By Luz Chavez on November 16, 2010
Feature photo by Madame Furie
Pets. They become extensions of our family and even of ourselves. Their personalities entertain us and their love comforts us. Nothing can imitate the bond an owner shares with his or her pet. That’s why it’s so tough to see a pet stricken by illness. We want so desperately to hold onto them. Knowing when to let go takes a lot of courage, selflessness, and love.
With my dog, I held on too long. I didn’t understand why until long after I put her to sleep. I needed but never got the vet to tell me that Blanca had little chance for survival. It’s dangerous to have a vet who won’t be brutally honest with you, who will just tell you what you want to hear–at the expense of your pet, and let’s be honest, your pocketbook. Worse, I wasn’t honest with myself. Blanca was 12-years-old and had been diagnosed with chronic kidney failure. During a 6-month period, she was frequently in and out of animal hospitals and vet offices. She tolerated a daily routine of IV fluids and medications. How much longer did I really expect Blanca to live? Wasn’t it better to put her to sleep to prevent the painful deterioration of her health?
Guilt was another reason I held on. I know I was not the owner my dog deserved. My mom gave me Blanca while I was in college and shortly after my dad passed away. She was a much-needed source of comfort, especially to a reserved loner like me. Yet during my visits home, I played with her but didn’t give her all the attention she needed. When I moved into my own apartment, I couldn’t take her with me. So years later when she got sick, I felt like it was my chance to be the owner she deserved. I truly thought I was being responsible by investing the time and money needed to give her a good quality of life. But her condition deteriorated until she couldn’t control her bladder, refused to eat and couldn’t walk more than a few steps. The moment I decided to put her to sleep, I wailed. I felt this horrible sense of loss for all of the comfort she had given me. I grieved for knowing there wouldn’t be another three-mile hike, another winter with her trademark blue sweater, another summer with her sprinting in the yard for her ball. I grieved again for the loss of innocence of thinking everything we love will never die. At that moment, I dug my head into my shaking hands and whispered, “It’s okay, it’s okay. She’s really sick. This is the best thing for her.”
When Blanca passed, I didn’t just grieve for her; I also grieved again for my dad. You see, after my dad passed, I escaped back to college rather quickly, two weeks later in fact. Forget going through the painful 7 stages of grief- I jumped from denial to acceptance. Losing Blanca, the second loss so close to me, helped me reconnect with the moment she came into my life, the moment I had lost my father. I realized how much strength she had given me over the years, and it helped me to finally and fully grieve for my dad. Even in death, Blanca gave me what I needed.
I put Blanca to sleep the day before the Day of the Dead. Ironically, on the third anniversary of her death, I had to put our cat Millie to sleep. Millie, who was the healthiest and most energetic of our three rescue cats, developed a seizure disorder rapidly and out of the blue. If you’ve never witnessed a pet having a seizure, I hope you never do. Even though the pet is unconscious and seizures aren’t painful, the experience is scary and makes you feel completely helpless. The only thing you can do is comfort them so that when they come out of it so they’re less frightened.
Once pets have a few seizures, the vet informed us, they’re likely to have even more, more frequently, unless the medication is able to control them. Unfortunately, the medication didn’t work and Millie’s health swiftly declined. Her last weekend with us, she was having 5-second seizures every 5 to 15 minutes for hours. Hours. She couldn’t rest and she eventually stopped eating and drinking. We could have hospitalized her again and switched to another type of medication with a poor success rate and hope for the best, but we didn’t want to prolong her suffering. She was dying, and we had to accept it no matter how much we wanted to keep her with us. So we let her go.
Our family now seems so tiny without Millie, and the house feels incredibly empty. Millie was the most spirited cat; she kept us entertained with her antics and always greeted us and followed us around the house. Everyday adjustments are tough, like feeding time, where we now only call out two names instead of three. It makes you pause and makes your stomach drop, knowing there’s a void now that once was lovingly filled. Our other cats cried at night the first week; pets grieve, too, and if you’re a cat owner, you know cats don’t like change.
Millie’s life and unexpected, rapid decline reminded me of the fragility of life and the spontaneity of death. We never expected Millie to be the first of our cats to pass away. While letting go of Millie was difficult, the only thing that gives us solace is knowing we did the right thing at the right time. There is no greater act of love than setting what you love free.