THE ETHICIST: Should We Kill Our Cat?

curious catNot our cat–but not entirely dissimilar from our cat.

Photo: Cuban Refugee via Flickr

Well, it happened.After an invigorating summer that recalled much younger days, our 15 year-old cat Tony suddenly stopped eating and started barfing.

The barfing was nothing new, but this time it wasn’t accompanied by the usual hairball.

The barfing stopped after a day or two, but instead of perking up and going back to yowling constantly for a lap to sit on and laptop to obscure, Tony retreated to a chair and lay down, alone. 

She (yes, she–my wife hadn’t quite determined her sex when she named her) didn’t eat much for the next few days. She also didn’t get any perkier.  So, on Friday, we packed her off to the vet to learn that she was wildly dehydrated and, worse, that she had “kidney failure.”

Now, it turns out that, as in humans, kidney failure is not an instant death sentence. They don’t do dialysis with cats, but they do hook them up to IVs and pump them full of “fluids,” and the fluids perform a similar service as dialysis.

To perform cat dialysis, we soon learned, you get one of those big IV bags, hang it on a hook, and put a needle on it. Then you hold the cat on the floor, grab some of the fur on the scruff of the neck, and poke the needle in. Then you keep the cat immobilized for a few minutes until the designated amount of “fluids” have dripped in.

The fluids go in too fast to be immediately absorbed, so they drain to the bottom of the cat. So when we got home from the vet yesterday, Tony had odd-looking globules of unabsorbed fluids floating around on her belly. But, miracle of miracles, she looked fluffier than she had two hours earlier. And two hours later, the globules were gone, and she was purring and stretching again.

There is a chance, the vet tells us, that through daily IV-rehydration, we can shock Tony’s kidneys back to health. So that’s the plan for the next three days: Daily trips to the cat nursing home to get hooked up to the IV. Then they’ll check her blood levels again. And then, most likely, it will be decision time.  And here’s what that decision will boil down to:

We can “prolong her life,” maybe for years, by giving her IV fluids every day.

We can accomplish this by carting her off to the vet every day, where, for a fee, they will perform the procedure described above ($15-$20 a day). Or, we can order those IV bags and needles from a medical supply company and do it ourselves (apparently you don’t need a licence to perform internal medical procedures on your cat).

Alternatively, of course, we could order up a crate of tuna-fish, catnip, and milk, throw Tony a Bacchanalian 15th-birthday bash, and then drive her off on one last one-way trip to the vet.

So, the question is… Should we kill our cat?

Or, more accurately, should we:

1) do nothing and let her die,

2) proactively kill her, or

3) “prolong her life” by stabbing her with needles and giving her kitty dialysis every day?

This decision, it seems, is a microcosm of what is going on in our healthcare system at large. It involves questions of money, time, effort, and length of life versus quality of life.  It also involves far more profound philosophical concerns, such as playing God and being and not being.

Where are we on this decision?

Well, we’re not carting the cat off to the vet for dialysis every day.  That would cost $500 a month ($6,000 a year), in addition to 30-40 hours a month.  Call us monsters, but we’re just not signing up for that.

We’re also not eager to have the cat killed or just sit around waiting for her to die.

But home dialysis? A few dollars plus medical equipment plus time every day?

A week ago, my wife and I would have dismissed the idea. This is a 15 year-old cat we’re talking about–an awesome cat, yes, but a 15-year-old cat–and 15 is like 90 in cat years. Everyone dies eventually. Including cats. And the “prolonging life” madness has to stop somewhere.

But now, with the cat’s life in our hands, I’ve got to admit that we’re thinking about it. 

And that’s before we bring the kids into the discussion. 

And I have no doubt what their answer is going to be…

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