Saying goodbye to your cat
No one likes thinking about putting their cat to sleep (euthanasia). But sadly, it's a decision that many are eventually faced with.
When is the right time to say goodbye to my cat?
It's often difficult to know how your cat is really feeling, so it's important to talk with your vet, family and friends.
You and your family know your cat better than anyone else. So, though it's hard, try to make a decision based on your cat's best interests.
We often feel guilty about whether we put our pets to sleep too soon, or too late, but these are normal reactions when we grieve and you're not alone in those feelings.
Don't be afraid to visit the vet sooner rather than later – many of the signs of 'old age', such as arthritis, can be managed. Your cat's problems may be treatable – and early treatment reduces suffering.
What to look out for
When you visit the vet, you'll hear them talking about your pet's 'quality of life'. This is a term they use to understand how much they are now able to enjoy their lives without pain or suffering.
Signs that your cat is in pain and may no longer have a good quality of life can include:
- not eating or drinking
- difficulty breathing
- avoiding physical contact
- sitting or lying in an unusual position
- excessive shaking
- disorientation or confusion
- not wanting to go outside
- refusing to come in from the garden
- change in toilet habits or incontinence (weeing or messing on the floor where they wouldn't usually)
My cat has a long-term illness, how will I know when the time is right?
Living with an older or terminally ill cat can be emotionally and financially draining. Often there is a big time commitment involved in care.
Assessing your cat's long-term pain can be difficult, even for your vet. Cats do not always show pain by crying or yowling and they tend to change their natural behaviours to cope with the pain (like sleeping more than usual) instead.
If you are hoping for an improvement in your cat's condition, setting a time limit may be a sensible option.
Sadly, few cats die peacefully in their sleep at home. Most reach a point when their quality of life is poor and a decision for euthanasia has to be made.
What if my pet dies suddenly?
In life we don't always know what is around the corner, a sudden or unexpected loss, can leave us feeling shocked and struggling to cope.
Our trained professionals are here to help you through.
How should I prepare for my pet being put to sleep?
Once you've made the decision, it can take its toll emotionally. To help you through what can be a difficult time you may want to consider:
- taking some time off work to process what's happened
- explaining the situation to the vet receptionist when you make the appointment – you can often choose a quiet time for your visit to the surgery
- taking a friend or family member with you for support
- asking for a house visit – some vets will agree to this if you prefer
What if my cat is already under anaesthetic?
If your cat is already under anaesthetic, though this may be hard, it may be kinder to agree to euthanasia without waking them up.
If your cat is already hospitalised and is not under anaesthetic, then you can ask to visit and say goodbye if you want to.
How can I support my children through pet loss?
For children it can be especially upsetting as it may be their first experience of death. Children need support even if they are not outwardly upset.
Talk to them honestly about what is happening and, as far as possible, involve them in the decision making.
Will my other pets feel loss?
Like humans, pets also show signs that could be interpreted as grief.
When an owner or fellow pet passes away, pets can show a range of behaviours from crying or searching, to a loss in appetite.
What if my cat is afraid of the vet?
If your cat is agitated or restless, then the vet may give a sedative first. This will make them feel relaxed and less worried about being handled by the vet. It can make finding a vein more difficult and the injection may work more slowly but this won't cause them any pain, as they'll be numb from the sedative.
What happens during euthanasia?
Some of the events described below may be hard to watch, but remember that your cat quickly loses consciousness and cannot feel pain from that point onwards.
Before your cat is put to sleep, your vet will usually make you sign a consent form. Once this is done, they will begin the process.
- Euthanasia is usually carried out by injecting an overdose of anaesthetic into the vein of the front leg, although the injection can be given to other areas of the body as well
- Your cat will be held by a nurse and a small patch of fur is shaved off. All your cat feels is a tiny prick of the needle – then the injection is painless.
- They may give a small cry as the injection is given – as with all anaesthetics, there is a brief feeling of dizziness as the drug takes effect
- Unconsciousness follows within seconds, often before the injection is finished
- Death occurs within a couple of minutes when the heart stops beating. It may take a little longer if your animal is very ill or has poor circulation.
