How my eldest cat Duck died today, and the ethics of euthanising pets


My eldest cat Duck died today, at about eighteen years old. He was a rescue cat, and Anne and I called him Duck when we got him because he had been rescued from the Royal Canal, where some children were trying to drown him.

Duck was blissfully unaware of how much Ireland has changed in his lifetime. When he joined our household, divorce was illegal, the Northern Ireland peace deal had yet to be agreed, Atheist Ireland was more than a decade away, and something called the Internet was just catching on.

He was the adult of our six-strong cat collective, strolling around purposefully and staring sternly at the others if they got too boisterous. He was always first to run to the front door when I opened it, checking outside for strangers, before turning to follow me down the hall.

And when he came in through the back door cat flap, he would lift himself up to the glass level of my office door, and stare at me in ‘Kilroy was here’ fashion, until I noticed him and greeted him and, most importantly, fed him. As the old saying goes, dogs have owners and cats have staff.

Jane took the picture below when we were writing Atheist Ireland’s recent submission to the UN Human Rights Committee.

Duck at door

I always find euthanising a cat an ethical dilemma. I know it ends their suffering, but they cannot consent to either assisted dying or life-prolonging treatment, so ultimately I have to make the choice that I think they would make if they could make one.

It is also hard emotionally. I assume that, from previous experience of me taking him to the vet, Duck expected that I was doing that today so that he would return to the house feeling better. And I knew that this time he wouldn’t, which seemed like a betrayal of trust.

But the only alternative was to allow Duck to die slowly. He was elderly, and had liver disease and an inoperable tumour. And he didn’t like being unable to do things. Even yesterday and today, he occasionally tried to walk to the door but had to stop and lie down.

He was active until about a week ago, then he deteriorated quickly. I was going to bring him to the vet on Monday, but he went out that morning, and I was worried that he had gone away somewhere to die, until he came back at 5am yesterday morning.

I brought him to the vet first thing yesterday for tests, and checked in by phone during the day. I brought him home yesterday evening for one last night in the house. Today Jane and I brought him to the vet to be euthanised.

Duck died peacefully, quickly and reliably in my arms, in a way that reinforced my commitment to the campaign for the option of assisted dying for rational dying humans.

I’m not sure whether the other cats know he is dead. They are all together in the bedroom, which is unusual, although that might be because it is cold and wet outside and the bedroom is warm and dry.

I hope it is some time before the next of them has to make this final journey.

How my eldest cat Duck died today, and the ethics of euthanising pets

31 thoughts on “How my eldest cat Duck died today, and the ethics of euthanising pets

  1. Hugs to you and your wife. I cried as I read this because I had some of the same thoughts when our Gabriel had to be euthanized a month ago. It was a struggle to make the right choice. I almost felt that it was somehow betraying a trust or bond because Gabriel didn’t understand what was going on. Thank you for sharing.

  2. (((hugs))) I have taken that trip to the vet all too often now with old, frail and terminally ill cats and I totally understand where you are coming from.

    Duck looks and sounds wonderful. The decisions that you make for your cat is always right when you care deeply about him. I too hope that it is a long time before you need to take that trip with a cat again.

  3. I’ll echo Barbara’s sentiment: thank you for sharing. I’ve been there too, and I’m sorry for your loss.

  4. ((Hugs)) to Barbara too. Gabriel was a lucky cat too to be so well loved. We always remember them, don’t we — each cat has his or her own grip on our hearts. Quiet Kesuma with her ears pricked forward when she knew I was coming to her; Chablis’ naughty little ways right up until the cancer tired her too much, Farina’s wobbly determination (she had had a stroke before she came to us, was not expected to live for more than a couple of weeks and lived happily for 7 years) and cuddlesome purrs… well, I could go on and on. They all leave an ache behind.

  5. What a sad and lovely story, I’m sorry for your loss, I don’t keep pets myself but can understand the dilemma, sounds to me like you maðe the right choice.

  6. A wise old vet once said to me “You’ll know when the time is right” (to put your old friends out of their misery) and somehow we do. And I’m sure you did Michael. It’s such a shame however that we can’t (legally) do the same for our human loved ones. But some day, I’m sure the law will catch up.

  7. Oh dear. I am sorry for the loss of Duck. But he had a long and happy life after you saved him, and one can’t hope for much more than that.

  8. I was just about to mention Jerry Coyne is a big cat lover – there seem to be many in atheism.

    Personally, I’ve always been a dog owner (English springer spaniels) but I’ve been through the agony of having to have pets put down and I know how heartbreaking it can be.

    My sympathy to you and your family.

  9. Hi Michael,
    Thanks for writing so honestly and with such heart about your dear cat. My condolences to you all. As a lover of cats and dogs I know the heartbreak of having them put down. You did the right thing. Duck had a wonderful life and sadly I think the other cats are missing him tonight too. Take care of you n yours.

