Performing euthanasia is one of the most important things veterinarians can perform to alleviate suffering in animals. Frequently, clients want to know whether they should bring the cat's “housemates” (that is, the other furry members of the household) to the procedure. Is it beneficial if a dog or cat witnesses the death of their housemate? We will address this question below.
The choice to put an animal to sleep is often an animal lover's last act of compassion for their cat. When everything has been done that can be done, and when our cats are on the verge of suffering beyond our control, euthanasia is a kindness. In fact, the word “euthanasia” comes from the Greek phrase that actually means “good death.” Our cats are our responsibility, and that includes giving them a peaceful and relatively pain-free life. Their natural demise is usually not going to involve naturally going to sleep and not waking up; unassisted death is rarely so serene. And if an animal is suffering, eventually we owners have to make the decision with their best interests in mind.
Grieving the loss of an animal companion, for most people, begins before the decision. Illness, mental decline, and bodily changes in our cats signal the end. We see it, and sometimes, so do the other four-legged members of the household. They can frequently sense and perhaps even smell disease. They know something is not right, and they frequently act accordingly; sometimes they nurture the ill and sometimes they ignore them, but their awareness can be uncanny.
How Should Cat Housemates and Euthanasia Be Handled?
The question of whether dogs and cats should be present when a companion is being euthanized is more complicated than previously thought. I interviewed veterinarians and trainers for their experience and perspective. As with any care issue, there are benefits and drawbacks to every approach.
The Negative Aspects of Cat Housemates Being Present During Euthanasia
Most veterinarians I interviewed did not particularly embrace the idea of having dog and cat housemates around while putting their companion to sleep. In the home setting, trying to get a vein with a small needle is hard enough without having other animals walking through the scene and trying to see what is going on. One vet interviewed knows of a colleague who sustained a bad bite when the other dog in the house perceived him as hurting the patient. One trainer commented that it would be quite possible for housemates to be aggressive toward the doctor, given the circumstances. Another vet will allow the companions to be there but asks they be put in another room while the actual euthanasia takes place.
Bringing housemates to the veterinary office for euthanasia is not always as peaceful as one might hope. The vet trip can be unnerving in some animals and is more difficult logistically, and who is to say they will not connect the vet's office with a bad experience (as many animals already do)? Many times, the companion dogs are stressed by the trip and smells of the office, making the events even more upsetting for the cat being euthanized.
The Positive Aspects of Cat Housemates Being Present During Euthanasia
Some veterinarians perform home euthanasia and do believe that having the housemates present is a good thing. A number of owners believe that witnessing the death eliminates any confusion the housemates might have about where their companion has gone, and propose that it could make the patient more comfortable to have more familiar presences surrounding them in their last moments.
How to Housemates React to a Dying or Deceased Cat Companion?
As they experience the sense of death, or perhaps because the patient has become peaceful, and also because they are often very aware of human emotional changes, animal housemates react in varied ways. Some of them sniff the body, some watch and wait, some cry or whine, and others simply walk away with little reaction. If you are extremely upset, your dog may react differently and be more nervous and upset themselves.
Grief in Dog and Cat Housemates
Animals mourn in their own ways. Elephants have been known to carry the bones of their departed herd companions for miles, swaying in grief. In my own household I have observed dogs and cats looking for their companions, wandering from room to room, or questioning me with their eyes. In my opinion, dogs are more demonstrative of this type of emotion than cats.
If the loss of a cat affects the housemates adversely, as in a loss of appetite or expression of anxiety, the owner should comfort them. Offer some distraction such as extra walks or a differing routine, and encourage them with extra attention for a few days. Gradually things should return to normal as the cat accepts the loss. This might be especially true in the case of senior animals.
A Tale of Four Horses
I have an old horse named Velvet whose elderly horse companions have preceded him in death. When there were four in the group, the first to go was Glory. Her euthanasia was out of sight of the others, and her disappearance caused nickering and some searching by the other three. Angel was next, a natural death in the same paddock with the other two. Surprisingly, they did not fuss as much. Finally, his lifelong companion Dixie was down, and we had to euthanize her in front of Velvet. He seemed upset; when we removed her body, Velvet seemed to grieve, looking in the direction she had gone and becoming inconsolable for days. If I even walked in the direction she had been taken, he threw a fit. Gradually he accepted her loss and became more dependent on humans.
Conclusions: Should Cat Housemates Be Present for Euthanasia?
I'm not sure if there is a “right” or “wrong” answer to the question of having housemates present for euthanasia. I have had experiences with my own cats both ways and do not believe that one way is better than another.
When you make your decision, consider not only what is better for the housemates but also what is going to make the last moments for your suffering cat better. The ideal option may be to perform the procedure as soon as possible to end the suffering, so going to the closest emergency clinic may be best.
Another possibility for communicating the death of a cat to their animal companions is to allow them to see and sniff the body of the deceased cat. Oftentimes, cats have simply no reaction. Their perception of death is different from humans partly because they do not have the knowledge that everyone dies eventually. Therefore, they do not fear or anticipate it, and they escape some of the emotional distress that we experience.
Each cat has a unique personality and handles crisis and loss in different ways. You know your cats better than anyone, so when you are faced with this decision, consult with your vet and see what the doctor advises based on his or her experience.