Who decides when is Fifo’s time to go?

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.

Fifo sunbathing in the bathroom sink.

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.

More afternoon sunbathing, this time atop the computer printer.

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.

25 thoughts on “Who decides when is Fifo’s time to go?

  1. Barbara Lane

    I’m so sorry. As I said when I had to put my dear Pea down a couple of months ago – inherent in every love story is a broken heart, as one of you is going to go first. I suppose having multiple loves puts us at risk for multiple broken hearts. It’s so hard. Your pets won the lottery when they ran into you and Stew. Sending grande abrazos.


  2. babsofsanmiguel

    It’s NEVER easy no matter how we “lose” a pet!  So sorry Fifo has crossed the bridge but hada great life “at the ranch”.Dr. Vasquez is a stellar vet and got me through the loss of both Flash and Velcro.  So kind. Hugs to you both………. Barbara San Miguel de Allende, Mexico

    415 124-9450 Mx Cell 713 589-2721 Vonage


    “Life is either a daring adventure or nothing”                                            Helen Keller


  3. Patsy

    My condolences …. We love our babies..my Miguel is going on 19,he and I are both slower and I will follow Dr.Vázquez advice also .Meantime we are enjoying each other’s company.Happy Holidays to both of you👍♥️

    PATSY Sent from my iPad



    1. 19 is pretty old for a cat. We had one Scott in Chicago that lived to be 21, but during his last year had a series of mini strokes that progressively left him blind, deaf and pretty disoriented. But Scott kept on trucking until one night he died on the bed with us, while we slept.


  4. jenniferhamiltonsma

    So very, very sad. What a beauty. I love the story how he attached himself to you (Stew) at the SPA and was therefore your forever cat. Carry on……tearfully.


      1. Nancy Plax

        Hi, back on Dec. 10th. Sunny and chilly, but nice to be outside. We arrived October 12th and the trees in Chicago were spectacular this year!

        Later today picking up our Thanksgiving dinner from a wonderful Brazilian restaurant near the United Center (Damen and Adams). Will celebrate a day in advance and then leftovers on Tday.

        Happy Thanksgiving to you both.

        Look forward to our return.

        Want to experience Christmas in SMA

        Stay well



  5. Carole

    It highlights the close bond that we form with our pets and how we continue to miss them long after they are gone. Emily was our first, a lovely slim half siamese who lived to be 23 years of age and developed cancer. She was followed by Rusty a feisty orange large fellow who came to us from our son who was moving and could not keep him. He was a delight and always recognised the sound of our car and would be waiting on the porch to greet us. He lived to be 17 and spent the last 6 months of his life sleeping up beside me on our bed. I still miss them and would so love to have another but so difficult when travelling. I like to think there is a senior cat out there waiting for us to settle in one spot and be taken in.


    1. Emily’s longevity is amazing, even longer that our cat Scott in Chicago, who lived to be 21 and we thought was the oldest cat in captivity. Must be that salubrious Canadian climate. Or something else. Have a happy American Thanksgiving.


  6. Fred

    Al and Stew,
    Wow. You guys and your pets have had a run of unfortunate.times. Sorry to learn about the latest of the “passings”. Jump right back in the water…another cat or dog should be considered soon. Fred


  7. Fred: Thank you so much for your condolences about Fifo, especially since we recall you don’t like cats that much anyway lol. Hope your tune-ups and oil changes in San Antonio are going well. Say hello to the two Rons and to Rico.


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