  10. I’m very sorry to hear of your loss. To my mind, the greatest consolation we can have in such times is to reflect upon how much love you (and your wife) shared with the cat.

  11. I once had to make the decision to euthanise our… bitch (yes, I know; I’m a wretched blob of slime). It was very, very hard, especially for my daughter, who had practically raised her. After that experience, we haven’t had pets; the life span of cats and dogs is just too short, and you are more less guaranteed to suffer. Elephants live longer, but are a bit unwieldy; on the plus side, nobody can ever accuse you of not seeing the elephant in the room.

    *exits subrepticiously, under the censorious gaze of cat lovers*

  12. I’m sorry. Like anyone who has ever had to put down a beloved pet, I know words won’t make it better.

    But you’ll get better and, for what it’s worth, I really believe that you did the right thing. While it’s always painful to put down a beloved pet, I feel it’s a bit selfish (understandably) to prolong his misery to avoid your inevitable emotional pain.

  13. Thanks for all the kind words, everyone. I’m sorry for your losses, Barbara, Carrie, Guestus, Paul, Shatterface, Margo, Piero, Moses, and anyone else here who has lost a pet but didn’t mention it. And thanks to Jane, Ashling and David for being so supportive.

    Barbara, sorry about Gabriel. I agree that the feeling of betrayal of trust is hard, although they never get to experience that. Ironically, they probably feel more betrayal, or probably confusion, when we leave them there overnight for an operation.

    Carrie, you’re right about the personalities. That one thing many people without cats don’t seem to appreciate. They often think cats are aloof and unable or unwilling to form relationships with us.

    With regard to Jerry and other cat lovers in atheism, I’ve also noticed (anecdotally only) that I seem to have a higher percentage of vegetarians among my atheist friends than among my religious friends. Maybe we realise more easily that we are all part of a continuum of life, rather than non-human animals being put her for our benefit.

    With regard to Duck, in one way I had no real choice as the tumour was inoperable. We’ve had operations for two cats before (both hit by cars and survived) and another cat kept alive by medication when he had FIV, but operations in elderly cats can be a gamble even if feasible.

    I think I’m on auto-pilot at the moment as I had almost no sleep on Monday night as Duck was missing and I was looking for him, or last night as it was his last night in the house and I stayed up with him. I used to be able to do that when I was in college but that’s a long time ago now 🙂

  14. I’m very sorry to hear of your loss, Michael. I know what it’s like to euthanize a beloved cat. I was shaking so much when I signed the paperwork to authorize the procedure, that my writing was illegible. I completely fell apart when I got home and he wasn’t there. It’s been five years and I still miss him. The hospital where he died sent me a sympathy card with an inscription I thought I would share with you:

    “We who choose to surround ourselves with lives even more temporary than our own, live within a fragile circle, easily and often breached. Unable to accept its awful gaps, we still would live no other way.” (Irving Townsend)

  15. Adding my condolences for the loss of Duck, who sounds like he was lord of the household and much beloved.

  16. My condolences Michael. I’ve been through it multiple times and it’s never easy, particularly when that pet is connected to human loved one who is no longer here. Coincidentally I too have a cat name Duck-actually The Duck-because my late father called her that because he never got her name right(Duff).

  17. “Autopilot” I understand totally. And I am amazed at how much you manage to do, such diverse and useful things, as well as keeping good control of this blog. Worrying and staying up all night with a terminally ill loved one is about the hardest thing anyone can do, especially when you have to make that hard decision. And yet you have managed to keep your world moving onward.

    As you say, they probably feel more confusion when we have to leave them at the vet for a few hours or even days. I think that it is we who feel that sense of betrayal when we go home without them after that last visit.

    Duck had a wonderful life and a merciful death thanks to you.

  18. Providing an animal a relatively peaceful exit is doing them a great service. It’s extraordinarily hard on us, but it’s the right thing to do. A few of the most regretful things in my life include not living up to this obligation. In one instance, keeping a gradually more debilitated cat long after I should have, and not acting soon enough and having a cat run away and die in some lonely place in another. In another instance, my cat had a urinary blockage that I thought was just a temporary illness. So I kept it half a day and that was a half day too late. If only they could talk to us and tell us what they think, but of course they can’t.

    Long story short, you have my deep condolences. For those of us privileged to form strong bonds with pets, I guess this is the liability we must accept with the extraordinary benefits of knowing them.

  19. Sorry for your loss Michael. Been there also, sadness and kindness mixing one’s feelings. You gave him a good time while he was able to enjoy it, can’t do much more than that.

  20. It is very hard when you lose a pet after so many years ! It makes me very sad to hear about your lovely cat and I know you must miss him so much but at least he is not suffering anymore .

