I had always assumed that having a pet die at home was the "ideal" way of losing a pet. No guilt attached, they passed away, nothing could be done, hands wiped clean and on we move.
Throughout my life I've always had to have pets euthanized when it was that time, and always felt such pangs of guilt - those eyes looking at you, the fact that it was a decision and not something out of my control. Although I would gain closure, it was always torturous to live through the experience and so I thought, no, knew, that losing a pet naturally would be much, much easier.
5 years ago, a cat, a very special cat, was brought to our clinic by a local Animal Control Officer. He had ringworm and couldn't be re-homed. Softies that we are, we kept him, treated him and waited to find him a home. Before his treatment was complete, my husband, not a cat person, had totally fallen in love this social, responsive and very gentle, dog-like cat. We took him to our new home and thoroughly started to rely on him as our furry companion there. No matter where work, play or sleep was being done, Basil was there. Company would come and he would greet them, unafraid.
Our daughter was born 2 years after Basil came to live with us and he would most often sleep with her. Perhaps I should have been nervous about this as a new mother, but I was the opposite. I marveled at this cat and that we were lucky enough to have such a "once in a lifetime cat", as I would call him.
Early in April 2012, like any other night, my husband offered Basil his dinner, which he readily ate, petted him goodnight and came to bed. We slept peacefully through the night and noticed, unconcerned, Basil wasn't around in the morning. As we scurried about the house in our morning rituals, we didn't think much of it until my husband went to start the fire. I could hear his tone from upstairs and knew immediately, something was very wrong. I didn't know what to say as I saw my husband standing there holding our cat, as if he were still sleeping, but with obvious lifelessness. I was in shock. I had failed our pet, not as a vet, that meant nothing in that moment, as an owner who knew and loved him. We had missed something. It was our fault and we had lost our cat because of it. The guilt, the guilt was still there. I HAD to know what had happened. THAT would solve this guilt and horror I felt at awakening to our pet there, but no longer there.
My husband begged me to check him over. "What can you do? Is it too late? What happened?" My daughter, then just 3, was totally confused and I found myself completely unprepared to deliver the "death speech" but needing to come up with something for her in the midst of all of this. I called the diagnostic lab and my husband took Basil over immediately, carefully wrapped in a blanket after we said our wet goodbyes.
My daughter still talks about this to this day. "Do you remember when daddy took Basil to the lab? Where is Basil now? Will he come back? Was he sleeping?" No matter how many times I try to help her make sense of it, she continues to ask. I can see that Basil meant a great deal to her too. We weren't ready. We wanted him back. I had been wrong. This good-bye was just as torturous.
The lab reports eventually came back - cardiomyopathy, a common cause of sudden death in cats with few to no other symptoms. Fine, but I didn't feel any better.
I knew. I would call the pathologist. That would make me feel better.
I called and spoke with him. He was very compassionate, very willing to explain as I questioned him. "Surely you must explain this to your clients," he eventually said. Of course I do, I thought, but this is different, this is my pet. Then I stopped and realized I didn't want the diagnosis to be clarified, I wanted the outcome to be changed. I loved Basil and had wanted to love him for many more years to come. Pure and simple.
We have since been lucky enough to adopt a kitten who shares some of those "once in a lifetime" traits. She also sleeps with my daughter and enjoys company. She sits cuddled on my shoulder right now as I write this, comforting. I have learned that loss of a pet is a painful loss, no matter how it occurs. It really never is easy. But perhaps, just perhaps, with time, and if we are willing, there really are more of those "once in a lifetime" pets out there.