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On Knowing When It’s Time

On Knowing When It’s Time
  • On January 29, 2016

Warning: This piece takes you through the last weeks of a cat with cancer, and contains pictures from those weeks. If animal suffering, cancer, death or grief are triggering for you, you should avoid reading this. If you have a sick pet, you should avoid reading this. I sobbed when I wrote it, and my editor sobbed when she edited it. Read at your own risk.


Meet Bandit.

I met Bandit on Oct. 31, 2001. I was leaving my apartment to go to a Halloween party I had no interest in. It was dark, just after sunset, and I was rolling through the parking lot when my headlights picked up something very tiny sitting on the pavement in my path.

I slowed down. The very tiny thing didn’t move.

“That looks like a kitten,” I thought.

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It continued to not move.

“That can’t be a kitten,” I thought. But I stopped anyway, a foot away from it.

It was a kitten, all of six weeks old, sitting primly in front of my car. His whiskers had been chopped off. He was (and still is) the cutest kitten I have ever seen.

He sat still as I came around the car and scooped him up, was calm as I took him home and tucked him into my bathroom with some food and water. I left him to meet my then-boyfriend at the party.

“Absolutely not,” the man who is now my husband said as soon as I told him I’d found a kitten. “We do not need another cat.”

I begged and pleaded for the rest of the night. He was unmoved: We did not need another cat.

When we got home I brought the tiny little kitten out of the bathroom. He sat, adorably, on the palm of one hand when I presented him to my partner.

The man visibly melted. “Oh,” he said. “OK.”

It wasn’t long before we discovered that Bandit’s initial calm had been an act. He dealt well with the other cats, and eventually the dog, but he wasn’t fond of strangers, and he was absolutely terrified of children.

Ten years later, Bandit was less cute (honestly, he grew into kind of a raggedy adult), but he was My Cat and I was His Person. He spent every moment at my side. If I was on my laptop, his head was resting on the keyboard. If I was playing video games, he was laying between my legs. If I was sitting on my exercise ball at my computer, he was sitting on the ball behind me or balancing in my lap.

He was an escape artist; he loved being outside, and he excelled at waiting until just the right moment to slip out the door and into the wash behind our house. He’d run from anyone else, but if I went outside and called him, he’d come to me. If I went outside without him, he’d sit at the door and meow until I came in.

He was my cat. I was his person. 



And he was sick.


And I couldn’t see it.


I couldn’t see it when he started twitching and jumping and biting at himself. I thought he had fleas, even though no evidence of fleas could be found. I couldn’t see it when he started to lose weight or when he stopped spending every second by my side.

I knew something was wrong the day he climbed in my lap and released a biblical flood’s worth of urine onto my lap, but I figured he had a urinary tract infection or was just really pissed (heh) at me for something.

I took him to the vet.

He had cancer. He had cancer everywhere.

The vet told me that the years I’d expected to spend with him had turned into weeks, that it was too far advanced to make it worth treating, that I needed to be prepared to let him go.

And that I would know when it was time.

Everyone kept telling me that. I would know, they said. I would know when it was time to let him go. “How?” I asked. “You just will,” they said.

They were wrong. I didn’t know. It’s one of the greatest regrets of my life.

He lived for six weeks, I think, after the vet found the cancer. Six weeks of utter hell, for him and for me.

He started hiding in my daughter’s bedroom. I had to move the litter box into her room, because otherwise he’d just go on her carpet. I had to put it on the floor, because he was too weak to jump onto anything. After awhile, he just started skipping the litterbox entirely and, instead, used the furniture he was sleeping on.


And I thought, “It’s not time yet, because if it was time, I’d know.”

Our days started and ended with me shoving medications down his throat. I had to give him a shower every day, because feces would get matted in his fur if I didn’t. He didn’t mind the showers so much, I think; I don’t know if the warm water helped with the pain or if he was just too weak to fight them.

And still I held on, because I was waiting to know. And I didn’t. I knew that he was hurting. I knew that I was hurting. I knew that I needed him. I was waiting for a miracle.

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His weight dropped from 12 pounds to 6 pounds. The vet expressed concern but didn’t push. I wish he’d pushed, at least a little.

My dad saw a picture of him and replied with, “Honey. He’s not going to get better.”

My husband looked down at us one day, when I was sitting next to him while he ate, and said, “Baby, You have to let him go. You have to.”


“But he’s eating,” I said. “I’ll know when it’s time. It’s not time. I’ll know when it’s time.”

“I’m telling you,” he said gently. “It’s time. I’m sorry.”

I made the appointment.

I spent the next few days trying to make him as happy as I could. I took him outside and let him walk in the grass for as long as he wanted to. I waited until he came and crawled into my lap, and I sat there and tried to burn that moment into my memory.

The next morning, for the first time since his diagnosis, he laid down on my chest and he purred. It was a weak purr, but it was content, and it broke my heart and filled it at the same time.


And the morning after that, we took him to the vet to let him go.

I won’t recount that experience here, because it was horrible for everyone. All I will say is that, if I could do it again, I’d have found someone to come to our home. I wouldn’t take him to a vet. I especially wouldn’t have taken him to that vet.

