The End-of-Life Decision and Process for a Pet: My Experience with Biddy

Today I’m going to share my first experience making an end-of-life decision for my first pet, Biddy. This is all still really raw for me (see this) and it might be triggering for you, so reader beware. My hope is that this will help my grief and help others in the future who need to make a similar decision, even though their experience and circumstances may be completely different than mine.

For context, Biddy has been my constant companion for the last 16.5 years. I got him as a kitten, and he quickly became a huge part of my life and my identity. He was a very interactive, curious, playful, talkative cat, and perhaps importantly for this post, he was also highly dependent on me due to the twice-daily insulin shots I’ve given him for the last 9 years. For the last 4 years Biddy was joined by my partner, Megan, who adored him and was adored by him.

In May of this year, Biddy got really sick, resulting in a diagnosis in June of intestinal lymphoma. Once a very food-motivated cat, he rapidly dropped weight, threw up quite frequently (this is graphic but necessary to understand everything: he wasn’t just throwing up food–he was throwing up feces), and had trouble pooping.

The only silver lining at the time–as I was quite worried that the vet was going to say that Biddy had to say goodbye right away–is that a combination of chemo and steroids could give Biddy another 6-12 months. Biddy was too old and fragile to have surgery, and at best surgery would have simply removed the mass between his large and small intestines, not solved the deterioration of his intestinal tract.

I say this as if we really know anything for sure, but I want to pause and note that there’s nothing certain about anything throughout this process. It’s all just guesswork backed up by experts (the vets) and my innate knowledge of my cat. I will probably always have some doubts, and I think it’s okay to process these decisions. For example, perhaps there was a really small chance that I could have convinced the vet to give Biddy surgery to remove the mass, or maybe we could have used the steroids longer than we did. But there was a higher risk that anesthesia would have resulted in Biddy not waking up at all and that long-term steroid use could spell doom for Biddy due to poor interactions with his diabetes. I have small doubts but not regrets about these decisions.

My top focus was on Biddy’s happiness, comfort, and quality of life. I gave him steroid and chemo pills for a month, and while they didn’t change much (Biddy continued to eat less and lose weight), he stopped throwing up and pooped every couple of days. However, he hated the pills, especially the chemo. I wrote to the vet about this looking for guidance–and perhaps, in a way, permission to take him off the pills–and she stressed the quality of life aspect of the process. If the pills were causing him that much anguish, it might be a good idea to stop.

Here’s the thing: Pets can’t make these decisions for themselves. There are many times that I did something for Biddy that he hated in the short term despite the long-term benefit that he couldn’t possibly understand (despite being a really smart cat). In this case, however, Biddy didn’t have long either way, so I choose to remove the strife of the pills despite how his body would continue to fail.

Without the pills, Biddy had a pretty good last month. It was a slow decline, but he was comfortable and happy. He got a lot of love, a lot of sunshine on the patio, a lot of snuggles, and access to anything he would eat (first only treats, and then only freshly broiled fish).

It was during this time that I tried to be better informed about the end-of-life decision. For the entire summer, whenever I’d see Biddy sleeping, I’d check to see if he was breathing. I think a part of me hoped that if he was ready to go, it would happen in his sleep. (I’m not sure that I feel that way now.) But then I read an article saying that most pet owners feel that way, yet it rarely turns out that way. The articles talked about the “good death,” saying goodbye when a dear companion is on the cusp but hasn’t completely deteriorated. That resonated with me.

The articles also said that you’ll “just know” when it’s time. From my experience, I can’t imagine ever truly knowing. At best, I think maybe you know at some point that your pet isn’t going to get better no matter what you do. But choosing the exact day? I don’t think you ever really know.

Instead, I made a judgment call. Megan and I talked about it when we took Biddy off the pills: If there came a time when Biddy threw up feces and bile 3 days in a row, that’s when we would make the decision. That was our indication that his intestinal system was done (and that it wasn’t just him having an isolated bad day) and that he was really suffering.

