Are the usual pieties of putting an animal “out of its misery” sometimes self-serving?
Stew and I seem to be on a sad streak lately in the pet department. Our Alpha dog Lucy died about eighteen months ago, quietly and I should add mercifully, because she spared us the decision of having to put her to sleep. After a relatively short illness, she just turned up dead one morning by the kitchen door.
Then eight weeks ago, we weren’t so fortunate when our dog Domino developed cancerous tumors that during the final week left him prostrate. We had to euthanize him, the actual procedure brief but teary.
Now it’s our 17-year-old cat Fifo’s turn to say adiós. He’s been declining for at least three weeks, slowly and steadily. His aim at the litter box became hit-or-miss, which sometimes required raking the box twice daily and scattering newspapers around it for the times he didn’t hit home. He began drinking constantly and losing weight even as his appetite became ravenous.
During the past three days, though, he’s hardly eaten and become increasingly boney. Our vet Dr. Vásquez, a kind, middle-aged man who’s practiced in San Miguel most of his career, diagnosed Fifo’s problem as kidney failure, a common cause of death in cats.
He also counseled patience, not to rush the decision to euthanize Fifo, that the cat would “let us know” when it was time. I don’t know if his advice stems from his love of animals or his reluctance to put down yet another one, a sad but inevitable part of any vet’s bailiwick.
Stew still remembers the time, late one afternoon, when he found Tony Brizgys, our vet at the McKillip Animal Hospital during the thirty years we lived in Chicago looking tired and haggard. He confided in Stew that he’d had to euthanize four or five animals that day, a task that “didn’t get any easier no matter how long he practiced.”
Confronted with the reality that a pet is terminally ill, owners will couch the decision as “putting the animal out of its misery,” a difficult but ultimately kind act. But that rationale can sound hollow even if it’s inevitable, particularly when owners seem too ready to take that step.
Whose misery are they trying to end? The animal’s or their own? How do we know if by alleviating our own discomfort with an upsetting situation, we might not be unnecessarily shortening a beloved companion’s life, even by just a day?
In the United States, where too much is never quite enough, or so it seems, pet owners are flocking to vets offering kidney transplants for cats, among other extraordinary measures, to keep Sylvester or Fido alive, expense be damned.
A kidney transplant—Fifo may have been a good candidate—at a animal hospital in Georgia, costs $15,000 dollars, plus as much as twice or three times that amount for aftercare, such as hospitalization and administration of immunosuppressants twice daily for the life of the animal. Even then, feline transplant patients survive only a median of two additional years.
In Chicago, Stew and I once had a brush with such heroic interventions when we adopted Harry, a beautiful, all-white longhaired cat Stew found abandoned in the basement of a building he was inspecting. Harry was sooty and emaciated.
We cleaned him up, gave him all the shots and he seemed good to go for about three or four weeks until he had a frightful wheezing attack in the middle of the night. At about two or three o’clock in the morning we took Harry to a special emergency animal hospital where the vet did something to stop the wheezing but, about a thousand dollars later, couldn’t quite pinpoint the cause of it.
They referred us to a vet in Evanston, a northern suburb of Chicago, who indeed specialized in cardiology for dogs and cats. He checked out Harry and said it had a weakened or enlarged heart that prevented it from pumping blood properly. There was no cure, and at the time, no heart transplants for cats. The vet offered to euthanize free of charge if we authorized him to do an autopsy.
[For a full rundown on the explosive growth of critical care for pets in the U.S., read the December 2022 issue of The Atlantic magazine.]
We found Fifo shortly after moving to San Miguel. Stew and I were going through a bad case of post-retirement blues that we tried to soothe by volunteering at the Sociedad Protectora de Animales, a non-profit animal shelter. It was a chaotic operation that seemed to provide as much solace to the disoriented expat volunteers, mostly women, looking for something to do, as it did to the stray to dogs and cats it housed.
We opted to come in on weekends and paint the decrepit cat cages. One of the cat residents was Fifo, about a year old, and as Stew recalls, a genius at self-marketing: While other cats scampered or stayed away from us, Fifo jumped on Stew’s shoulder and would not leave him alone.
It’s a promotion strategy called the “I’m going home with you, buddy, even if you don’t know it yet.”
And he did. SPA records had him as “Antoine,” a ridiculous name for a stray cat, even a good-looking specimen as him. At the time I had read that Cubans had nicknames for Castro that they used for discreetly bad-mouthing the bearded Maximum Leader. One of the nicknames was “El Fifo,” and so Antoine became Fifo.
When we moved to the ranch Fifo came along, followed later by Domino, also a former recluse of the animal shelter.
His days here have been as good for a cat and they can be. At first he roamed the entire seven acres and even ventured into the ranch next door. He got along, or tolerated the dogs, and ignored the other cats. One day he showed up with the tip of the right ear missing, for reasons unknown.
Age and lately his declining health, though, gradually limited his outdoor ventures to just outside the house, and finally the back terrace where he would sleep for hours and catch some rays.
Fifo’s homestretch journey has been sad but also interesting. His walk became an aimless totter to the kitchen for a sip of water, followed by a brief stop at the terrace, and then a return to his den in the master closet.
Fred, the other Tom cat, became uncommonly kind toward Fifo, and sleeping close to him and sometimes licking his face. “Cheer up, ol’ chum!”
And the dogs, which used to chase Fifo around relentlessly, also began keeping a respectful distance, a curious display of inter-species kindness, perhaps, for a frail member of the family.
We had planned to go to Dr. Vázquez today to put Fifo to sleep. The old cat couldn’t go another day without food or water.
Instead, last night Fifo died quietly and peacefully in his sleep. We’re glad we followed Dr. Vázquez’ advice and allowed our old cat the chance to die on his own time and terms.