First Person: It’s Hard to Send a Pet to Heaven

When a pet grows old and infirm, making the decision to call the vet is logical, rational … and incredibly hard.

Rosie the cat sunning herself.

Introducing our First Person series, where we invite writers to share personal stories.

I will confess that when friends and co-workers have told me that they "put their pet down," I would think, "OK, how hard could that be?" Disease or old age begins to take a toll on your pet, and at some point you decide it's time for Rover or Tabby to go.

Then I faced the dilemma myself.

Our cat, Rosie, born in 1992, had been having what I will delicately call "litter-box issues" for a couple of years. My wife, Marsha, and I had made many accommodations. We had installed an upstairs litter box for moments when she couldn't make it to the basement box. We had experimented with boxes that were easier to enter, including an enclosed one with a ramp leading up to the litter area. We had bought a rubber pad to put under the box for spillage. We had even bought what I refer to as "doggie wee-wee pads"—extremely absorbent pads that are used to house-train dogs but turn out to be excellent at soaking up cat urine as well.

(I have to say that when I bought those pads at PetSmart and the cashier asked, "Oh, how old is your puppy?" and I replied, "It is not a puppy. It is an aging, incontinent cat," I enjoyed the look of stunned disbelief on her face.)

One suggestion we did not follow: Buy preemie diapers and cut a hole for the tail.

Anyway, as I noted, I thought it would be very easy to say, "I am tired of cleaning up cat urine, so let's euthanize Rosie." But somehow I couldn't. Maybe it was because Rosie seemed to be enjoying life as best she could. She would yell at us each morning if her food supply was low, and as soon as I got home and plopped on the couch in front of the TV, she'd come right over, climb onto my chest, and lie contentedly—a 20-pound (9-kilogram) weight smothering me and shedding orange hair upon my wardrobe of black.

I'd make euthanasia jokes: "She sleeps 23 hours a day, so what's one more hour?" But I found myself wondering: What gives me the right to bring her life to a close? Who knew that a house cat could trigger an existential dilemma?

My inability to make the call to the vet was especially surprising given my checkered relationship with Rosie. When our two now grown daughters were kids living at home, they were the alphas. Rosie gave them great affection but treated me like I had some kind of toxic plague. If I would sit next to her on the sofa, she'd bolt like a crazy, scared rabbit. Even if I had just filled her food bowl minutes before.

But now my wife and I were the alphas. Rosie didn't quite shower us with love, but she did clearly crave our company. So we delayed calling the vet. And we kept cleaning up the litter box.

Then, a few days ago, Rosie stopped eating, And my wife and I knew it was time. We were actually grateful—it was as if she had given us permission to put her down.

We found a vet who would come to the home. That made it easier, because like many cats, Rosie was not a fan of being placed in a cardboard "carrying case" and schlepped to the vet by car.

And so I came home for a 4 p.m. appointment. Rosie was sitting on the sofa, where she has spent most of her time for the past months, curled in a ball. The vet told us that many cats "commit suicide" in a way—when they sense that their body is failing, they stop eating or drinking. Which is what Rosie was doing.

The vet injected Rosie with a sedative while I stroked her. She became unresponsive. At which point I became extremely responsive. To my utter amazement, I began sobbing uncontrollably. I couldn't even talk on the phone when my wife called to say she was five minutes away. I apologized to the vet, and he said, "You're doing well—most people are already blubbering when I get there."

Marsha made it home in time to say goodbye. Then the very kind vet administered a dose of sodium pentothal. We sat there gently stroking Rosie's head. Soon after, her heart stopped beating.

Why is it so hard to send a cat to kitty heaven? It's not like Rosie left in the prime of her life. She had 20 years—20 good years. She was the daughter of a feral cat. We intended her to live an indoor life, but her instincts demanded that she bust out into the great outdoors. So she turned herself into an indoor-outdoor cat and took great pleasure in prowling our yard, terrorizing other cats, and sunning herself on the patio.

Over time, she became such a part of our family life that she was just Rosie Silver, our cat, with her own style and her own Facebook page. She was a devoted friend to our two daughters, even when they stretched her out like she was on a rack. She was also part of our family crises, like the time she got into a fight with some animal outside that resulted in a puncture wound just when Marsha was undergoing breast-cancer treatment.

"Your cat might need a port for her medicine," the vet told us then. I wanted to say, "Now wait a sec, there, we already have a port in the house," because that was part of Marsha's treatment—the implanting of a port for chemo infusions.

I guess what I'm saying now is that I'm stunned by how deep the bond with an animal can be—even an animal that treated me like an ogre for over a decade. And how hard it is to say goodbye, even when you know it's time.

So long, Rosie. You were a cool cat, and our house is empty without you. And I know this sounds hokey, but my heart is a bit emptier too.

Have you ever had to say goodbye to a beloved pet? Did the extent of your grief surprise you? Share your story in the comments.

Marc Silver is deputy director of text for National Geographic magazine and co-author of the new book My Parent Has Cancer and It Really Sucks: Real-Life Advice from Real-Life Teens.