Making decisions when your cat has a health crisis

cat_vet Making decisions when your cat has a health crisis sick cat

A few years back, I was in a long work meeting when I got the vet’s call. I stepped outside to take it.

On hearing what he had to say, I slid my back down a wall and tried to steady myself.

I had never received such awful news. I believed these things didn’t happen to me and my loved ones. The vet said my best feline friend not only had a tumor, but it was cancerous, and not only was it cancerous, but it was an advanced, fast-moving, terminal cancer.

Needless to say, I was completely unprepared for how to respond as he rattled off our options. None of the options sounded any good, but it sounded like we needed to make a decision urgently.

I had entered crisis time, and I didn’t know where to turn.

I wish that I known Heather Merrill, C.T., back then. She is extremely familiar with this kind of situation because she runs New England Pet Hospice & Home Care. 

Imagine if I’d had a checklist of things to do and ask at that crisis moment? What a relief that would have been.

If – heaven forbid – you should need it, you can have just such a checklist, plus tips for crisis decision making, in a PDF you can download from Heather right here, right now.

A guide for making decisions for your animal in a crisis

Guest post by Heather Merrill, C.T.

When you have an animal who is ill, elderly or special needs, it is likely that you will face a crisis at some point in their care.  A time when The Decision asks to be made. Or smaller decisions about what and how much care, when to treat and when to accept, which course to pursue.

These decisions can be heart-wrenching, paralyzing, confusing, frustrating and overwhelming.

Making decisions

It is almost inevitable that at some point in your life with your animal companion you will be faced with one tough decision or another.

It could be how and whether to treat an injury, disease, or condition.

It could be whether or not to give a medication.

It could be whether to try to save him or her or let him or her go.

They are big, life decisions that can be completely overwhelming. And often they come about at just the wrong moment – when your spouse, partner or support system are out of place; when work is most demanding; when you are sick; when you have a million other demands on your time; when finances are tight. For whatever reason, they occur disproportionately in the middle of the night on a weekend.

While your veterinary team is there to help you make informed decisions, they are required to give you options. And required to tell you all the risks.

Sometimes they will be willing to share with you what they would do in your shoes, but often that does not feel comfortable to them and would not be right. You don’t want to be cheap when it comes to your animal, but sometimes the interventions proposed don’t feel right and the financial burdens are real and daunting. You may not be convinced that just because we “can”, we necessarily “should”.

You want to weigh the potential benefit against the effect on your animal’s quality of life.  And you have no choice but to consider the realities of your own life. So how do you make these decisions? How do you weigh the options and the risks?

Introducing a free guide for making decisions in a crisis

In a crisis, it is completely normal for your emotions to overwhelm you, your brain to work overtime, and the constant chatter of those around you to confuse you.

While it may seem like you must make a decision in that very instant it is almost never the case that you can’t take a few minutes to calm yourself and get to a place where a good decision, one you can live with without regret, can be made.

We love the work of Viki Kind, a Clinical Bioethicist who works with families to make health care decisions for their incapacitated loved ones (your pet is no different than a human who cannot fully communicate his or her wishes).  Her book, The Caregiver’s Path to Compassionate Decision Making: Making Choices for Those Who Can’t, is a wonderful read.  Yes, it is written with humans in mind, but like so much of our work, we find the work of our human hospice and palliative care counterparts is light years ahead of veterinary medicine and equally applicable to our animal family members.

I have been working with Viki to adapt one of her tools for use in our work with animals. The result is the Care Giver’s Crisis Planning Guide which we are delighted to share with you here.

We encourage you to take even just 10-15 minutes to read it and complete the worksheet so you have it handy when you need it.

Included in our Guide are:

  • Your Crisis Plan: A Worksheet
  • 10 Quick Tips for Crisis Decision Making
  • Medical Questions to Ask in a Crisis

Click here to download the Animal Caregiver Crisis Guide (instant PDF download, no cost)

Always remember

NO ONE knows your animal better than you do. You know his or her wants, wishes, needs and feelings. You are the expert when it comes to your baby. Trust your gut; it will never lead you wrong.

Heather Merrill, CT is founder and director of New England Pet Hospice & Home Care, which supports those caring for ill, elderly and special needs animals at home following the human hospice and palliative care models of interdisciplinary care. 

Note from Liz

You’ll find the crisis decision tips and medical questions checklist toward the end of the guide.

Click here to download the Animal Caregiver Crisis Guide

Love to hear your thoughtful thoughts! Leave a reply...


  1. I received some sobering news re: my cat’s health from her vet earlier today, and would very much like to download the above noted PDF, only my attempts to do so have failed. It doesn’t appear to be available via the New England Pet Hospice & Home Care website; are you aware of any other site at which it can be obtained?

    Many thanks for this and all of the useful information your site provides.

  2. Thank you (each) for expressing your appreciation — I am so grateful to Heather & Viki for creating this guide and allowing me to publish it here!

    @ Dr. Jean – I had no idea Viki was your cousin! I love that.
    @ Random Felines – “my brain stopped working,” well put, I can relate

  3. Thank you. I wish I would of had this when I lost my kitty last year. The staff at my vet where awesome. And the vet I had was wonderful and very caring at the end of life.

  4. thanks for sharing this….it is so important. I remember getting a call about a foster momma cat being retested and coming up positive for FeLV… brain literally stopped working and I had to ask the vet to stop for a second to get my breath back. Not that I could have been prepared for that, but having something in mind is huge.

  5. Really, really useful article. I was just tending to my friend’s cat last month, who declined (fast) and my friend struggled to figure out the best option. First, just reading this article would have (for me) felt like someone was there to hold my hand, and allow that “breathe-out” space, while deciding on the best option. Then, having the worksheet and guide would have been so, so helpful. (*I am downloading this now for both me and my friend). My kitty, Sylvester (looks a lot like the picture), is 13 years old, and I think this would be so valuable. So sorry for how hard that must have been, to receive that news, and thanks for this post.

  6. Wow, thank you so much for this. What a generous gift you and Heather have given to us. I really appreciate it.