THE FIRST thing the vet did was give the cat an injection to make him drowsy. While my wife and daughter gave him encouraging strokes his eyes closed and his head sank onto his front paws. The next step was a massive dose of anaesthetic into his kidneys; for 10 minutes we watched, tearfully, as his breathing became shorter and shallower. Eventually it stopped but the vet found, with his stethoscope, that the heart was still beating. So one final injection was needed before the cat could be wrapped in a towel and put back in his basket to be taken home for burial.
Some people will see it as, at best, an affectation and, at worst, an insult that humans could get so emotional over the loss of a cat. Why did we not weep tears that day for the many killed in Syria or Iraq or for the starving in Sudan? Better yet; why did we not give the money we wasted on feeding the cat to charity?
But the taste for animal companionship is remarkably common. It is estimated there are around 220m cats and a similar number of dogs worldwide (excluding strays). For some, they may be child substitutes; for others, a vital source of company in a lonely old age. Some studies have found that pets can relieve stress, and improve long-term health.
I have measured out my life in pets. Merely by being born, I proved fatal for Lassie, a collie who had had shown a tendency to bite, and was deemed too big a risk to share a house with a small baby. The first pet I remember was Kim, a mischievous mongrel who was given away when my mother had to look after her ailing father. Then came Pepper, a stray cat who waited at the bottom of my bed for a stroke every morning. But one day, I decided to get up early before she arrived. That was the day she was run over, something only discovered after days of tramping the streets knocking on doors in hope of a sighting. It was my ten-year-old self’s first real experience with death.
My last childhood pet was Shep, a collie-cross who I picked from a puppy farm, and survived long after I left home. When my parents put him down, I was cross with my father that they had not given me one last chance to visit; as it happened, those were the last words I exchanged with my Dad before his sudden death a few weeks later.
In adult life, pet ownership had to wait until the days of flat sharing were left behind. Cats were the only real option; dogs cannot be left at home all day, but cats are more self-sufficient. William was the third pet in adulthood. He arrived back in 2005, the year of England’s great Ashes victory and the terrorist attack on London’s tubes and buses. And he used up many of his lives; getting stuck in the wallspace between our house and the next, losing half his tail in the garden gate and his eye lenses in old age. He often tried to follow us when we left the house, sometimes trailing for long distances like a feline private detective. Finally his liver began to fail and he became a pathetic creature, huddled on the kitchen floor by his bowls, eager to eat but unable to do so.
William was different. Every other pet had died suddenly, or had been dealt with by my parents. This time, it was up to me to make the fatal decision and, of course, the choice was postponed as long as possible. The overwhelming feeling was one of betrayal. Pets rarely like visiting the vet but at least most trips can be justified on the grounds of improving its health. This small creature trusted me enough to let me pick it up and bundle it into its carrying basket; it had no idea it was being ferried to its death.
It may seem insulting to those who have lost loved ones — wives, husbands, parents, children — to refer to the word “grief” in these circumstances. Of course, the loss of a human is infinitely greater. For most of us, however, the decision to end a loved one’s life is not for us to take; often, as was the case with my parents and grandparents, it occurs out of our sight. With pets, we often have to take the fatal decision.
We take small pleasures from our pets. The purr of a cat as it is stroked; the excitement of a dog as it chases a ball; the occasional bursts of madness as a cat attacks a piece of string or a dog chases its own tail. They create a rhythm to the day; the morning feed, the afternoon walk, the night-time arrival of cat on bed, eager for shared bodily warmth. And there is satisfaction from a relationship that is so uncomplicated; in return for food and affection, the dog or cat will stay around. There are no arguments; no sudden estrangements. These small joys help us through the long days and nights. My cat will no longer be the first to greet me when I open the front door. How can I not be sad that he’s gone?