On Wednesday, September 7–pictured above–Biddy was lounging on the patio when he threw up feces for the third day in a row. It was clear that he was really suffering. I cleaned it up, and then Megan and I went to sit with Biddy on the patio. We didn’t say anything at first–we just cried. Biddy lounged nearby, and even Walter (our other cat) came to join us. I finally said something to the effect of, “I think it’s time,” and Megan nodded. I suggested that we schedule the vet the following day so we could have one last night with our sweet boy.

That night, we got in bed early with Biddy. His hips were so frail–he lost a lot of muscle mass back there–that he had trouble keeping his balance as he walked across the comforter to his spot between our pillows. Usually we’d read while he lay between us, but that night we just petted him, talked, and cried.

I didn’t want Biddy to throw up again, so I was careful about what we fed him that night and on his last morning. He had a full broiled cod to lick at, though, and that seemed to make him happy. With his stomach empty, he was hungrier than normal.

The vet (Biddy’s long-time doctor, Dr. Walker) and her team at Central West End Veterinary Clinic–were incredibly compassionate and gentle. They briefly took Biddy away to prep his legs for the catheters, and then they returned him to us. We sat on the floor while Biddy roamed around the room. Right until the end, he was so curious and inquisitive. His mind was still there, which was both good and difficult. How could we do this terrible thing to such a bright, intelligent creature? Why couldn’t his body be as secure as his brain?

We cajoled Biddy over to a blanket strewn over our legs. It was just Megan and me in the room. We were both worried that he would resist, but Biddy settled in, his head in Megan’s lap and his hind legs and tail on mine. For 20 minutes or so we petted him, held him, told him how much we loved him and how grateful we were for him. We cried all over him. I told him that he was welcome to haunt me.

Then we pressed a buzzer, and the doctor came in. Biddy remained on our laps while the doctor administered a drug to make Biddy relax, then a drug to put him at rest. It was peaceful and serene. She then left us alone, Biddy’s body still on our laps. We continued to cry and pet and talk to him (to each other). Eventually we pressed the buzzer again, and Dr. Walker came in again to wrap up Biddy and take him away. Biddy’s bladder must have been very full, because his body released so much urine during this process that it soaked through the blanked to the floor and my jeans. It was a fitting end to such a proudly defiant cat.

I mentioned earlier that I was no longer sure that Biddy passing peacefully in his sleep is what I really wanted. I thought it was, but I’m so glad Biddy wasn’t alone at the end. Our love for him was tangible as we held him–it was right for Biddy, and it was right for us. It’s still a terrible decision to have to make, but for us it definitely beat the alternative.

We’ve cried more in the last 4 days than I’ve ever experienced. Biddy was me, and I am Biddy. And he adored Megan–I’m sorry for her to share this grief with me, yet I’m glad there’s someone to grieve with me, someone who truly understands how big the loss is. There are so many good memories, but there’s also the patterns, routines, and habits of a cat that leave behind a massive void. The permanence of death is such a system shock–I keep expecting to look up and see Biddy in his usual spots or staring at me from the kitchen. But I can’t take back what we did; though we did it for him, it is permanent. My constant companion for the last 16.5 years is gone forever, at least physically.

That’s my experience with the process. I hope it helps you in some way if you have to make this decision someday. If you’ve already made this decision, feel free to share in the comments anything that you’d like to share.

8 thoughts on “The End-of-Life Decision and Process for a Pet: My Experience with Biddy”

  1. Thank you for sharing this story, Jamey. It was heart breaking to read, yet very relatable. I have been thinking of Megan and you a lot the last days. And Walter. How is he doing? You can’t explain to him why his buddy is gone…

    Let me get back to one sentence at the end of your story: “But I can’t take back what we did. ” ➡️ You really must not feel guilty about the decisions you took. You didn’t “do” anything, Biddy’s illness did it. What you did was care for him and make the right decisions in his best interest. These decisions are excruciating but there really is no good alternative.

