The Anguish of Saying Goodbye to a Pet During the Pandemic

Deciding to euthanize a pet is never easy, but the isolation and unease of lockdown makes it all the more agonizing
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My girlfriend Angie’s eyes well up every time an ice cream truck rolls through our neighborhood. The truck’s tinny song rotation invariably includes “You Are My Sunshine,” which is what she used to sing to Mallory, our orange Maine Coon. Mallory was a big cat—16 pounds typically and ridiculously soft. She’d leave clumps of hair and mats around the apartment from her grooming, but her sweet disposition made up for it. I’d toss toys at her when she was sitting on a table, and she’d try to grab them. She loved to play hide-and-seek, with me dashing around corners while she trotted behind, always wanting me in sight. When I tapped the table, or the side of the bed, she’d come running—the only cat I’ve ever known who would come when I called her.

By the time we realized what was going on, it was too late. Angie and I went into lockdown the second week of March. It was as stressful for us as anyone else, I suppose, though we were fortunate that both of us could work from home. For our two cats, Mallory and Phurba, it must have been a dream come true—no more waiting alone under a bed or in a corner while Angie and I were at work. Now, they had us all to themselves nearly 24 hours a day.

It was on April 1 that we noticed Mallory had gotten skinny. I’m not sure how long she was like that, but given the fact that our new pandemic lives were still very uncertain (who am I kidding—everything’s still like that now) she could have been like that for some time. We initially attributed it to Phurba bullying her and eating her food, so we changed up their feeding habits and got back to trying to find toilet paper or whatever was stressing us out back then.

By the middle of the month it was clear something was seriously wrong with Mallory. She was no longer anywhere near 16 pounds, no longer playing, and had stopped grooming her gorgeous fur. She was ragged now and rarely ate, drank, or used the litter box. We took her to vet on April 17, a Friday. In no time at all we spent $1,000 on meds, examinations, and tests. But the results were inconclusive and the meds provided no relief. Exactly one week after we first took her to the vet, she was dead.

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I almost didn’t write this story. So many people have suffered so much through the last six months of the pandemic that agonizing over the loss of a pet seemed negligible, even selfish. But then I spoke with a couple other people who also had to put down their pets recently, and that helped me remember that pain is pain—that all pain can be extraordinary and awful and debilitating, and it isn’t up to those who aren’t suffering to dictate what is and isn’t legitimate to those who are.

Even without a pandemic at play, there’s nothing simple or straightforward about the decision to euthanize a pet. Regardless of the pain and suffering they’re going through, the choice is always fraught with doubt. Is this there really nothing more that can be done? What if we’d brought her in a week earlier?

In the lockdown, all those emotions and questions are magnified a thousand-fold. Whereas before, nervous pet parents could wait inside the office for test results or the vet’s examination, now we were confined to our cars or simply told to go home and wait by the phone.

Andrea Sanchez, who processes paper payments for PG&E up in Northern California, understands this all too well. She had to euthanize both of her cats during the pandemic—Sam in late May and Jack three months later. They were a bonded pair of brothers—14-year-old domestic short hairs—and they had been a part of Sanchez’s life for about eight years.

Sam died first, on May 20. Normally she would have been visiting her family in Virginia at that time, but the pandemic killed her travel plans, so she was ironically lucky to be home when the end came. “Is it good I couldn’t go?” she asked, rhetorically. “This way I was with him rather than a sitter.”

all pain can be extraordinary and awful and debilitating, and it isn’t up to those who aren’t suffering to dictate what is and isn’t legitimate to those who are.

Sanchez left for work that morning and everything seemed fine. But when she returned home, he couldn’t use his back legs properly. She took him to the vet immediately. Tests found heart disease, kidney disease and hard masses—thought to be cancerous—near his spine. The vet said he didn’t have a good chance of getting better.

“That one was really hard,” Sanchez said. “I left for work normal, came home normal, and then everything changed. I didn’t know what was wrong, just had to hand him off to the vet, didn’t see him again for four hours, and then we had to put him down.”

Jack went slower, over a couple weeks in August, from heart and kidney disease. But by then Sanchez had used up much of paid time off. Without the pandemic, it’s likely she could have wrangled additional time off, but with staffing shortages, her supervisors refused. She left work anyway to get Jack euthanized, and she got written up for it.

Sanchez was able to be present during both euthanasia procedures. This was painful, but vital. “For a euthanasia, they turn off the music and dim the lights, even in the back,” Rachel Toor wrote in 2018 for the Spokane Spokesman-Review. “A lit LED candle in the lobby signals waiting clients of the need to be quietly respectful. ‘When we do it,’ Stephanie, an assistant, says, ‘I can hold the pet and tell them I love them, but they look for you.’ The hurt is in her eyes and she says it again: ‘They look for you.’”

