One Saturday morning not too long ago, I was rushing about, trying to pack, shower, and eat in under an hour so we could hit the road to my in-laws’ house in the Catskills for the weekend. Ten minutes into this mania I locked gazes with my treasured cat Zelda and wigged out. One of her pupils was smaller than the other. She looked as if she had gone mad.
I had no idea what was wrong but guessed it was neurological, and my mind defaulted to its home base: Worst-Case Scenario. If it came to it, I thought, at least I could put her out of her misery. But whatever it was, I had to do something fast.
I sent hubby off to the Catskills alone and embarked on a three-vet-visit weekend, broken up only by a few hours of sleep in my clothes on the couch because my sick cat was sleeping there next to me and I didn’t want to disturb her by leaving for the bedroom.
Between vet exams she developed new symptoms. Her right inner eyelid came out halfway and didn’t retract, even when her eyes were wide open. She wouldn’t eat. She was lethargic. She nearly fell off the arm of the couch, then stumbled again on the floor. The emergency veterinarian and our regular vet sounded multiple alarms: she needed to see a neurologist, an ophthalmologist, a surgeon; she should get an MRI, a CT scan, an X-ray. Eventually we got a diagnosis of an ear infection. Antibiotics might fix her right up, or she might need surgery to drain pus out of her skull.
My worry and fear, and the heartbreak of watching her tremble in terror in each vet’s office, pulled me straight back to the sicknesses and deaths of my cats Tiger and Howard. Each one suffered a prolonged illness and painful treatments culminating in euthanasia. Both times I felt that I had killed my cat too soon, or else too late. I didn’t know which, but I was sure I had erred in one direction or the other and was guilt-stricken over it.
That is a drawback of having the power to euthanize companion animals. We can end their suffering, but – at least for me – only at the price of sickening doubt. And we can’t decide not to decide, because that is itself a decision to let nature take its course.
Some animal rights advocates argue that we shouldn’t be in the business of “playing God” with animals’ lives in the first place. For them it isn’t just that we shouldn’t euthanize them, but in a perfect world, we shouldn’t even keep them as pets. I see their point. Being kept has robbed my cats of liberty and of the kind of life their instincts and bodies are made for. They aren’t allowed to go outside in our urban neighborhood (Murray would very much like to, please, right now, thank you; Zelda has never been out – within days of her birth she was delivered to me to foster — but wouldn’t mind the chance to tackle one of those captivating birds outside the window). They eat when we let them, go to the vet when we force them, had spay/neuter surgery, and never meet other animals. They live in a cage, even if it is large and highly enriched and features two besotted humans who work at home and scratch their cheeks a lot.
The cats of my household have always made out relatively well under this arrangement. They purr often and make happy paws (a friend’s phrase for their contented kneading motions), and they seek us out for cuddles. When they are on our laps we endure sweaty thighs, numb butts, and full bladders just to avoid disrupting their naps. They get regular health care. Statistics say they will have longer, healthier lives than their feral counterparts. But will they be happier lives? I can’t know.
We can dress it up in egalitarian lingo – my cats are companion animals, not pets, and I am their guardian, not their owner. I use those words myself with the goal of changing people’s attitudes about non-human animals, but the language is more aspirational than accurate. I do own them. I have locked my cats up in my house forever, and I can kill them any time without consequence as long as I have a vet do it with a syringe. What more is there to say?
What is in my cat’s best interest, when is the right time, should I have the power to do this at all – the decision to euthanize a pet is fraught with emotional and ethical implications. To my jubilation and relief I don’t need to consider them right now, as Zelda has finished 10 days of liquid antibiotics (administered over her most strenuous objections), is eating well, has her balance back, and is energetic enough to parade between us dispensing vigorous face-butting kisses and sprint to the bed when she thinks tummy rubs are forthcoming.
But she won’t be healthy forever. Barring a sudden death, the time will come when a veterinarian presents me with the same choice offered by Tiger’s and Howard’s vets. (Actually, in Howard’s case, after we asked the treatment team to perform another surgery they brought in a more senior veterinarian to talk us into killing him. Given my mental state at the time I’m not sure how much of a choice I really had.) I dread the next time I have to make that decision.
The hardest part is not knowing what my cat would choose. People who opt for physician-assisted suicide have elected death for themselves. The same is true of patients who are “unplugged” based on do-not-resuscitate orders they signed before they were incapacitated. My cats, however, couldn’t tell me when their pain had become unbearable or when they couldn’t stand one more surgery.
I remain painfully torn about whether I did right by Tiger and Howard. But the decisions to end their lives were not one of a kind. These choices were just on the extreme end of a continuum of choices I made for my cats, including whether they could hunt or mate and what and how much they could eat. Once I take responsibility for an animal’s life, I can’t opt out of certain decisions. I took them into my home and shaped their lives; it was up to me to shape their deaths as well, whether by requesting or refusing euthanasia. As Voltaire taught, with great power comes great responsibility.
I wonder if he had a cat.