    Biddy has been incredibly lucky to have you and Megan as his owners. Or, more appropriate for a cat: to have owned you and Megan. 😉

    Reply
    • Thank you, Karel. I agree–we cared for Biddy and made an important decision for him. I think what I’m trying to say is that the decision we made is permanent, and it is the most difficult type of permanence.

      Reply
  2. Thank you for sharing this. We are in a similar situation with our 17 year orange cat, Bruce – his kidney’s are starting to fail and he’s gotten incredibly picky about his food and dropped a lot of weight. He’s had hyperthyroidism for the last few years which has required a pill twice a day. We are coming up on the anniversary of his brother Tiger’s death – Sept 22, 2019. The advice to not wait until things get really bad is good. Was just given that advice by another friend yesterday as well. We maybe waited too long with Tiger – he couldn’t walk anymore, but it was a really quick decline after months of illness. I don’t know how much time we have left with Bruce, but our goal is the same as yours – try to keep him as happy and comfortable as possible and let him know how much he is loved.

    Reply
    • Thanks for your comment, Emily, and I’m so sorry that you’re in a similar situation with Bruce. I admire your goal of keeping him happy and comfortable (focusing on quality of life) and showing him that love. I found it helpful (in a devastating way, but helpful) to set a threshold of where to draw the line (for us, it was Biddy throwing up 3 days in a row, indicating that his system was no longer processing food even if he was eating a little). My thoughts are with you in this difficult time.

      Reply
  3. Thank you for sharing this deeply personal story, Jamey. As a boy in the South, I grew up feeling very isolated, and my cat was one of the very few sources of companionship–and the only constant source–that I had for many years. I have blocked out many of these memories (just because I don’t have very fond memories of childhood), but reading your post brought a lot back (in a positive, meaningful way). I forgot how much he meant to me, and I’m glad that Biddy means so much to you. Every time I watch one of your videos and see him saunter across the screen — DGAF unscripted — it brought a smile to my face to see the defiant independence of the feline spirit. I’m glad he will live on in so many SM games. =]

    Reply
    • Thank you for sharing this, Jeremy. The connection to your cat resonates deeply with me, and I also miss Biddy’s strolls across the office when I’m filming. 🙂

      Reply
  4. Deepest condolences for the loss of your companion, Biddy. My partner (who follows you on Instagram and shared this post with me) and I just lost our beautiful boy, Crookshanks, this past May, 17 days after his 17th birthday. Reading your accounts (provided links) was difficult and heartbreaking. While the specific illnesses were different (Crooks passed of acute kidney failure), a lot of the circumstances were similar. His health drastically turned for the worse, and when he stopped eating (food was basically his Life) and could barely walk, we had to make that decision. To say that the time spent in those final hours together were an emotional whirlwind would be an understatement.

    One piece of advice, which I rarely follow myself, would be to try not to ruminate on the coulda, shoulda, what ifs. They can do a number on you. You two provided so much Love to Biddy and I’m sure he could feel that, even up until the end.

    I saw someone had a portrait done of their pet after it had passed and my partner may do the same for Crookshanks. In the meantime, though, we got a digital picture frame (Aura – Carver or whichever one allows side by side vertical photos), filled it with tons of pics, and dedicated a shelf on our bookcase to Crookshanks. Perhaps you’ve already done something similar, but if not, I’d recommend it. Also a project or the like, something celebrating Biddy, may be very cathartic.

    My Heart goes out to you both as you navigate this difficult time. And thank you for sharing this. I’ve been putting off a blog post about my own experience, but this truly inspires me to work on it. And so I’m sure I will. Eventually…

    Reply
    • Thank you, Jak. I’m so sorry about Crookshanks. I can relate all too well how it feels to see a beloved companion’s body fail. Your advice is really good, and I’ve found myself dwelling very little on coulda/shoulda/what if. I wish Biddy hadn’t gotten sick, but I also know there isn’t anything I could have done to prevent it–as you said, the best I could do was love him every day. I also really like the digital frame idea. Someone also suggested printing a book of photos (they liked having something tangible). Let me know the link if you ever write that post!

      Reply

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