She died peacefully at home

Paw print in snowHollywood has a lot to answer for. Movies and TV portray death as this noble, painless (other than a few dramatic twinges), peaceful event. Our hero is shot in the chest, and manages to gasp out his last profound words before slumping slowly over in the arms of his beloved (or his faithful sidekick). There’s blood, but not too much. Or the old person at home in front of the TV who just “slips away”. These things are not the norm, not the expected. Death is often the opposite of peaceful.

I can’t answer to what really happens with people, though my ER doctor clients can, and it sounds roughly the same as what happens with pets. Natural death (unassisted by any hospice-type medications) isn’t generally pretty, it isn’t sanitary, and it is generally not sentimental or peaceful. It’s profound sometimes, but mostly it’s just very real.

In the wild, a sick animal, as he becomes more and more debilitated, is generally killed and eaten by something higher up the food chain. In this case his death is hopefully swift in the end, but certainly painful and frightening for as long as the event lasts. I don’t think being chased and cornered and mauled until you eventually succumb to your injuries is particularly peaceful, no matter how long it lasts.

If the wild beasts don’t eat him he has a rather lingering and probably painful period of physical and mental suffering before isolating himself and freezing, starving, suffocating, or dehydrating to death, eventually unable to move out of the pool of his own excrement as his organs gradually shut down.

We have such hopeful expectations when we think of our own pets passing away. We don’t want anything like the above to happen; that’s why we don’t leave Jasper and Mittens out in the wilds to fend for themselves. We want to protect them.

We want Mittens to die peacefully in our arms on the sofa while we kiss her and whisper our last loving words into her ear, so she knows we’re here and she’s not alone. We want Jasper to die curled up in his bed, so that one morning we come downstairs and he’s just… gone, and we don’t have to make that awful decision.

Some people want this so much that they don’t plan for anything else. They want to force this scenario on their pets, no matter what. They think that if they just don’t call the vet, ignore the fact that the pet is not eating anymore, or drinking, or is hiding under the bed all day, or the abdomen is enlarging with fluid, or Jasper is having a harder time breathing, if they don’t schedule an appointment with the vet that “nature will take its course” and Mittens will decide on her own that it’s time and expire in a tidy and entirely Hallmark manner.

And, eventually, Mittens will die. That’s a fact. But without help she’ll likely have a terrible time of it. She will be no different than the wild animal whose life gradually leaks away, as her kidneys and liver and heart pack it in, toxins take over, there’s not enough oxygen, and she gasps and has seizures and urinates on herself and nobody is there to make it stop. Nobody is helping her to go peacefully. Nobody is minimizing the pain, discomfort, distress and fear. Her owners think they care, but they don’t care enough to take on the pain themselves and make a decision to relieve her suffering – they let her go through it instead.

And then they post on Facebook that she died peacefully at home.

Photo credit: Predator via photopin (license)

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31 thoughts on “She died peacefully at home

  1. My cat had tachycardia for two weeks (that I know of), and the vet chose not to treat her. She crawled away in a cupboard for a peaceful death, but I found her and hauled her out. I guess I was going to love her back. She got sq fluids, and was hand fed, and she did spring back, but started declining again a few hours later. I envisioned a peaceful death at home, but I was wrong. She started gasping and was stridorous, so I gave her a codeine pill to sedate her, but she choked on it. It was the worst thing I could imagine, she was crying and gasping for air, I couldn’t let her go through that, and by then it was 11pm. I loved that sweet cat, she used to lie on my head, knead my hair, and purr me to sleep. I held her tightly enough that she couldn’t breathe, and in my weakness probably only did so for about twenty seconds. It was enough, and she passed about two minutes later. That was five years ago. My cat trusted me to care and love her, and make decisions that would be best for her, but her final moments were spent in fear and pain, and in the end She knew I killed her. You can’t walk away from that.

    Anyone wondering if they should get the vet to give that final injection…yes. Don’t wait until the middle of the night, or until your pet is writhing in pain. If they are dying, make it peaceful, even if it steals a few days from you. You will never be able to forgive yourself otherwise.

    If I don’t believe that I’ll get to see my dear cat again, if I don’t get to tell her how stupid and sorry I am for her horrible death, I can’t think of myself as a decent person anymore. God and I will be having a talk, when I see him. I doubt he’ll have the answers I need.