But if I could do it again, and I again made the mistake of not letting him go earlier, I wouldn’t do it at all. When we took him to the vet for that final visit he only had days left. His pain had abated enough that he was moving around the house again, using the litter box, eating, socializing. He was saying goodbye, I think.

I wish I hadn’t done it.

I knew it wasn’t time.


  • Like (9)


  1. Allyson

    I’m so sorry, Bell. I went through a similar situation a few years ago with my cat Molly. We found her as sick, tiny kitten in the long forgotten year of 1999… she was hiding the engine of our car and started to meow up a storm whenever we got close. My hubby said we didn’t need another cat, either, but he relented because she was so small and so sick. She was very skittish, but she LOVED me. Whenever I went into her domain, she was my cuddle buddy.

    In 2013, she developed a huge growth on her lip. It didn’t seem to bother her, but then suddenly it started growing more every day. We took her to the vet, and it was cancer. She was healthy other than the tumor on her mouth, so we opted for surgery. And she did well! For three months, I thought everything was fine… then I thought I noticed the tumor coming back. I ignored it for a while, but it was obviously growing. Within a month, it was bigger than ever. We took here back to the vet, and our vet (who is TERRIFIC) told us that there was nothing else we could do. Molly was already 14, and if they operated again it would take too much tissue; she wouldn’t be able to eat or drink without help.

    The vet told me that I needed to prepare myself, and that I would know when the time was right. Molly was home for another month. She still ate and drank and cuddled, but her tumor was growing so big so fast. I finally made the appointment when I noticed that she was becoming irritated with the tumor. Our vet was super throughout the whole thing. She let us take as long as we needed in the room to say goodbye. She explained what would happen and how Molly wouldn’t feel any pain. And after it was over, she cried along with us.

    I always thought people were crazy when they talked about the difficulty of losing pets… I mean, I’d had pets before and I loved them, but Molly was special. I have a hard time replaying Mass Effect 3, because that’s the last game I played with her curled in my lap. There are songs that I won’t listen to on the radio because they always seemed to be playing on the drives back and forth to see the vet.

    We have another cat now… a great Maine Coon mix that I’m super attached to, also. He is an awesome cat and I needed him in my life, but I still miss Molly. Her death has hurt worse than some family members’. I think the worst part is that I had to make the choice to end her life, and the what-if’s just keep banging around in my head.

    I’m sorry to hijack your post. It’s just so theraputic to talk about Molly, especially when I know the other person can relate.

    And I wish I had the words to help you feel better about Bandit. He was a handsome guy. You did right by him, even though I know that’s probably not much comfort to you at the moment.

    • Bell

      You didn’t hijack! It’s good to know people relate, not just with the grief but with the regrets and what-ifs. A lot of people reacted to my intense grief and guilt with “It was just a cat.” I’m grateful that you shared, honestly. I’m so sorry that you lost her, and for what it’s worth, I think you made the right choice. I wish I had been as selfless.

      Something that still makes me laugh, though: When we were in the car pulling into the vet’s parking lot, “The End, Once And For All” from ME3 came up on my playlist. It made me laugh, because holy irony, Batman.

  2. Aenne

    There is so much I want to say, but…

    You did what you could and you loved him, and he loved you. I’m so sorry for your loss of Bandit.The human and animal bond is strong and amazing.They do so much for us, so selfless. It’s never a easy choice for anyone when we have to say goodbye to the ones we love. #hugs

    • Bell

      <3 Thank you.

  3. dammit..

    Bell.. I’m so sorry.

    I went through this with my dog last year. It’s been 9 months since I lost him and I still miss him terribly, every day. We were bonded.. he was mine, and I was his.

    The doubts, the wondering if you did the right thing, if you waited too long to let him go.. these are all here, too, even if he did get a chance to fight it since it was found ‘early’. But whether we get that chance or not, I think we’ll always second guess the choices we make because we love them so, and want to do right by them. And it’s never the right time to let them go; it’s always too soon.


    • Bell

      It’s not easy, and I still get confused by everyone who said I’d just know. Are there people out there who can know that? How do I learn that skill? That’s something I need.

      I’m fortunate now because our vet lets me know where she thinks we are, and is very clear: When there are more bad days than good days and medication doesn’t help, it’s time. I’m glad to have this vet, because we’re reaching the end of our dog’s life (he’s not ill, just very old) and I might not know when it’s time, but she will.

      The vet we were with when Bandit was sick went out of business not long after. It couldn’t have happened to a more deserving guy.

      • :)

        Yeah, that’s something that confused me as well. I sure as hell didn’t “know” – even though I paid very close attention to what he was going through (even when he was trying so hard not to show the pain he was in, as dogs do), the overarching theme of our last weeks was the optimism I was trying so hard to project (for both of our good) so much that he was having trouble breathing before I finally understood.

        And gawd, your old vet sounds like a real piece of work. I’m so sorry you had to deal with that on top of everything else – a vet should be your partner in your pet’s health and care (almost :)) as much as you do. That must have been a true nightmare 🙁 Good riddance.

        Very glad that you found a good one for your dog.. there’s a huge difference when you have a vet that cares. Good luck, and I hope he has the best last lap that a dog can have <3

  4. Andrew

    I finally read it Bell, and damn it, you made me cry too.

    • Bell

      I mean, I *did* warn you. <3

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