PORTLAND, Ore. | When Dr. Meg McNabb, a veterinarian, arrived at our front door, I knew where I would find Echo, our dying tabby cat: upstairs in her favorite bedroom, beneath the chaise lounge. I climbed the stairs first while McNabb and my wife waited downstairs.
I peeked beneath the chaise. Echo peeked back. I carefully pulled her out, sat on a bed and put her on my lap. She lay there, spent. She looked me in the eyes. I assured her everything was OK. I told Echo that her humans were going to miss her. My wife, Christina, brought Meg McNabb upstairs.
The veterinarian let the events unfold as naturally as they could. Echo stayed on my lap. “What a sweet little peanut,” McNabb said before injecting Echo first with a sedative and then with an overdose of barbiturates. While my hand rested on Echo’s soft, tiger-striped flank, I felt her last breath.
As we humans become closer to our pets, our ways of parting with them are evolving. Many people are now choosing to have their animal companions put down at home, reflecting a heightened sensitivity to what pets might be thinking and feeling.
“Doing this at home creates much less stress,” says McNabb, a veterinarian with Compassionate Care Home Pet Euthanasia Service in Portland. “It’s also a way to make it a more meaningful process.”
Kathleen Cooney runs an online directory of veterinarians who perform in-home euthanasia services. Over the past five years, the directory has grown to more than 350 services nationwide.
“Five years ago we were struggling to find people to put on our directory. Now it’s growing by maybe five a month,” said Cooney, a Colorado veterinarian who specializes in pet euthanasia.
Vets who perform this service need patience. And compassion. When they show up at someone’s home to put down their pet, the owner often doesn’t know what to expect.
“We like to let the family shape and mold the experience,” said Cooney.
As grim as the deed is, performing this service can be rewarding for veterinarians. They get to see a more intimate side of humans’ relationship with their pets than they would at a clinic.
Some humans send off their beloved pet with a party. “It might be like an Irish wake, with people laughing and telling stories,” says Cooney.
Rituals are not uncommon. McNabb, who euthanizes perhaps 70 pets each month, has witnessed Wiccan and Buddhist ceremonies during house calls.
My wife and I had previously had two cats put down, both times at a clinic. As Echo became sicker, as she lost interest in food and water, and after an overnight stay at an emergency hospital failed to stop the downward spiral, we talked seriously about when and how to have her euthanized.
Echo was an exceptionally timid cat. When someone visited, she’d scamper beneath the chaise upstairs. Trips to the clinic were a torment for her — the pet carrier, the half-hour drive, alien hands groping her.
We decided Echo’s final moments should be as dignified and calm as possible. In-home euthanasia costs more than having it done at a clinic. But for us, it was the best way.
When McNabb arrived, she explained the procedure’s technical aspects and we talked about how we wanted it done. McNabb told me to take my time talking with Echo. She would be ready when we were.
Echo gazed at my face as I soothed her. We humans have no idea what our pets are thinking when we speak to them, especially cats, with their supposed indifference. But living with cats has made me suspect that our words mean a lot to them. When Echo was healthy, nearly every morning she’d come to me when I was sleeping and pat my mouth with her paw, until I spoke to her.
As I held Echo that last time, all kinds of thoughts and feelings rushed through my brain: sadness, of course, but also a sense of wonder, of a heightened connection.
Echo’s death left two cats in our household. One of them, Gatteau, also became grievously ill. When the time was right, we again called McNabb to our home.
Our remaining cat is a beautiful, black long-hair named Miranda who likes to strike grand poses whenever she favors us with her presence, as if she were Nefertiti’s reincarnation. Miranda is 16. She aced her last physical. But when the time comes, we know how to reach Meg McNabb. And we’ll probably have a party, one that is appropriate for a feline queen.