Warning: this post contains detail of what happens when you take a cat to the vet for the last time – please do not read if this might upset you.
I never had a pet growing up. With both my parents working, and a combination of allergies and phobias through the family, it just wasn’t a priority. I remember asking for a puppy once and, realising that it was never going to happen, accepted the “no” at the first attempt. When my husband and I first moved in together he made a case for us getting a cat – the perfect low-maintenance pet: give them love and remember to feed them, no walking or grooming, no cleaning cages or tanks, and perfectly happy being left while you’re at work. I remember not being bothered either way, I’d never had a connection with a pet, but he wanted one so we got a kitten.
I remember driving halfway across London to a townhouse that had far too many animals for the space – a family obviously making undeclared income by selling kittens and puppies. The kittens were far too young, only 5 weeks, but were being fed adult food and there was no litter in their tray. We had already agreed on a male grey tabby, but I nearly caved and wanted to take his brother and sister too just to get them out of there. I hope they both went on to good homes.
We named him Greebo, for the cat from the Discworld novels, and he really grew into that name. He was curious, energetic and slightly surly, even from a very young age. Despite it being Karl who wanted him, Greebo wanted me. He’d climb my back and sit on my shoulder while I washed up, it was my lap he wanted and, when I wanted to go to bed, he’d snuggle under the covers with me, with just his paws sticking out of the covers. He’d fight with the other cats and bring us presents. In addition to mice (sometimes hidden where we never found them until we moved out), he managed to get a blackbird into the kitchen one day and also brought in a very badly injured frog. Often he seemed to make a “friend” at each location. These cats were inevitably bigger than Greebo and I do worry it was more of a bullying relationship that friendship, but we’ll never know.
With each house move I always worried if he’d settle. Never used to a cat flap, he’d sit patiently by a door or window until we opened it, sometimes that patience was short…. He had his share of fighting injuries and nearly became more like his namesake at the age of 8 after taking a claw to his face. Fortunately, his eyeball was left with just a scar, which added to his surly expressions.
Every year, he got a clean bill of health by the vet. Even 9 months ago, they took some baseline blood tests and couldn’t believe he was 15. He’d slowed down a bit and had stopped chasing things (except for the laser pointer of the odd bit of string if he was in the mood), but he was otherwise fit and healthy and I just felt he’d be with us forever.
He’d been getting fussier with his food over the last few months, but seemed to be eating okay until this past week. He’d just not been himself and seemed to have lost weight. On Thursday he’d not been around much and not eaten any of his wet food, I’d tried tempting him with his favourites but he just didn’t seem interested. Friday night he still wasn’t eating his wet food and it took him a long time to come to my lap. As I stroked him I could see that he seemed to be labouring his breathing and seemed in discomfort. I didn’t want to wait until morning, so we phoned the out of hours vet. As I picked him up to put him in his basket for the trip, I couldn’t believe how light he was- although he fought me as usual to get into the basket, but didn’t seem to have the energy for his normal Houdini tricks.
As we drove over, he was sat up in his basket, looking at me, and I wondered if maybe I was being worried over nothing – had he just been out of breath after being outside chasing something? He was obviously thin, so was hoping that some IV fluids and some medicine might sort him out. As we arrived, the nurse had a look and because he wasn’t mouth breathing she didn’t see any need to put him on oxygen. Again, while concerned, I had convinced myself that this was only a minor problem and it could be easily solved once the vet had seen him.
We were called through, I got him out of the basket and he purred as I stroked him, and sat obediently for the vet. She checked his gums and said he looked pale and then felt his abdomen. While Greebo was purring contentedly at me, she just said “this doesn’t look good” and my world crashed.
My darling cat had a tumour that had already squashed his stomach so he couldn’t eat and had now crossed the point where it was pushing on his lungs. In about 30 seconds I went through the seven stages of grief with all the associated emotions running through me. As the vet suggested that the kindest thing to do would be to put Greebo to sleep, I was stood there as a grown woman crying my eyes out, completely unprepared for the depth of emotion I felt. While there were medication options that might ease his symptoms, it was obvious he would never be cured and this would buy months at most where he would be continually ill. I knew I couldn’t bear to watch him suffer and, after letting my husband know, I reluctantly agreed to put him to sleep.
Once we’d done the consent form, they shaved his front leg to put in the line for the anaesthetic and he showed some of his old fight. Once it was in, I gave him a big cuddle and stroked his head. He purred loudly in my ear, just like he was fine. I was still crying, not realising quite how many tears one person could produce. I put him down and they gave him the dose of anaesthetic that would put him to sleep permanently. The nurse helped me lay him down and then she and the vet left so I could be with him. He was immediately more comfortable as his breathing got shallower. There as so much life left in his eyes – he seemed so happy that I was immediately torn inside as to whether I’d done the right thing – should I have fought harder for other options? Was the diagnosis wrong? I couldn’t reconcile that my Greebo was not going to be around and these would be the last memories of him, but I wasn’t going to leave him. I stroked his head as his purrs faded and right to the end he was looking at me. I’m glad he wouldn’t have understood the meaning behind the floods falling from my eyes. I watched his pupils fully dilate, and he stopped breathing. I didn’t stop stroking him. Even after I thought he’d gone, he did a last swallow that made me jump and it really hit home that death is such a layered thing – for how long would that personality still be in the creature in front of me?
I decided to stay with him until I could stop crying. I don’t know how long that was, but it was longer than the vet expected as she came back in after a while and then left telling me to take as much time as I needed. As I composed myself it shocked me at how thin he was and while I couldn’t shake the guilt in my heart that I’d done the wrong thing, I knew that Greebo had been very ill, even if he hadn’t shown it until the last few days.
I picked up the empty cat carrier and walked back out into the reception area with the horrible task of paying the bill for what had just happened. There was family in there with a carrier that looked like it might have been cat sized. I heard the mother say “Oh my God” when she saw the empty basket and probably my puffy face too. I hope their animal was okay, whatever emergency it went in there for. After paying, I went back to the car. The basket was in the boot rather than belted into the passenger seat next to me. I sat there, feeling so incredibly lonely, guilty, angry and upset, and waited until the tears stopped before I started the 20 minutes drive home. About the same time, I knew Karl was trying to explain what had happened to our 4 year old, who seemed to understand, but as we discovered the next day, really hadn’t grasped that “our kitty” wasn’t coming home.
I am very happy he had 16 years with nothing but love from us, very happy he didn’t suffer, very happy that he didn’t die in pain alone out in the wet but there is such a hole in our lives. How long will it be before I stop calling for him when I get up in the morning? How long until I can tell people that he’s died without crying? And how long before these intense emotions become manageable?
Roo asked this morning if Greebo was still at the cat hospital. We’d told her he was very sick, and that he died and is not coming home, but she doesn’t get it yet.
The thing that struck me most from this is that in the UK, it is legal to euthanise your pets when they are very ill or too badly injured. The consent form is simple and it considered a kindness not to let them suffer. I made the decision that Greebo could not for himself, and that weighs very heavily on me. Yet, humans do not have the same level of treatment, even though they are capable of articulating their wishes clearly. While we should make sure that there are protections in place to avoid what could be murder under a more acceptable name, I don’t see how it could be illegal for someone to want to end their own suffering in a way that’s humane. I will be supporting any proposals to allow changes to UK law to this effect.
But I still really miss Greebo.