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    • I commend you for having the strength to recognize your weakness and carry the burden you earned. People, such as below, are always going to default to ‘give yourself a break’ or ‘or let it go’..or ‘stop beating yourself up’.. Because heaven forbid we accept the consequences of our actions and decisions, and live with them.

      I don’t see any reason to candy coat it, you didn’t. The truth of it is, yes, you failed that little being, have the fortitude to make up for it by carrying the burden, and you are. I’m blown away. This society is so willing to ‘let it go’..because our society has become lazy, self important, self indulgent, and irresponsible. Oh, and other beings couldn’t possibly be worth the anguish, unless their human of course.

      You are not a bad person. Quite the opposite. Most people are pretty damn happy to go ahead and absolve themselves of all fault, because it’s easier, or they simply believe they are just that important. You are clearly a person of integrity, bravery, and strength, for sharing this story, and for bearing that burden. I respect the hell out of you. Only a GOOD person feels this kind of remorse. Only a GOOD person reflects on these things and tries to learn from it. Only a GOOD person would take this weight on to their soul for an innocent little being. Only a GOOD person can actually feel the way you do about it, and try to help other people and animals with the knowledge you gained from your experience.

      I do agree with one sentiment, do try to forgive yourself, for surely if you had truly understood the reality of the situation…you would have done things differently. Trust me…I know….it’s like pulling teeth out of your own damn head to forgive yourself……but at least attempt to.

      Something I am trying to do to forgive myself, and to lessen my self flagellation is to remind myself….Nothing I do to myself is going to change what happened (as someone mentioned). And the past is no longer important as anything but reference for learning. Look to the future, use that knowledge and understanding to make the future better, especially for the pure and helpless.

      You are on hell of a person to have shared what you have shared. Honor your kitty by fighting for the rights of the rest 🙂

      I applaud you. And send you hugs. I know…it never gets easier.

      Liked by 1 person

      • Thank you, what a kind reply. You are right, I remember because I value the love she gave me, and she taught me a very hard lesson. Damned if I’ll put any other cats through that pain, so she has made their final days much easier. Share the story, and we can use it to prevent dozens of deaths like that.

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    • I also let my dear, precious cat, Isha, go too long. Blind, deaf and diabetic for 8 years with her body slowly shutting down, I had intended to put her down before Memorial Day weekend when we spend time at our cottage. Instead, I enlisted a neighbor to care for her while I was away because I had convinced myself that she was enjoying the warm spring weather too much to put her down now.
      A few days after I got home, she was indeed warming herself in the sun in my driveway…I backed my car right over her tiny body. she died 4 minutes later in my arms, gasping for air while I screamed my bloody head off.
      My actions directly caused her a very painful death. I dreamed of her for years afterward…I will never let an animal go too long again…and i will never forgive myself.

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    • God has already given you the answer by showing you the wisdom that you express so eloquently in this post. He and your cat have already forgiven you. Now it is time to forgive yourself :). Peace.

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  2. Bees, I wouldn’t wish that on anyone who loves their pet. Try not to beat yourself up about it; it won’t change anything, and you obviously didn’t intend for this to happen to your kitty. I think intentions count for something. I’m so sorry you had to go through that.

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    • Thank you for your kind words. Everyone should know what can happen if you let nature take it’s course. I’m a nurse, seen lots of deaths, and I thought I was prepared. Nope. I will never, NEVER knowingly have an at home death without injectable fast acting sedation, and I don’t know if a vet would go along with it. Euthanasia a day or two early beats letting my cat be terrified and struggling. Pass on my story to whoever you think needs it.

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  3. I worked at a vet for many years and was a grief counselor of sorts. It’s not about quantity it’s about quality. I would commend them on their courage to make the hard decisions about the pet. So people become very selfish and want to keep doing things to a pet, that just needs to be allowed to pass in peace. I understand the pain in letting go. We need to know when it is time to help them on the last journey. That is love.

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  4. I work with a mobile vet, and we do many at home euthanasias. We first give a sedative so the animal falls in to a deep sleep, and then give the final injection. The family holds, pets & comforts the animal (if they choose to) while their beloved companion slips away in the comfort of their own home, bed or lap of their person. It is so peaceful, I wouldn’t want it any other way. It’s true, some people wait too long, hoping for that peaceful unassisted death, which seldom happens. It breaks my heart to see the guilt they feel.

