The Last Walk: Reflections on Our Pets at the End of Their Lives - Jessica Pierce This time last year (Dec 2011/Jan 2012) was a particularly rough time for me and the Clan. In the space of four months, I lost three of my cats to various medical complications:

Image of Malcolm

Malcolm had advanced kidney disease for the last year of his life, which I spent giving him subcutaneous transfusions and worrying every day that I would come home from work and find him dead (A concern that would be mirrored with my other two.) from kidney failure. As it turned out, he began bleeding uncontrollably when he cut his gum one morning and the vet put him to sleep just before Christmas (2011).

Image of Calvin

Calvin had hyperthyroidism for the last two or three years of his life. Outside of having to force a pill down his throat once or twice a day (depending upon the disease’s stage at the time), it was only in the last two weeks of his life that I had to take what might be considered extraordinary measures – sub-Q IVs, bottle feeding, more drugs to help his appetite. He wound up dying curled up with me early one morning about a week after Christmas.

Image of the Monkey

Cassandra’s (or, as she was more commonly known, the Monkey) death was the real shocker. For the 16 years of her life, she was always the healthy one but one day I noticed she was breathing heavily and not eating. Within a week she was dead. Like Calvin, she died with me at home in April.

And I still have two geriatric cases to take care of: Emma, the Monkey’s sister, and Meggie (short for Megaera, one of the Erinyes, though my cat’s the sweetest-natured creature you could ever hope to meet). Emma has hyperthyroidism and an irritable bowel condition. She gets two pills once a day. Meggie also has irritable bowels, and she gets one pill a day plus a teaspoon of Maalox in her breakfast to keep her "reg’lur."

This is all prologue to why Jessica Pierce’s The Last Walk caught my eye. I had bought a copy for a friend (the same who gave me Emma and the Monkey) for Xmas, and I took the opportunity to read it for myself.

The book arose out of Pierce’s chronicling Odysseus’ (Ody), her own dog’s, year-long struggle with approaching death, and each chapter ends with an excerpt from her journal. It’s that latter part that makes the book stand out from similar endeavors – I could easily identify with the efforts she took to make Ody’s last months as comfortable as possible, the anxiety she felt every day that this would be the day, the questions about how far to go to keep him alive, and the guilty relief when it was all over.

In between, Pierce discusses how we treat our pets (or “animal companions,” as some would have it). She enumerates a set of guidelines, largely based on the UK Farm Welfare Council’s guidelines for treating animals:

1. Freedom from hunger and thirst
2. Freedom from pain, injury and disease
3. Freedom from discomfort
4. Freedom to express normal behavior
5. Freedom from fear and distress

And a sixth one she adds: Freedom to die a good death. (pp. 12-3)

Her ultimate conclusion – one that will not satisfy those who fear ambiguity – is that each case (just as with humans and how we deal with our deaths) is unique. It doesn’t matter how I acted in Calvin’s case, when Emma’s end comes or Oberon’s or any of the other cats’, I’m going to go through all the same questions and soul searching I did with him, e.g., How aggressive should I be in keeping him alive? For example, I don’t think I should have force fed him in his last days. He hated it; I hated it; and it didn’t make a difference in the end.

The one thing I wish Pierce had explored more fully is what do you do when you aren’t in the privileged position (as both she and I are) where we can actually consider pet hospices, extensive (and expensive) vet tests and drugs. How should you deal with a pet when you can’t afford yearly wellness exams, vaccinations and a gold-plated health plan?

Other than that, an you’re a pet owner (sorry, companion) or not, Pierce’s book is valuable since it raises serious questions not just about how we deal with their deaths but also with how we deal with death in general (not very well, unfortunately). Even better, she doesn’t provide any easy answers.

And you can skip the Ody journal entries if you fear you’d have difficulties with the subject matter.

Really.

Ody was euthanized on November 29, 2010; I teared up as Pierce described the final decision and the fateful day not just because it’s well written and in no way mawkish but because it reminded me of the two painful nights and one awful morning that I had recently gone through.