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“How ironic that what to me was a bit of a disaster was just what the owner really appreciated”

11 March 2020, at 9:00am

As an ophthalmologist, I rarely have to perform euthanasia for the animals that come to me – enucleations are the ocular equivalent! But on occasion we do encounter animals where saying goodbye, as we might put it, is the kindest thing.

One such case recently was a cat with a glaucomatous eye which came to see me through our RSPCA clinic at the vet school. The eye was blind and the cat was in pain so enucleation was the obvious answer. The owner had used a friend to get her pet to us in Cambridge but her friend wasn’t able to help her get the animal back after surgery so I popped her in the back of the car and took her the 10 miles back home. All seemed well, but histopathology showed that the increased pressure was caused by an intraocular tumour – an amelanotic melanoma.

I rang the owner and warned her that spread to other parts of the body may well happen but I was surprised how quickly the cat went downhill. A week later the owner rang me complaining that the cat was lethargic and falling over when she tried to walk. Again, getting in to see us was difficult so, having a student with me, I took a syringe’s worth of pentobarbitol and headed off.

It was clear when we got there that euthanasia was the way to go but the cat was so collapsed that intravenous injection was out of the question. I explained to the student and the owner that an injection into the kidney was a sensible alternative. The trouble was that the cat was also in renal failure with small knobbly kidneys – well, that’s my excuse, but remember I have told you I don’t do this sort of thing on a regular basis. I must have injected some barbiturate in the right place because the cat was rapidly anaesthetised.

However, as the student and I sat on the owner’s sofa with the cat between us on a towel and me crossing my fingers that she didn’t evacuate herself, she took a breath. More stroking, more chatting to the owner and her husband about the 12 years they had had the animal… and another breath. More stroking… 20 seconds… another breath. Surely 5mL of solution for an elderly emaciated cat would be enough, and it had to be – that was all I had brought with me. And so it went on for about half an hour until finally the end came. What a nightmare! What on earth would I do if miraculously she woke up again? She didn’t and all was well in the end.

Well, very well as it happened. “Thank you so much,” said the owner. “That was lovely. Whenever I’ve had an animal put to sleep at the vets there’s sometimes been a bit of a struggle with the injection and then, almost immediately, my dear pet is gone. Awake one moment, gone the next. I’ve always felt really guilty for killing them – even though I knew it was the right thing. But this was totally different – so calm and peaceful – thank you.”

How ironic that what to me was a bit of a disaster was just what the owner really appreciated.

And then – what to do with the body? I really wanted a post-mortem to see what was going on but often find that permission jolly difficult to ask for at such a tricky time. “Would you be able to take her for me please?” said the owner. “I haven’t a garden to bury her in. And could her body be useful in helping other animals?”

Of course, the answers to both questions were affirmative and so we learnt that the tumour was widespread in liver, kidneys and spine, explaining the signs we were seeing. A peaceful end for cat and owner, and I guess for me too.

Associate Lecturer, Veterinary Ophthalmology at St John's College, University of Cambridge

David Williams, MA, VetMB, PhD, CertVOphthal, CertWEL, FHEA, FRCVS, graduated from Cambridge in 1988 and has worked in veterinary ophthalmology at the Animal Health Trust. He gained his Certificate in Veterinary Ophthalmology before undertaking a PhD at the RVC. David now teaches at St John’s College, Cambridge.

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