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    • I was literally thrown into shock when my dog was given a final injection WITH NO PRIOR SEDATIVE and NO INFORMATION TO ME BEFOREHAND that they were just stopping her heart so damned suddenly like that. I made the mistake of telling her, “Wait for ,me.” which was the command I always gave her when I was leaving the house. They gave her that injection AS I SAID those words and so, her last expression was one of abject fear that I was walking out on her. -And then, she was gone. ..I was in such shock I did not even cry. I just got up and walked away. The vet was completely freaked out by my response but WTH. Why on earth would you not prepare an owner better than that and why the hell wouldn’t you offer a sedative first?

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      • I euthanize most pets without sedation, but it depends on the pet. Most of my dog patients love the clinic and are quite happy sitting or lying there having special treats or getting attention. Sedation can actually make the situation worse, mainly because of the owner’s reaction to the sedated dog’s incoordination and lack of focus.

        Certainly if a dog is very anxious I will sedate. You are right, the vet should explain what is going to happen, and that the pet will pass away quickly, usually by the time the injection is finished. That can be shocking to some people, as it obviously was for you. I can assure you that the last thing you vet wanted to do was upset you.

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  5. I wish our vet here in Spain was more amenable to putting animals out of their suffering. Our poor cat Murphy suffered for days, and the vet kept saying “he can make it…” Murph died a terrible death, at home, in my arms but after indescribable agony. I am still frosted at that doctor…

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  6. I believe in euthanasia for our beloved pets, but what about people. We are also allowed to die in pain and agnony. When I am at that stage I would like to go peacefully with sedation and loved ones by- no more trying to live a little longer being miserable along with a grieving family having to watch me suffer. We have had to euthanise several of our pets. It is awful, but not as bad as watching them suffer.

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  7. Pingback: She died peacefully at home | Claws Carefully Sheathed | Parrots, Prose, and Poetry

  8. This is an important post. I wish I had known about it years ago before I let my first cat who made it to 19 years die ‘peacefully’ at home. There as no peace to it. All the things you described is what happened. I cried and literally howled at my helplesness to help him. I decided then I would never put a pet through that again. Since I rescue cats now and have 10 of my own and 2 fosters, I’ve learned a lot. But I got talked into trying to treat 2 kittens I got from animal control with subq fluids and medication who had distemper, learning later they only had a 10% chance to survive. I told the vet later that she should have recommended they be put to sleep. It was not fair to them or me. Since then I’ve had to have several others put to sleep as they had injuries or sicknesses that made survival unlikely. It’s hard to make that decision, even for a cat I’ve only had a couple of weeks but it’s the right thing to do. Great info – please keep sharing.

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  9. A stalemate had an elderly horse, ancient actually, suffered for years from melanoma cancer. Got to the point where no matter how much she ate, no nutrients were sticking with her. She was already on meds for diarrhea, and possible ulcers. Still she became a walking skeleton. Her owner called a vet out to put her down. The humane thing to do. Vet arrived, “evaluated” horse, determined that since horse was still eating and interactive that it went against her nature to put the horse down until she absolutely had to. WHAT??? Owner deferred to the “professional opinion”. Pays vet for barn call and more ineffective medications. Another 6 months goes by. Poor horse is so skinny now you could make her unsteady simply by rocking her withers. But she still eats, whinnies and greets people at the gate. Owner goes on vacation. A week later I go to feed breakfast to the horses and her horse is down in barn aisle. Apparently had been down all night. She had a hole dug in the dirt where she had been trying to get up. One side of her face was hide less where her head had repeatedly scraped the wall in her attempt to get up. My horse was traumatized from watching that all night, trapped in her stall by her flailing friend. My horse was trembling and snorting and softly nickering. I got owner’s husband to call vet out and this time the vet put the horse down. Then charged the owner an emergency fee on top of the euthanasia! In my mind that vet was totally wrong and caused that horse to suffer needlessly. No living thing wants to die. Caretakers often know what is best for their wards. Sometimes professionals are only thinking of their bank account and fail to do what is the right thing. If you are asking the question, “should I put them down”, then yes, it is time to let them go with dignity. Sometimes you have to be insistent with the vet that it is YOUR companion and YOU know best!