- In the few minutes after your cat has passed you may see twitching, or hear gasps of air. These are not signs of life; they are reflexes that naturally occur when a cat passes away.
- The eyes usually stay open and the bladder sometimes empties
Should I stay with my cat during euthanasia?
This is entirely your choice, but we often hear that it is comforting for owners to know that they were with their pet at the end.
Because of the close bond you have with your cat, they may find comfort in knowing you're there with them too.
What if I can't stay?
Try not to feel guilty if you do feel unable to watch – if you are upset or panicking then this may upset your cat.
If you feel you can't watch, the vets and vet nurses will do everything they can to look after and comfort your cat as they pass away.
What happens after euthanasia?
After your cat has been put to sleep, you will be asked what you would like to do with their body.
You can choose between:
- cremation – usually, this is communal cremation with other cats but you can arrange for individual ashes to be returned, although this may be expensive
- burial – there are pet cemeteries which vets usually have details on or you can take their body home to bury them. Though be sure to speak with your vet as there are some rules that you will need to know about where you are legally allowed to bury them.
If you are undecided, then vets can usually store the body while you consider your options.
Is it normal to feel upset?
When you arrive back home, be prepared for the house to feel empty. It'll be hard at first but take each day as it comes, try to treasure your memories and talk to family and friends about it.
It's entirely natural to feel upset when your cat dies. After all, your cat is a beloved family member.
The first thing is not to feel embarrassed about showing your emotions – vets expect you to be upset. It takes time to get over the loss of a loved one, and, although reactions differ, you will often feel a mixture of things, such as:
Though it's natural, try not to feel guilty or blame yourself – the decision for euthanasia is taken with your cat's best interests at heart to avoid them suffering.
Some people find themselves questioning whether they did the right thing. It is normal to feel some doubt, though this will ease in time.
What if no one understands?
Sometimes family, friends and work colleagues who themselves have not experienced a special relationship with an animal, may not understand what you're going through, so it can be helpful to talk to someone who understands your feelings.
We're here to talk you through your grief with our Pet Bereavement Support Service. We're here seven days a week with trained volunteers who have themselves experienced the death of a pet.
Pet loss during Covid-19
During coronavirus, many pet owners had to make the heart-breaking decision to put their pet to sleep without being there with them at the end. Social distancing and government restrictions made it impossible for vets to allow owners into the clinic.
Though this will be hard to process, remember that there is nothing you could do about this. Coronavirus took a lot of moments away from many people – try to be kind to yourself and know that you did the best you could for your pet in a very hard situation.
What can I do to remember my pet?
There are lots of things you can do to help remember your pet. You could:
- ask the vet if you can keep a lock of hair – don't be embarrassed, vets actually get this one quite a lot
- perform a ceremony, like a funeral, with all those who loved your cat
- create a pet memorial
- make a scrapbook of memories
- set up a little shrine in the corner of a room with a photo of them and a candle
- write a goodbye letter and bury it with them
- write a poem or short story talking about your life with them
- share your loss with others who have been through it
- become a volunteer and help others through their pet loss
Should I get another cat?
This is a completely personal choice and will depend on your own circumstances and how ready you feel.
No two cats are the same and, although you may get another that looks similar, your new cat will have a different personality. So it's worth remembering that your relationship is not a 'replacement' but it can still be rewarding.
Some people feel that a new cat helps them to move on and process their grief. While you will never forget your pet, a new cat can bring joy and laughter back into your home.
If you feel you would like to get another cat, please consider rehoming from one of our rehoming centres.
How we can help
Sometimes it helps to share your feelings with someone who knows from personal experience how distressing the loss of a cat can be, and who will listen with compassion and without judgement.
Our Pet Bereavement Support Service offers support to grieving pet owners, through a national network of trained volunteers. We're here seven days a week via phone, email and webchat.
Telephone: 0800 096 6606 (seven days a week 8.30am – 8.30pm)
Email: [email protected]
We also have a Facebook group if you'd like to join a community of people supporting each other through their grief.