After I shove my dinner in the fridge and pull my hair back, I clock in and then take a look at the computerized “whiteboard,” displaying the clinic’s patients. I note three spays, a bilateral cruciate repair, and two stray cats. One, nicknamed Lucky, was hit by a car and is on the docket for a leg amputation tomorrow. The other cat, unnamed, has no orders put in and no description. Although technically I’m working appointments today, usually the floating technician (code-named FLO) needs help treating the hospitalized animals, and I always like to have an idea of who’s here.
I glance through the isolation ward’s glass door, and see a black shape huddled near the rear of the kennel. I crack open the door and slowly approach, talking softly in the attempt to rouse the cat without scaring it. The black cat is still. I start to get worried, so I tap gently on the cage door and look intently for the chest’s rise and fall. The cat is still unresponsive, so I open the kennel door and bang on the side of the cage. Now I can see the cat’s wide open eyes, which don’t twitch at my movement, and finally, its shallow, tiny breaths. Its head lies at an odd angle in the clean litter pan, stone litter sticking to its nose. The cat is totally unresponsive to both noise and movement, but I can’t test its responsiveness to touch, as the isolation ward doesn’t have a set of elbow-length leather gloves at the moment. I quickly shut the kennel door and exit the isolation ward, to find FLO and learn what the cat’s deal is.
We both agree that the cat doesn’t look good and speculate on the possibility of feline distemper; a rabid cat that was brought in on July 4 is also fresh in our minds. At the end of the evening, with no owners located and the cat’s condition unchanged, FLO and the vet on duty euthanize the unnamed black cat.
A quick decision? Absolutely. The right decision? No one will ever know. Those of us on duty that night rationalize our decision with the thought that the black cat’s suffering was not prolonged: we gave it a quick, painless ending, something that cannot be said for a death via rabies, distemper, or internal trauma. Others may say that we should have waited longer, should have watched for an improvement in the cat’s condition so that we could diagnose its problem and start treatment. I honestly think both opinions are valid. Life-or-death decisions are one of the greatest challenges of veterinary medicine.