When euthanizing Mallory was becoming a very real option, Angie asked one of the techs at our veterinary office if we could be in the room during the procedure. She said no, that their new COVID-19 protocols forbade it. Later, on the morning of our final visit, when we were sitting in the parking lot listening to the vet on speakerphone say that euthanasia was now really our only option, I asked him myself. Neither Angie nor I had slept well in the last week, and after re-reading Toor’s words, the thought of Mallory spending her last moments on earth looking for us in vain was overwhelming. This time, he agreed.

We were already masked, which made things a little easier. After prepping Mallory and the office, we walked in, where a tech immediately squirted sanitizer into our hands. The office, no longer buzzing with a mix of visiting people, dogs, and cats, was perfectly quiet. We were led into a familiar examining room, where Mallory was lying peacefully on a table, a catheter already inserted in her front paw. She looked as she had lately—skinny, but agreeable. She even bumped Angie’s hand when she scratched the side of her face, which made Angie hesitate and ask if maybe this was a good sign. But it was just Mal being Mal. Then Angie went to kiss the top of her head, then realized that she was still wearing a mask.

We both pet Mallory as the vet first injected water, then an anesthetic and finally the euthanasia drug. We watched the fluids travel from the vet’s syringe, through the translucent tubing and then into the catheter. Mal did nothing for the water, then collapsed within moments of the anesthetic going in. We continued to pet her as she went to sleep. Then, when the vet finally administered the lethal drug, she immediately stopped breathing. Her eyes remained open, but there was no more spark. After a minute or so, I realized I was still petting Mal, even though she was gone.

The vet said we could stay as long as we wished, but we left after a few minutes.

Had this been a normal time, Angie and I would have fled somewhere—the beach maybe, or a museum—anywhere that didn’t remind us of what we’d just done to our cat. But nothing was open, so we went home. The instant we walked in, we saw Mallory’s favorite toy in the entryway. It stayed there, untouched by either of us, for days.

Day after day, we stayed home, reminded almost hourly of our loss. There was no place we could go. Even now, months later, I still find tufts of Mal’s fur in corners or under furniture.

“It lingers. The grieving lasts a little longer. We’re here all day, so you’re seeing where your dog was all day. It’s a sign we’re all getting older, and a piece of your life is gone.” —Darlene Buynicki

“By being home, you focus more on it,” said Darlene Buynicki, an analyst at Caltrans who’s teleworking these days and had to euthanize two dogs during the pandemic. “It lingers. The grieving lasts a little longer. We’re here all day, so you’re seeing where your dog was all day. It’s a sign we’re all getting older, and a piece of your life is gone.”

Phurba seemed clueless about Mal’s absence that first day, but then started hanging out under our dining room table, which was new for him. It was where Mal used to go when Phurba was chasing her and she didn’t want to play, and we think he was waiting for her.

All three of us seemed to be waiting. A week went by, then another. Angie rarely smiled. Just a few months prior, her beloved stepmom had died, and Angie was only starting to come to grips with that when Mallory got sick. Then the vet called, saying Mallory’s ashes were ready. I volunteered to pick them up. When the vet tech came out to my car, and I thanked her, then placed the items she handed me on the passenger seat without looking at them. It was only when I parked my car at home did I realize she’d handed me a box of the ashes, ceramic prints of Mallory’s giant Maine Coon paws, and a plastic baggie of her fur, all tied up with little pink bows. Though the vet’s office was incredibly thoughtful in putting it all together, seeing it all made us feel like we’d just lost Mallory all over again.

Immediately following Mallory’s death, Angie began looking at local cat rescues. She had held and cuddled with Mal for more than a dozen years, and while not wanting to replace her, badly wanted to comfort and cuddle a cat again (Phurba, though very sweet, was never a lap cat). I was hesitant to get another pet, but as the days passed I could see how badly she wanted another cat. Torn between my own feelings of loss and guilt that I was keeping her from being happy again, I agreed. Within a couple days, she showed me a photo of a tiny tuxedo kitten and said I could name her. I chose Gromit, and by the end of the week she was living with us.

It’s impossible to explain how quickly the mood at home changed. Though clearly crazy (like all kittens are), Gromit was sweet and snuggled up to all three of us that first day she came to live with us. Maybe the biggest surprise was how Phurba immediately took to the kitten, grooming her, playing and even cuddling with her like they were old friends.

Buynicki, who still has five dogs, hasn’t committed to getting another, but said it was inevitable. As for Sanchez, she recently began fostering a cat that belonged to a woman who had to go live in a nursing home. But she said she’s not thinking of adopting another cat right now. “It’s just too soon,” she said.


RELATED: After the Pandemic, Fostering Pets Should Be the New Normal


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