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  10. So, being around death all time with humans that, at times, can articulate pain and suffering I got to say this article is well meaning, but lacking in facts and and experience. The common pathway for many of a cat’s death is going to be kidney failure. It you took a poll of my ICU colleagues I’m sure slipping into a metabolic coma from acute kidney failure would be our #1 preference of death, just from the least amount of suffering method. I feel that the pain from that kind of death would be a toss up for any animals from the actually trip to the vet and process of euthanasia. When our semi-feral pet cat had kidney failure I freely admit we euthanized her so she wouldn’t crawl into some hole and we would have to go look for the decomposing body. I really don’t think the process of cat carrier, shaving, needle was any more or less painful for her.
    I had an interesting conversation with the vet about that I HAD to put my dog down from hemolytic anemia because he was suffering. I was looking at my dog, who was just tired and done, thinking “Really?” Cause I have to think of my bleeding out patients from blood loss and the suffering is coming from injuries and our interventions, not the blood loss. We then had a very enlightening conversation that Vets seldom see animals “just die”. My definition of suffering was, “can my dog have a massive heart attack and how painful would that be?” She was thinking, “well I know people with bad anemia can feel sort of crappy.” Completely different scales of suffering.
    Our awareness of death makes us as a species sort of crazy about it. We want to avoid it at all costs as long as possible. Then when we do acknowledge that it is unavoidable we want to still manage it. I freely admit that when I give boluses of pain meds or meds to dry up oral secretions when a patient is at the end with agonal, rattling breaths near death what I’m really treating is the family, not the patient. The patient has had low oxygen and blood pressure for hours and has been unresponsive to pain. Are they suffering? I cannot say for sure, but I do not think the suffering in excess of I compare it to what some patients go through, still live, and recall.
    Don’t get me wrong, I am a huge fan of palliative care and hospice and I do want to treat and manage their symptoms and suffering. However, we have to be honest, we cannot 100% manage death anymore than we can life. Even the seemingly benign euthanasia of a pet will not go the same way every time. I’ve unfortunately done it too many times and there have been times it had been less stressful than others for the animal, and it was independent of the Vet or method. Because on some level the body will always fight death, that’s it’s programming, even when it is immediately inevitable. There is no way to completely skip by this.
    So by all means, do not let your pet suffer. Be honest about who you are preserving their life for, you or them. But the idea that you MUST put a pet down in all circumstances is also about control and you should be honest about why you are doing so.

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    • I think this reflects the difference between pets and people. Acute renal failure is uncommon. Most cats dying of chronic renal failure become uremic, with ulcerative stomatitis and uremic gastritis. Oral secretions are thick and malodorous, the cat cannot swallow, they cannot eat or drink. They vomit and scream in pain. This is so definitely suffering. Also, I’m not talking about patients who have the option of palliative care. These are animals who are never seen by any medical professional at the end. They just die with the disease. No Lasix for the pulmonary edema in heart failure, no seizure or pain meds for the brain tumor, no drugs to treat the gastritis pain, no sedatives, no morphine CRI for the bone cancer pain, no oxygen support, nothing. They get to be in naked awareness of what is happening until something changes. I doubt that happens much in human medicine.

      I also think there is a moral aspect to this – animals do not understand what is happening. Should we just “let them die” when we don’t have to further their suffering at all, no matter how insignificant we might deem it?

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  11. Thank you for this post. It’s made me cry more than once, but I keep it in the back of my mind to lend me strength. We have an elderly cat with kidney disease. For now it’s manageable, but one day, not nearly far enough in the future, it won’t be. And then I will reread this as often as I have to to remind myself that I love her enough that I will hurt so she doesn’t have to.

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    • Moq, I have a cat with kidney disease right now, too. There are things that you can do at home that are not too invasive and that can make your cat’s decline slower. Make sure you speak to your vet about nutritional support, fluids at home, probiotics, calcitriol, antacids, and other things that might help maintain a really good quality of life for as long as possible. If you’ve already done that, I commend you for taking good care of your senior friend. (Oh, and make sure that you are weighing your cat regularly to catch weight loss early on.)

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  12. Dear claws ,first sorry if my English isn’t very good for i’m not a native speaker, second i just want to say thank you,.Tthis post allowed me to undersand that “waiting for the unavoidable to happen” is not acting like a good and responsible owner. Opening my eyes and taking a harsh but much needed decision was difficult but i managed. Once again thank you.

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  13. I certainly believe in euthanasia. I can’t tolerate seeing my beloved pet in pain. But know that death isn’t always horrible and painful. I lost my old girl dog in April. When I got up in the morning she was laying near the back door, and was unable to get up but with no signs of pain. I knew I was going to lose her. I stayed with her for a while, then we put her in the car to take her to the vets just in case there was pain towards the end. She fell asleep in the car while I petted her and told her I loved her, and I knew she wouldn’t wake up. It was peaceful and painless. I’m very grateful for that.

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