Dr. Langlais is a practicing veterinarian and is the founder of The Hespeler Animal Hospital.
Q: My cat is 18 years old. She is looking very frail and spends most of her time sleeping. I know this is normal in old cats. I dread making the decision to put her down and am hoping she will just die in her sleep. I haven’t taken her to a vet since she was a young cat. Do you think it is okay to let her pass away on her own?
A: I don’t think that’s a good idea. Some animals do pass away in their sleep, but unfortunately many more die from organ failure, dehydration, or even starvation because they feel to sick to eat. It may look like they died of old age, but usually it is more complicated than that. I am sure that you would not like to chance that your beloved kitty might be suffering. Weight loss, poor appetite, lethargy and problems walking are not “normal” symptoms of ageing. They may be common in geriatric pets, but these are signs of disease. Conditions such as kidney failure, dental disease, cancer or arthritis can cause animals to eat less, slow down or sleep a lot.
Please take your cat to a veterinarian for an exam and assessment. You might be pleasantly surprised to find out that she has something that can be treated. With proper care, she might even live to be 20 or 22.
Even if she has a condition with a poor prognosis, however, at least a lot can be done to keep her as comfortable as possible for whatever time she has left. And, when the time comes, euthanasia will ensure she leaves this earth peacefully, without pain, and with dignity. I know how hard it is to have to make the decision to euthanize a pet. I’ve had to do it with some of my own animals. It was really tough, even when I knew it was an act of kindness.
Something I see happen all the time in practice is owners of old pets think their animal has a terminal condition when actually there is a lot that can be done. They may have avoided coming in sooner because they didn’t want to hear their cat or dog should be put to sleep, but it turned out that wasn’t what I would have advised at all! Please don’t second guess your veterinarian. Make an appointment for a consultation and find out what your options are before you jump to any conclusions. And please don’t wait so long that it is too late to do anything for your pet any more.
Dental disease is easy to treat, kidney failure can be managed when caught early, some cancers are curable, and there are medications that can alleviate signs of arthritis in pets.
I find it heartbreaking when I see an old dog or cat with irreversible kidney failure or advanced dental disease, when I know so much could have been done if only it had been in for regular check-ups. I feel even worse knowing that pet had probably been feeling pretty yucky for many months or even years before it started to look bad enough for it’s owner to finally bring it in.
While I’m on this topic, I would like to urge all dog and cat owners (especially cat owners because so many of you don’t) to take their pet to a veterinarian for a check-up at least once a year. It doesn’t matter if they never go outdoors, they still need preventative care. Senior animals should go even more often, at least twice yearly.