Cat's dignified departure left a void

5/4/97

Dear Dr. Spiegel

My friend and companion for over 15 years, a beautiful, female calico cat, is gone. Her departure was not unexpected, as she had been receiving tapazole for 4-5 years, lactulose for one year, and was showing signs of kidney failure. What has me totally upset, and unable to achieve closure on her death, is the manner in which it happened.

She came down very quickly at the end: Wednesday, she could jump up on the kitchen table; by Friday, she couldn't make it; and, by Sunday morning, she was staggering while just walking across the room.

Sunday morning, we also found her sitting at the back door, butting her head against it, and crying. This was very puzzling, as she was not an "outside" cat. The thought came to me that she knew she was dying, and wanted to go to the woods behind our home to die alone. We decided to take her to be euthanized first thing Monday.

We wrapped her in a blanket and put her on my chair, while we went out to the store; we returned a few hours later to unload groceries, and then went back out for lunch. When we returned that afternoon, we could not find her anywhere. We searched the house from top to bottom with flashlights - under and behind beds and chairs, in closets, down the basement, everywhere. We found nothing.

I spent hours in the woods behind the house that afternoon, and stayed home from work the next day to continue my search; there was absolutely no sign of her.

I can only assume that she managed to get out Sunday afternoon, in between our two trips in and out of the house, and that she succeeded, somehow, in getting into those woods to die alone.

She hated the pet carrier, she hated riding in the car, and she hated going to the vet - I'm sure she was better off, and happier, dying her way than ours.

My mind tells me she had to have died that Sunday - but my heart cannot accept it. I still wake up at night and think I hear her crying, and I still look out the window into those woods, hoping she will walk out of them and come home.

Is this "normal" behavior for cats? Especially for indoor cats? Is there anything we could have or should have done differently, other than the obvious of having her euthanized earlier?

Sincerely,

R.R., Wilmington


Dear R.R.,

Rudyard Kipling's "The Cat that Walked by Himself" is a wonderful tale of how the animals one by one... Dog, Horse, Cow, Cat ("...the wildest of all animals...") came unto the cave of man and entered into the realm of domestication... And despite choosing to live within the comforts of the world of man, the cat remained forever true to himself... maintaining his independence and his place in nature. "And he went back through the Wet Wild Woods waving his wild tail, and walking by his wild lone. But he never told anybody."

You seemed to have had a strong sense of knowing/intuition at that moment Sunday morning when she was "sitting at the back door..." that she wanted to go out into the woods to die alone. Is this the reality of the situation as she perceived it? We can never know with certainty. But when all else is cloudy, it is nice to know that we have a strong instinctual sense of knowing (intuition) there to back us up. And this is one of those situations where you can look to your subconscious understanding with respect.

Many animals make strong associations between feelings/experiences and locations. And cats, in particular, are very strongly affected by location associations. It is very likely that the discomfort/pain associated with her approaching death as she was experiencing it was inescapable throughout the house, and she felt compelled to get out. (The same thing happens when cats with feline urologic syndrome associate pain/discomfort with the litter box and seek out other less painful places to urinate.) The sensory stimulation of being in an unfamiliar environment can be enough to distract one's attention away from pain, and the pain lessens, or at least becomes more bearable when the mind is occupied.

She left you in a most unusual and particularly memorable way. Through her chosen exit, all your in-home memories will remain free of images of death (that would have likely tarnished your living memories of her). And she got to go with dignity.

When our companion's time has come, wouldn't it be a whole lot easier if they could chose to go in some way that is loving and gentle, so as not to cause us any undue grief.

They might even follow the lead of that wonder of wondrous cats... the Cheshire Cat... "...[as] it vanished quite slowly, beginning with the end of the tail, and ending with the grin, which remained some time after the rest of it had gone."