left.

It has to be San Rafael pork ham, sliced very thin. None of that cheap turkey ham or leftover crap.

After his ham break, Paco might go out on the terrace for a brief walk-about, after which he’ll return to the bedroom closet for a nap until the next food break, perhaps stopping by the litter box for yet one more attempt to hit the target.

And every day when I see Paco ambling about I remember Dr. Vazquez’s advice and a wonder when we “should put him out of his misery,” to use another hackneyed euphemism.

But then at night Paco climbs on Stew’s chest for his usual routine and goes to sleep at the foot of his bed when he’s had enough, and I say no, not yet.

That nightly routine is a daily reminder of his unfailing trust that we wouldn’t do anything to harm him. That certainly includes not ending his life, not before it’s time.

15 thoughts on “When is it time to say goodbye to my old cat?

  1. The first clause of the lede (“Some time ago, while Stew was lying in bed trying to read” had me wondering, albeit only for a nanosecond, but just the same, that it was time to say goodbye to Stew.


  2. Anonymous

    Awww…how sad. It's so hard to watch our feline friends slide into senescence. I've been fairly fortunate that my last two cats were pretty much fine until a rather rapid week or two decline at the end. So I had no such ambiguous situation to deal with. For you, compounding matters is the fact that you really have no idea how uncomfortable he is or whether he's in pain or not. I'm so sorry you have to worry about this. But at least with animals, we don't make every possible ridiculous effort to keep them alive beyond their time. If only we were so kind to humans. Saludos,Kim GRedding, CAWhere “Gato Guapo” (so nicknamed by a Mexican friend) is still doing fine. Thank God!


  3. When we enter into relationship there is inherent heartbreak – one of us is going to die before the other. I know all too well the heartbreak in this situation, and my heart goes out to all three of you. Love makes our heart sing but it can also make it bleed. I love that you've given Paco such a grand life. Bless you all.


  4. That is a GREAT name for a cat! Yep, if we could only communicate with animals to find out how they really feel, instead of how we think they feel, it would be a great help for everyone involved.I don't favor euthanasia for people, but I've heard of situations where the person has as much as said “I want to die, this is not worth it, leave me alone,” and the “kind” relatives refuse to follow those requests and order another round of chemo, radiation or something that everyone knows is going to prolong the death rather than the life of the person. But I recognize those are really difficult calls, clouded by religion, guilt, uncertainty, misguided love, etc.al


  5. Anonymous

    Pets, they get maybe 20 years. Linda and I are of the mind that pets are a rehearsal for the humans that leave our lives. I have a Jack Russell that is at the end, we carry her outside for her bathroom time. She is blind, deaf and has a broken leg but still seems game for another day. Linda and I have kept pets for our forty years of marriage and kept them in our youth, we've put a lot of pets down-it is never easy. Afterwards, I always wonder if I put them down too soon-the nature of keeping pets, I guess.


  6. Anonymous

    euthanasia for people: The reason one needs to have that heart to heart talk with at least one hard person in their life. That person who you know is able to turn their head and let you pass. I'm not saying giving help to speed things up but someone who has the nerve to watch you die when they could just as easy call the ambulance. I've been there, it is a hard thing to do to someone you love. As long as it was made clear what was wanted before their mind is mush-do that.


  7. I've seen that happen in real life and it's not easy. Doctors and relatives keep talking up yet another round of chemo, radiation or something, when they patient clearly wants to go in peace. Final directives sound good on paper but they the relatives chicken out or fear making the wrong, irreversible, decision.al


  8. Yes, you're right. We had a cat named Scott who lived to be twenty-one and refused to leave before his time, despite being deaf, blind, bumping into things and all those other indignities of old age. But then one morning we found him dead on our bed, in between our pillows. Some people thought it was gross. We thought it was an elegant and considerate way for Scott to say goodbye.al


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