Any cat owner will know that sharing your home with a cat can be one of life’s great joys. The bond between you and your feline friend is so special. Unfortunately, the price of this bond is the loss we feel when we have to say good-bye. Knowing that your cat is in their final months, weeks or days can be very hard to come to terms with. Read on for support in coping with this final stage in your journey together.
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What is anticipatory grief?
Anticipatory grief is the grief we feel when we realise that our pet’s condition is terminal, before they have passed away. It’s important to understand that anticipatory grief is normal, and you should never feel guilty about starting the grieving process before the event of death.
The thought of losing your loved one can bring overwhelming emotions. You may feel anxious about providing end-of-life care at home, you may worry about your pet suffering, and you may feel a sense of impending doom. You may feel guilty about having to make the final decision to say good-bye.
It’s important to look after yourself as well as your pet during this time. You are not alone, your veterinary team will support you at every stage. Ask for help from friends when needed, speak to your vet if you are unsure about any aspect of your cat’s care and don’t be afraid to seek professional help if the feelings of loss are overwhelming you.
What does end of life care involve?
End-of-life care is the same as palliative care. End-of-life care is usually started when a terminal diagnosis is made, or a disease progresses to a point where it is interfering with everyday life. For example, your cat may be diagnosed with an incurable illness, or you may decide, for many possible valid reasons, not to pursue treatment.
It’s important to note that this is not the same as treating conditions which need ongoing medication. The main aim of palliative care is to improve or maintain quality of life for a period of time. This usually involves relieving pain, maintaining mobility and preventing depression. Your vet would draw up a palliative care plan with you, taking into account your cat’s condition and your own preferences. This could involve caring for your cat at home, treatment in a veterinary hospital, or a combination of both.
How can I tell if my cat is suffering?
This is naturally one of the main concerns we, as pet parents, have towards the end of our pet’s lives. We don’t want to make an end-of-life decision too soon, but of course we also don’t want our feline friends to suffer. Your vet is the best person to guide you on this. Your vet will guide you in understanding the signs to watch out for and in how to assess if your cat still has an acceptable quality of life.
So, how can I tell if my cat is suffering? Being prey themselves as well as predators, unfortunately cats mask signs of pain and illness very well. This can make quality of life harder to assess. Here are some signs to watch out for:
- Mobility problems: extreme stiffness or inability to posture for toileting
- Hiding more
- Vocalising more
- Avoiding physical contact
- Sleeping more than usual
- A lack of interest in their usual likes
- Changes in behaviour
- Changes in mood
- Poor grooming or matted fur
- Avoiding being stroked or held
Of course, the reality isn’t quite this simple, so it’s important to let your vet know if you notice any of these signs, or if you have any concerns. Your veterinary team are there to support you through this difficult time.
How can I cope with the loss of my cat when the time comes?
Losing a companion, a family member, can flood us with a host of emotions. No two people experience grief in exactly the same way, so there is no ‘one size fits all’ approach to coping with grief. Remember to be kind to yourself.
There are a few things you can do, which may help. Many people find that planning ahead for the end makes the process much less stressful. Have a think about what you will do when you feel that your cat is starting to suffer. As much as we would all love our pets to pass away peacefully in their sleep, in reality this is rarely the case and euthanasia is usually the kindest option.
It can help to have a discussion with your vet ahead of time, so that you are all clear on the plan when the time comes. Specifically, have a think about whether:
- you would like to take your cat to the clinic or prefer that the vet comes to your home (of course this may not be possible in an every situation)
- would you like to be present at the end
- you would like a home burial or cremation
- you would like your cat’s ashes back, and if so what sort of casket or scatter tube you would prefer
As hard as these decisions may feel, you will be relieved when the time comes that you don’t have to think about them during this highly emotional time.
Many people find making memories helps. Take lots of photos and videos while they are still with you. You could consider having some paw print keepsakes made, or having their ashes made into keepsakes.
Is there anyone I can speak too?
Coping with end-of-life care and the loss of your feline companion can be a stressful and highly emotional time. Grief at every stage is natural and you are not alone. Speak with your vet if you are struggling at any point, and don’t be afraid to seek professional help for yourself. There are many pet bereavement support networks which you may find useful, including:
- Cats Protection ‘Paws to listen’ grief support service:
- Blue Cross Pet Bereavement Support Service: