Written by Rachael Gillis
Kidney (renal) disease affects 1 out of every 3 senior cats. 94% of cats who develop hyperthyroidism are over 10 years old. 1 in 5 cats gets diagnosed with cancer. Unfortunately for senior cats, disease and chronic illnesses are very common.
My experience with my old lady, Lily, is similar to that of many others. Throughout my years in veterinary hospitals, I’ve seen many similar cases and was asked time and time again: What should I expect? Although every cat’s story is different and no cat will follow the same end-of-life path, I wanted to share my story and the lessons I learned from it so that others may catch signs early, and understand what may be coming.
WARNING: there are some photos below that may be tough to see, and details that are difficult to read about.
Realizing Something Is Off
My family had rescued Lily when she was just 8 weeks old from the local shelter, and she had lived a quiet, independent, indoor-cat life for those 13 years. My mother was her favorite person and though Lily didn’t like my sister or me very much, we loved her unconditionally.
Our beautiful Lily became sick when she was 13 years old. Like many cat owners, we had fallen behind on bringing her to the vet and didn’t think much of it because she was always seemingly happy and healthy. But one day, she suddenly looked a little bonier and her eyes a little less bright, so it was time for a trip to her vet.
A senior blood panel at her regular vet showed that she had early kidney disease and hyperthyroidism. Neither of these diseases are curable, but they are commonly diagnosed together and they are manageable. We started a treatment plan of two doses of transdermal Methimazole every day to regulate her thyroid level and a special prescription diet to manage her kidneys.
It was expensive to keep up with, but worth it for our girl.
Lesson #1: Especially as they age, take your cat to the vet annually even if you think they’re healthy. Always watch him/her closely for any changes in appetite, water intake, weight, and other behavior changes. The sooner you catch something, the better chance they have.
The Calm Before the Storm
Then there was a period of about a year and a half where everything was just okay. We gave the medication in her ears every day, she happily ate plenty of food, we brought her in for bloodwork rechecks every few months, and she gained a lot of weight back. She even became much more social than I had ever seen her; it was like she was a brand-new cat!
For a moment, we forgot she had any chronic illness at all and we carried on blissfully.
Lesson #2: Enjoy them while you can. Accept that the end may be near and prepare yourself for that, but just relish any time you have left with them while they’re still themselves. Time is always fleeting.
And then things fell apart. During one of her regular visits, her doctor noticed that her breathing was irregular and after an ultrasound, they found fluid in her chest and possibly around her heart which is life-threatening and needed to be seen by a specialist immediately.
Lily went to Dr. Prahl in Internal Medicine at Bulger Veterinary Hospital to have the fluids removed. The procedure went well and she went home later that day. But later that night, her breathing worsened and we found ourselves at the closest ER, Mass Vet, at 11 o’clock on a Tuesday night.
To keep things short, Lily was hospitalized for 3 days for kidney failure treatment, lung cancer assessment, fluid removal, and oxygen support. The option for humane euthanasia was on the table, but we were just not ready to let her go. She saw six different doctors during her stay and went through Dr. Sosa in Cardiology, Dr. Davies in Critical Care, Dr. Tromblee in Radiology, and Dr. Frye, Dr. McDermott, and Dr. Walker in Emergency. I got multiple update calls every day and visited her through the glass of an oxygen box.
She had times where she was looking great, and times where they weren’t sure if she was going to make it.
Finally on the morning of day 3, she was discharged and came home.
Lesson #3: Pet hospitalization hurts your emotional health, and your wallet. If you don’t have pet insurance, be aware that something like this can cost you upwards of $2,000. There are many things to prepare for when you have a senior pet, and this is just one possibility.
Lily couldn’t get around much so we set up camp for her in our kitchen with beds, blankets, bowls, and her litter box to make her comfortable. Some days were good and some days were bad, she ate and then she didn’t, and sometimes she made it to the couch and sometimes she couldn’t make it to the litter box. At this point she only weighed 5 pounds, while she had weighed 12 pounds her whole healthy life.
We knew she wasn’t our Lily anymore. All parts of her personality were gone, and we could tell her body was just surviving. We waited for her to peacefully pass away in her sleep, but the day never came.
Her body kept fighting, but she was long gone.
Lesson #4: Pet hospice is the most difficult part for them and for you. The best thing you can do for them is just be there. Sit with them, pet them, talk to them, because they are in there somewhere. They need you now more than ever. Be strong for them.
A Pet Owner’s Hardest Decision
And so, we chose euthanasia. Even though I have always supported and “appreciated” euthanasia, it’s different when it’s your baby and it was very difficult for me to come to terms with ending her life for her.
But now she was suffering, and that was on us.
One week after her 15th birthday she slipped away, weak and effortlessly, in an exam room in my mother’s arms; in the arms of her favorite person.
It was a long journey and like everyone always says, “she lived a long, happy life.” I will forever be thankful for the many years I had with her and for all the veterinarians who extended her life far beyond what would have been possible without veterinary medicine. Still to this day, I look to her spot in the window and think of my beautiful Lily.
Lesson #5: You know your pet better than anyone. If you think it’s time to let go, then it probably is. If you’re struggling with the decision to euthanize, reach out to your veterinarian for guidance and support during this difficult time.
End Note: When we bring a pet into our homes, we all sign up for the heartbreak at the end. The end-of-life stage is the hardest part. It can be expensive, and it’s emotionally and physically exhausting. Every pet is different and will follow a different path, some rockier than others. Keep in touch with your vet, plan ahead, and savor every moment. It’s never enough time for us, but it’s all the time in the world for our pets; and it’s always worth the many years of happiness they bring us.
Rachael & Lily, pre-diagnoses, 2016