Question from Susan Banfield:
My cat is 18 yrs old, has lost most of his front teeth, bad breath, dribbles all the time, extremely skinny and has trouble keeping himself clean. Bit loathe to help him on his way over the bridge as his coat still shines, bright eyes, eats well and still goes outside to toilet and explore. Am I being fair?
Answer from Shanika Winters:
Hi Susan and thank you for asking one of the most delicate questions that a pet owner and vet will face ‘when is the right time to have my pet put to sleep?’
As our pets ages we are very aware that we do not want them to go on for too long and that our vet can put our pet to sleep so as to prevent unnecessary suffering. This is however never a simple or easy decision to make and is very much specific to each individual pet, its condition and its owner. I will go through the way in which we try to help an owner work out if that time has arrived. Please remember that as your veterinary team we are here to help and support you any your pet through all situations even after you lose a pet we are here to talk to.
From what you are describing it sounds like your cat has done very well to get to 18 years of age and still be going out, toileting correctly and eating. Loss of teeth is to be expected as pets get older, often as vets we may have extracted teeth due to infection or damage. You mentioned that your cat was struggling to keep clean, by this I assume that we are talking about grooming of his coat. Cats and dogs use their front teeth to almost comb through and nibble at their coats, as you mentioned most of these are missing then it would necessary to groom your cat using a comb, brush or mitt. If an elderly cat is skinny yet eating well this tends to make us wander if the cat may have an overactive thyroid gland, which can be diagnosed by blood test and then can be treated using tablets or by surgery/radioactive iodine.
Does my cat still have a good quality of life?
There is not a simple answer as to whether a pet still has a good quality of life, we need to discuss how your pet was at its prime and take into consideration that even though it may not be able to do all those things now he can still be leading a happy, pain free life.
The most basic functions are eating, drinking and being able to go to the toilet. As cats age we may need to offer them softer foods/smaller meals more often in order for them to get enough food. Some cats need encouragement to drink, making sure we refresh the water in their bowls regularly, have the bowl near where they rest and some cats prefer running water so a water fountain may help. Toilet function for a cat involves getting into the correct posture which is not always easy if there is any arthritis/pain in the legs/spine and also accessing the litter box( use of lower sided litter boxes can make it easier to get in/out of them). Minimising pain can be achieved by treating any underlying arthritis and or use of joint supplements.
So even if your pet needs a few small changes to be able to perform its basic functions then it can still be having a good quality of life just with a little bit of extra help.
As owners we ask ourselves whether our pets are still happy. How happy and responsive your cat is also needs to be considered relative to how it was when younger taking into account normal changes expected with age. Not all animals are very responsive so cannot all be measured on the same scale, also there are natural changes at different life stages e.g. juvenile cats are very playful and this will reduce as they become adult cats. Also obesity can affect how interactive a cat is, so helping your cat to reach its optimum weight will reduce risk of diseases such as arthritis and diabetes as well as help him to be more interactive with you.
Grooming is an activity which cats spend a lot of time doing, as they become older and potentially less flexible then this becomes harder for them, but as owners we can help. If we did not brush our hair for days on end think how uncomfortable, itchy and sore we would feel. So this is a really simple area in which we can help our older cats to feel happier and more comfortable. But they may not appreciate that we are trying to help them at first so little, often and gently is the way forward.
I hope that my answer has helped you to work out how you can help your cat and that the final decision is always yours as the pet owner but that your veterinary team are here to help you make such a hard decision. We are more than happy to give you the time you need to discuss matters with us to make sure we all do the right thing for your much loved pet.
Shanika Winters MRCVS (online vet)
If you have any worries about your pet, please make an appointment with your vet, or try our Symptom Guide.