This is our second article in the series about end of life decisions, which are, sadly, a part of adopting a pet. To euthanize or not to euthanize due to medical problems, quality of life and (unfortunately) the cost of extreme medical care are all issues which must be weighed by responsible pet owners.
Last week, we wrote about Nini the cat and her family’s decision to have her undergo surgery which resulted in extending her life for about six months, allowing them the time they needed to say goodbye. This story is about a grieving family who made the very difficult decision to humanely euthanize their cat, as well as well as establish “The Bert Fund” as a way to come to terms with their loss.
In writing about these end-of-life decisions, it is our hope that there are lessons we can learn about the importance of pets in our lives, as well as ways we can nurture the animals we love, whether it be extensive medical intervention or a compassionate and caring end in the arms of someone who loved them.
I met Bill Pelletier at the Ann Arbor Animal Hospital after he and his wife had already said “good-bye” to their adored cat, Bert. I was moved when listening to Bill as he recounted the many adventures and memories of him.
Bill seemed to have taken Bert’s passing particularly hard, yet communicated many uplifting moments they shared together throughout Bert’s life. Bill talked about how stoic and regal Bert remained through his last moments with his family. It was then that I suggested that he consider sharing his story so others might learn and benefit from it.
According to Bill Pelletier, “The thing about Bert was, it was impossible not to love him.” He was originally a barn cat — an immense, red cat with big topaz eyes and a massive leonine head.
Bill first met Bert when he was house sitting in 1996. Bert was 2 years old, and recuperating from the traumatic amputation of his left back leg after being hit by a car.
Though understandably traumatized, Bert eventually recovered and lived an enjoyable outdoor life with nature and a safe, loving environment indoors.
“Once I saw him running at top speed, a raccoon at his heels. He was a cat with nine lives. There was the time he rolled off the second floor porch. Not only did he survive threats to his health in later life, but he was rescued by me more than once. The first time he was missing in the woods, and once I found him whimpering and shivering, trapped at the bottom of an unused basement stairwell in the late autumn after being missing for 36 hours,” recounts Bill.
Bert was well-loved. A cat with a “sense of humor, who was kind, who loved to be petted and brushed… often he would sleep on his back, his stomach exposed and his single back leg sticking up in the air. Bert suffered from nasal congestion his whole life, and he would wake me in the night, snoring in tandem with my wife, and just as loud!”
As the years went by, Bert became less mobile, but was smart enough to follow Bill’s command to “make a handle” by arching his back so that Bill could pick him up and carry him around.
Bert’s old age brought him many challenges, but he lived to be 17. He was resilient and stoic, a cat beloved by the Ann Arbor Animal Hospital staff and Dr. Jess Franklin, who shepherded Bert and the Pelletier family through all his trials right to the end.
He survived two years of diabetes, with Bill giving him insulin shots twice a day, not to mention the extraction of most of his teeth and the removal of a tumor on his tail. It was not until the last three weeks of his life that his systems failed him following a painful infection, the result of an outdoor adventure.
“Before he was put to sleep, I sat up with him all night, offering him comfort and vainly endeavoring to tempt him to eat. Finally he would not even drink. He had difficulty breathing, and I could hardly accept it that his time had come. He had a high fever and a mass in his stomach. My wife had to make the decision and sign the papers.
“I scratched his beautiful huge head between his ears and whispered goodbye to my old golden lion, and he was put to sleep at 10:10 on Wednesday morning Aug. 10, surrounded by flowers as he loved their fragrance. He loved music too; he had his own small stereo, and I used to play Brian Eno for him. Caring for Bert had been a labor of love. I felt privileged to care for him.”
Bill goes on to say “After weeks of tears, I am hoping to establish a fund to benefit other cats in Bert’s name as he was a loving force. I have pictures of Bert I made late last fall of him meditating in the golden sunlight of a late autumn afternoon that I refer to as ‘Bert’s golden lotus pictures.’ I would joyfully trade a few months of my own life so that Bert might have lived to enjoy one more golden autumn.”
Bill, while still very sad, is very philosophical about grief and how it relates to pet owners. “On some levels, it’s not necessarily rational,” he says, but a profoundly emotional and physical reaction to the primarily emotional and physical bond that people have with their pets, rather than an intellectual one.
“If you live with an animal long enough, you begin to see many human elements in their behavior. You can’t discuss Beethoven or Schopenhauer with a cat, but I know that if Bert had talked, we would have discussed these things.”
Whether owners decide to opt for medical procedures hoping to extend a pet’s life or humanely euthanizing their pet, the human animal bond cannot be overstated. The love we feel for our pets results in grief when we lose one. The intensity varies in each individual but emotions are very real. Acknowledging and dealing with pet loss grief is important to recognize because it then allows us to heal and move on.
To help pet owners heal and move on, our final article in our pet loss series will offer suggestions and tools to help owners through their grief journey.