  21. This sad yet also heartwarming post (& comments) was difficult for me to read, & harder to find words in response.

    Just two weeks ago, my 6-yo dog, Thrace, was run over by a car. She loved to roam the woods of my ranch, following scents with her big, hound nose. I was unaware she was also visiting the neighbors half a mile away. Though much of a loner, Thrace could be incredibly affectionate, tugging on your pant leg with her teeth, wrapping her legs around you in an ‘hug.’ Her sister (they’d spent their entire lives together) has been very quiet & clingy since. I adopted them two years ago, The pound had slated them for euthanization simply because they ‘looked morose’. I kick myself for not seeing where she was off to, but console myself in the fact that I gave her at least two extra years in the kind of environment a dog would design for themselves.

    Last year, I had to put down my cat, Tommy. He was fading fast, and normally I do it on the spot after the vet’s diagnosis. But I postponed it for a week so my GF and folks could say goodbye to him. I kept him hydrated & on pain meds, but still felt guilty asking the old man for one last effort. It was a judgement call, weighing his relative discomfort vs. the comfort afforded to the humans by one last goodbye. All in all, it was a good week for Tommy, but there weren’t going to be any more good weeks. Tommy had been a feral I’d taken in as a barn cat. He was unusually friendly, discovered the house one day, abandoned the barn, and adopted all of us.

    As an horse trainer, I’ve had to put down more than my fair share of animals. Of an illness or injury, horse people always pray, ‘please, let it be obvious!’ But even when the decision is clear, it is never easy. Last month, I had to put down Basco, my 31 yo retired school horse. Hundreds of students had fallen in love with Basco’s endearing, unique personality. I’d spent every day of the past twelve years with him. I’d retired him four years ago, and in the past year his health had deteriorated significantly. I knew any day could be his last. When he got sick, it was a no-brainer to put him down, And I didn’t hesitate for a moment. But I still bawled in front of the vet and for days after.

    When you take in an animal, you sign up for that last day, to be strong for them, to do right by them to the best of your ability. The pain we feel after they’re gone is also part of the deal. It’s a good deal.

    This was supposed to be brief. Anyway, Michael — I can tell by the way you wrote about Duck he enjoyed many years in a wonderful, caring home. Don’t kick yourself for possibly guessing wrong +/- one week. If I believed in reincarnation, I’d want to return as one of your cats.

  22. Oh dear, I’m so sorry to hear that Michael. I know death is a natural part of life, but I also know I cope badly with it.

    At least, Duck seems to have had a long, happy life. I have three cats, and I love them as much as I would my children.

    Here’s to Duck! And many good wishes.

  23. Very sorry to hear about your loss. I know how it feels, but he had a good life and I think you made the right decision.

  24. So sorry to hear about your loss, I think that Duck trusted you to make the right decision for him. He trusted you to stop the suffering, and that’s what you did. However they pass away, it’s always difficult to lose ‘family’, but the price of the privilege of having a pet is having to make – and live with – those decisions. And yes, you gave him years of happiness.

  25. Condolences, Mr. Nugent. As with many others commenting, I’ve been there, and more than once. Three years ago I had to euthanize what I consider my once-in-a-lifetime pet, and it still hurts. But, it does get better, so there’s that. As for the ethics of euthanizing pets, I’ve never had any qualms at all, hard as it may be. When you have a pet, you assume responsibility for all aspects of that animal’s life, and helping a friend in pain achieve rest and freedom from pain is merely the final responsibility.

  26. How we measure our days, well spent with companions true.

    Condolences, Michael, and a lovely tribute to your old friend. It is a wondrous thing, how these furry critters move into our homes and ultimately into our hearts. How we choose to say goodbye, when circumstance permits that opportunity, speaks deeply to our personal character. You did well by your friend.

    If I may be so bold, there is a story you may find applicable to the circumstance in a number of ways: Harlan Ellison’s ‘Deathbird’. It is a relatively short story but carries incredible philosophical impact for comparatively few words. I might suggest you wait a few days if you choose to follow my suggestion and read it. It carries considerable punch. If so inclined, feel free to contact me directly after having read the story. I would be interested in your impressions.

    Best wishes to you and yours.

  27. You gave him another life when you rescued him and he apparently had a fantastic time. He was active until the last moments of a long life, during which Ireland has changed quite a bit. Thank you for sharing your story with him. Best wishes Michael.

  28. It’s so damned hard. Pets bring such joy into our lives that it just makes it all the harder to lose them. But you did the right thing, absolutely. We would do it for ourselves if we could, and I hope within my lifetime we will be able to end pointless and irreversible suffering for human beings the way we can for cats and dogs.

    Eighteen years of fond memories, and the knowledge that you gave Duck a good life. That’s good.

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