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Making the toughest decision for my old cat

John Helps BVetMed CertSAM MRCVS, Chair of NOAH’s Companion Animal Sub-Committee and Senior Technical Manager Companion Animals, MSD Animal Health, describes how loving our pets sometimes means making the hardest decision.

"I’ve had pets most of my adult life and like many pet owners I continue to treasure sharing my life with animal companions. The special bond of trust that we develop with our pets means a great deal to me so keeping a close eye on my pets’ health and welfare to ensure we do the best by them has always been a priority. 

In recent months, I’d suspected my elderly cat Cleo had started to subtly lose weight and condition and stop grooming herself quite so much. She was also tending to leave food in her bowl, whereas previously she’d been more active and had quite a generous appetite. Being quite a sensitive soul Cleo tended to be asleep much of the day and emerge for secret meals and for her short dashes to the garden. It was really quite difficult to know whether something more serious was going on. I therefore decided to set up an inexpensive indoor web camera to watch over her evening activities at the food bowl and adjacent cat flap so that I could observe for any change in her behaviour.

It was only on careful observation of the footage that I spotted that she was gulping excessively every time she fed, and that afterwards I saw that her breathing became more laboured before she recovered….clearly she becoming was quite distressed after she’d fed and this wasn’t something that we had previously noticed. Further investigation unfortunately led to the sad conclusion that poor Cleo had developed a large mass in the right side of her chest, likely to be cancer. Ultimately the pain that we could only conclude she was in, and her great years, meant that surgery was not a reasonable option, and that we had little choice but to put her to sleep- a very sad outcome, but one fortunately a decision we were more confident in making before her breathing deteriorated to a critical level. 

One of the toughest things I find about owning pets is when they get older and start to develop more serious health problems. With modern veterinary care often there are a range of options for caring for the ageing pet, but like it or not, making the tough decisions when a pet is starting to struggle with their health will be a challenge that many of us face.

As a vet, it is all too clear to me that in contrast to what people often expect, our pets don’t always readily let us know that they are ill. Close observation for the subtle changes in behaviour can provide invaluable clues which will often provide us with more options to help. Here, sadly this was not to be, but this recent experience has taught me that even when there were no good options left, and we were faced with the distressing decision to put her to sleep, it helped us come to terms that we were making the right decision at the right time."

Despite sadly losing Cleo, John still has his beloved dog Milly by his side commenting, "Milly is my constant buddy now I often work from home and she brings so much joy into our home life and means the world to us. Whilst I’ve had a number of dogs over the years, she is my first Cockerpoo. She’s a very bright little character, and I never cease to be amazed at how much we seem to understand each other. Her bright green eyes watch for every cue and she listens into and wants to be part of every conversation. She has an impressive repertoire of words she understands and will collect most of her toys by name. Favourite hobbies include her Toy Box, the Cardboard Box puzzles I set for her, her football, treat filled Kongs, weekly agility, meeting new humans, visiting the garden centre, Spa (grooming) days and of course her park mates she meets each morning! I think its fair to say she is one spoiled dog!"

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