They become a part of your life, your daily routine. Because it's so gradual, you don't even realize the changes you make to accommodate their needs. Like a child, you make allowances; you cater to what they want. Ice cubes in their drinking water, a blanket over their cage, home-made gravy over their food, a soft pillow on the couch you swore you'd never let them on, and hundred dollar medicines for ailments you didn't even know they could get. You suffer through fleas and parasites, freezing walks in the iciness of winter, holding an umbrella over a midnight potty run because they hate water but it's a hurricane so what else can you do?
Nevertheless, when you come out of the bathroom in the morning, and they're sitting or perching there, to greet you, or more probably, waiting for you to feed them, it becomes a familiar ritual: a warm fuzzy to start your day. You grow accustomed to gently scolding them when they decide the best sleeping spot in the house is in the middle of your newly laundered basket of clothes or the middle of your dining room table. You grin when they reach up with their paw to check the edge of the counter, hoping to snag some delicacy you've obviously put just out of reach. You holler in surprise once you realize you've been dive-bombed from across the room as they leave their cage and head towards your shoulder. And you resign yourself to picking up the occasional accidents that are bound to happen.
Then the years go by.
Five, ten, fifteen, and so on.
You see them starting to age, to decline. One day, something they do, or don't do, makes you start asking yourself, is it their time? They aren't eating like they used to so you buy different foods to entice them. They limp around and whimper when they try to jump up in your lap so you help them and cuddle them, letting them know it's okay. The fuzzy toy that used to drive them to insanity now sits in the corner, dusty and lifeless and you finally quit glancing at it because it hurts too much to deal with what’s really going on. They don't even try to open their cage door anymore and you blame it on the equipment getting rusty. You don't want to be faced with something you're not ready for so you make every excuse you can think of. But then one day reality hits you square in the middle of the forehead.
And it's one of the hardest decisions you’ll ever have to make, one of the toughest choices any animal lover has to deal with. We don't want to address it. We want our furry kids to be a part of our lives forever. They've been with us for so long, seen our best and worst times, yet always loved us unconditionally, so how can we go on without them? We don't want them to suffer, and we certainly don't want their quality of life to be so diminished by our need to have them around that's it's not fair to them and what they were. So at what point do we need to make this heart-rending decision about their quality of life?
I bring this up because a little over a year ago I had to put my 18 year old cat down. I first came across him at a Podunk county vet's office, which meant, there were cows out back, and this passel of kittens was born in the wall of the barn. Hubby and I went there for some reason and I played with these wild kittens. Needless to say, I left with the orneriest one of the bunch, dubbing him Komokozi Kitten, Kozi for short. It took less than three days to realize Kozi would be an integral part of our lives for many years to come. This crazy cat became the alter-ego of my youngest son; they were the Calvin and Hobbs of our family with so many memories it breaks my heart to even think about their connection and what I severed with my decision to put Kozi down, especially since it fell on this son’s birthday. I will forever hold the guilt for this in my heart.
I didn’t have much choice. A week and a half earlier Kozi’d stopped eating, then three days later he quit drinking. Once that happens, there’s no turning back. So I stood there, holding Kozi, as my son, his best buddy, remained by his side. The vet injected the cocktail that would put Kozi to sleep and let him slip away. This being my first time, I didn’t know what I expected, but I wasn’t prepared for the rattle of death I heard coming from Kozi, and I certainly wasn’t prepared for the heaviness of his now diminished weight, as he relaxed in my hands. I held him as he passed; murmuring apologies to him for letting him down, as I lost the battle to hold back the tears. I told my youngest son how sorry I was. Then I couldn't take any more.
I ran out of the vet’s office, making my husband and son deal with the aftermath of Kozi's passing. I stood outside, tears streaming down my face, my breath coming in hard bursts as I tried to get myself under control. But it was no use. I couldn’t handle the loss of my furry child. He'd been with me through so much crap and accepted it all, and his pain was more than my heart could handle. My son and husband eventually came out to console me, but even that wasn’t enough to stop my guilt.
Did I wait too long before I made my decision? OMG…Did he suffer at the end? Was I being selfish in putting off the inevitable? The tears are running down my cheeks right now as I recount this, and I’m sure every pet owner understands my angst. You want them with you forever but at some point in time you have to make the hardest decision of your life.
Now as bad as that experience was, it didn’t hold a candle to the one I went through just a few months later when I had to put my Babygirl down.
Just a few months after adopting Kozi, my sons and I were at the baseball field and they found this tiny dog under a dugout bench. Knowing my weakness, they brought this fluff-ball to me and said, “Can we keep it?” I couldn’t tell which end was which because of all the hair, but I answered them with, “We’ll bring it home, make sure it’s healthy, and then find a good home for it.” We already had so many rescues we really couldn’t afford another.
For the next five days, I cradled this “thing” in my lap. She wouldn’t eat, she wouldn’t drink, she wouldn’t do anything but lay there. I stroked her fur, I talked to her, and I tried to entice her to eat, with anything I could think of, all to no avail. I prepared my boys for the worst, knowing this was not a good sign. I didn’t spare them the inevitable. I let them know we’d done everything we could, but a part of me didn’t want to give up quite yet. “Come on baby girl, eat this,” as I held a can of tuna fish in front of her nose. She didn’t budge. I bought the stinkiest wet dog food I could find. “Come on baby girl, try this.” She turned her nose up at it. Finally, on the fifth day, she began to eat the wet food. That’s when I knew she’d survive, and the name, Babygirl, stuck, although my sons wanted to name her Scruffles.
A few years ago I found out she had congestive heart failure. I made the decision to put her on the meds, although it would be very expensive, because she’d been there with me through the breakup of my high-school marriage, the start of my new life, and everything in between. It broke my heart when the vet recommended I not take her on power walks anymore; Babygirl loved these daily jaunts, but the vet said they would stress her heart too much. They told me she had probably six months to live.
She went way beyond their expectations, but then just a few months after putting Kozi down, we got hit with the fleas from hell. My Babygirl, this fluff-ball, slowly chewed and ate all her hair off, too slow for me to even realize what was going on until it was too late. We tried everything on the planet to alleviate the fleas. Bathing her in Dawn detergent once a week; using a Q-tip dipped in Dawn to pick the fleas off individually each day. Nothing helped. She couldn’t sleep for more than five minutes, she was dropping weight because she wasn’t sleeping or eating, and she became obsessive compulsive with eating all her fur off.
Again, I went through the guilt, especially since I waited to make the decision to put her down until my husband came home from his business trip; I knew from Kozi, that I couldn’t do it on my own. My guilt now centers on the fact that I waited. I knew what to expect, Baby’s passing wasn’t as traumatic, but it still ripped my heart apart.
Because of these experiences I will never take another animal into my home as a forever friend. I have three cats left, all of them rescues, but after they’re gone, that’s it. My heart is too soft to go through more than these three goodbyes I'll have to eventually confront. I just can't take seeing any more of my furry babies through to the end. I’ve lost too much and hurt for so long that I don’t want to add more to my list. Don’t get me wrong…I will foster animals, give to the charities that help them, but I will never again own, or be owned by one. It’s just too hard for me to handle.