Suffering and solace

by Andrea Peacock

"He died just like that. He didn't suffer," the woman said, speaking of a deceased pet. "Not like your cat."

I was stunned by her words: cruel, thoughtless and dead wrong. But she wasn't the only one to make such a pronouncement. In the months my husband and I provided hospice for our tabby cat Elk, who'd been diagnosed with cancer, we heard similar statements regularly. In our culture, letting an animal get the most out of the end of its life is thought to be neglectful or selfish, practically abusive. Perfect strangers feel free to pass judgment.

In fact, when our vet told us Elk had a month, maybe three to live, she also told us the cat could be made comfortable. The tumor in her mouth would eventually make it impossible for her to eat. In the meantime, she offered to prescribe antibiotics and a morphine-based salve. Thus armed, we embarked on the task of seeing Elk to the end of her life.

Each day, we'd spend hours fixing her food. What would be appealing? What would go down easy? We tried tuna fish, goat's milk, baby food, yogurt. I started chopping up venison, and by the end she had eaten all but the shanks of that season's whitetail. One day my husband Doug came home with four whitefish he'd caught from the Yellowstone River during a mid-February thaw. Elk demanded a piece, then more, and more. Eventually, she ate the whole thing. She always loved wild food best.

On clear days I'd shovel a path from the door to the driveway so she could sit on an open, sunny patch of concrete. When a lone wolf began killing deer in the drifts of our Montana front yard, she sat staring out the window at the eagles and ravens that gathered to clean the carcass. I spent entire afternoons reading by the wood stove, with Elk sleeping on my chest. We never left her alone, not for more than an hour or two at a time. She spent her nights as always, right in between us. Ready to bite our noses if we didn't wake when she wanted to be petted.

The vet offered steroid shots to check the tumor's growth. Three of these treatments later, it became clear that they were causing fluid to collect in her chest cavity. At this point, I worried that she was uncomfortable. Doug insisted she should have every good day. "Every last purr," was the way he put it. It was her life, not ours. We stopped the steroids. She purred all the time.

Come spring, the three of us hit the road. She stayed in motels for the first time in her life, ate takeout with us, and stared, jumping from window to window, as we drove through Zion National Park. When she met new people, she crawled in their laps. In Arizona, she bedded next to the low birdbath in the back yard, inching forward for a dash at the quail that gathered.

One morning, I got up early to feed her breakfast -- liquefied ground lamb -- and she couldn't eat. She'd taken to lying with her head in the water dish, her mouth submerged. This was how she'd been drinking for the last 24 hours. The tumor had grown; she could no longer meow. She couldn't purr. The look in her eyes was unmistakable, and it hadn't been there before. I woke Doug and said it was time.

One of our vet friends had given us a syringe full of heart-stopping drugs to end her life, and we used it. In an instant, she was gone. Since we weren't home, we took her to the closest veterinarian to have her cremated. "So she suffered for a long time," the vet observed as I handed her my kitty's body wrapped in a towel. I wanted to tell her how wrong she was, of the extraordinary four months we'd shared. But I was far too gone in my grief to speak.

Certainly there are people who love their pets who don't have the resources -- especially the time -- to do what we did. Far more often it's a matter of convenience to kill our pets before disease takes them from us. I won't judge others' choices (as they've felt so free to judge ours), but as we prepare to end our first year without Elk, I realize it's the memories of caring for my dying cat that have been the greatest balm. She died knowing exactly how much she was loved.

Andrea Peacock is a contributor to Writers on the Range, a service of High Country News (hcn.org). She lives in Livingston, Montana.

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