When is it Time to Euthanize?

Lynn M. writes in with one of the most difficult questions that any cat caregiver can face:

My cat (Sassy) is 18 years old. She has been losing weight and been sick off and on for the last year at least. She had been vomiting more frequently for the last couple months and lost more weight. She was always a small cat, about 8 pounds most of her life and always had food available for her. Probably weighs a pound or two less now. At times I believe she is suffering but it is hard to tell. She also meows frequently which she hardly ever use to do and doesn’t always use her litter box. How do you determine when it is time to euthanize?

Lynn, as long-time cat lovers ourselves, we've all faced this issue in our own lives and it's never an easy decision.  When we adopt our furry friends, we do so with the full knowledge that we will probably outlive them.  That means we're just as responsible for their passing as we are for all the joyful moments, and the easier we can make the transition for them, the better.  The fact that you're asking this question shows what a dedicated caregiver you are and we know you must love Sassy very much.

The first step is to get your veterinarian involved in order to rule out curable problems.  Sometimes cats eat less because of dental issues or they lose weight due to intestinal parasites.  You want to rule out anything that could be treatable, and only your vet can help you do that.

If Sassy doesn't have treatable medical issues, the question is really about quality of life.  You know Sassy very well, so you're the best one to determine this.  Cats are very good at hiding weaknesses.  Still, there are several tell-tale signs that can indicate that a cat is hurting.

  • constant purring - Cats purr when they're happy but also when they're in great pain.  It's believed that the purring calms them and may actually help with pain relief.
  • rapid breathing - A cat who constantly breathes quickly and shallowly through an open mouth is in distress.
  • low body temperature - A cat should have a temp just above 100° F.  Anything lower than that for an extended period of time indicates distress.
  • weakness - An inability to stand or walk easily.
  • mental confusion - Getting lost in your home, staring off into space, not reacting to you at all, and not being able to find the litter box or food bowls are sure signs of this.

Even with these signs, the ultimate answer comes down to a judgement call, and you should make the call with the advice of your vet.  What does Sassy tell you when you look into her eyes?  Above all else, don't be selfish.  You will eventually need to let Sassy go, and sometimes letting go is the ultimate expression of love.  We wish you and Sassy all the best.