Predictably, it was not a good week for us. Henry had been around six years longer than our youngest son and was in every way a valued member of the family. When he began losing weight at an increased rate prior to the holidays, we took him to the vet and blood work showed that his kidneys were beginning to operate less efficiently (a common problem with older cats) and that he might also have developed a tumor on his pancreas. We talked about it as a family, and decided that as long as his quality of life did not appear to be suffering, we'd stick by him. We were rewarded with a happy holiday season during which Henry did his usual thing, greeting visitors and finding a comfortable spot on strangers' laps.
A few days into the New Year, however, we began noticing the three signs our veterinarian, Dr. Daniel Silverberg of Township Line Animal Hospital, warned us to look for, all of which signaled a reduced quality of life. Henry's behavior changed (rather than coming to our laps, he began lying on the corner of the couch in the same place without moving much), he stopped grooming himself, and his appetite began to wane. He would take some tuna or wet cat food if it was placed directly in front of him, but had no interest in the usual dry cat food, and was eating even less and less of the good stuff as the days passed. In addition, a hitch in his hip that had been only barely perceptible at first became more pronounced and began affecting the second hip, as well. After about six days, it was obvious to all of us that a definite change for the worse had occurred.
Of course, with five people in the house, it's never easy to come to a consensus on what to do when an old friend's health begins to fail, even when it's a pet depending entirely on its owners to make the hard choices. Some are in favor of immediate action, while others barely want to talk about it at all. In our case, there was also the issue of how much to involve my eighth grader in the process; he had known Henry his entire life and stood to be the most emotionally affected by his loss.
In the end, I arranged a family meeting, making sure everyone was available to attend. I went over all the facts, including the many ways in which Henry's health seemed to be deteriorating, and we all discussed the possibilities that doing nothing presented, namely that our cat would injure himself in his weakened state trying to walk to the water dish or the box, or that he might fall into a state of perpetual pain that we could do nothing about depending on the time of day or night. The decision was made to take him to the vet so that his passing could be handled in a professional, humane fashion.
And by the way, I called our veterinarian ahead of time to find-out when they could see us. It's important to understand that a vet will not always be able to accommodate you at the last minute, should you wait until your pet is in serious trouble or discomfort, which leaves a 24-hour animal hospital as the only option. This can require a needlessly long drive for you and your suffering animal, as well as an unfamiliar practitioner with whom you have no relationship.
I gave everyone in the family the option of going along with me to the vet, and two of my kids took me up on it. The staff carved-out time for us in the office when no other appointments were scheduled so we had the place to ourselves. They allowed as much time as we required alone with our pet and then guided us through the entire process. When Henry lost consciousness, he was getting the sort of treatment he always loved best: three different hands scratching his chin and petting his soft, white coat.
Looking back, I'm not sure there's any correct way to handle the loss of a pet, especially one that's been a long-term member of the family, other than to make sure the humane choice is made. I'm still not sure whether it was best to involve everyone as much as I did and I have people in my family who fall on both sides of that argument. The bottom line, I think, is that no matter how you handle it, the loss of a pet is not going to be a pleasant experience for anyone. How you approach the subject with you own kids will probably depend on your family's dynamic, and especially, the age of your children. The younger they are, the more advisable it probably is to distance them the specifics of what's going on.
What everyone agrees, though, is that we made the right decision as a family. Henry did not suffer. He was saved from that by our actions. And will forever remain in our memory as one heck of great pet, a good friend, and a beloved player in our Murphy family history.
---David MurphyRead more Parenting Perspective blogs by visiting the Parenting Channel on 6abc.com.