We know they won’t live forever, but the reality of their mortality can often be hard to bear, writes Ashley Davies
I am having to accept the fact that my cat, Stockwell – a chubby, violent and spectacularly dense tabby whom I love so much I think my heart will blow up – is not immortal. Like a Hollywood dame, her pretty face belies her age (we still enjoy mimicking the observation made a few years ago by a vet with a thick German accent, that “she still has her kitten face”), but her body can no longer achieve the feats it once did. Feats like jumping off the sofa without making a heavy “whumph” sound, as though she’s been thrown from a great height, and being awake for more than, I don’t know, three hours a day.
We’re starting to see worrying little signs. Usually a huge fan – ie dominator – of the bed, she’s started sleeping in hiding places, which reminds me of the discreet demise of one of my excellent childhood cats, Mr Brown the Bacon Specialist, who politely took himself off to a quiet part of the garden to shuffle off this mortal coil when his kidneys called time out (knowing what we now know about nitrates makes me feel worse about this). When a dog is in pain or discomfort, you know about it – they’ll cry and moan and practically show you where it hurts – but most cats simply withdraw a little.
And as winter draws near, Stockwell usually sits on my pillow at dawn, tapping my mouth with her paw so I’ll wake up and let her burrow under the duvet for warmth while she purrs like a big, stripy machine. But despite there being a serious nip in the air at the moment, she’s been sleeping in the lounge for the past few weeks.
And, most worrying of all, it’s been days since she ran to the front door to greet the first person to come home from work. (She is the greediest animal I’ve ever done business with, and is usually standing guard waiting for her supper to be served.)
I find myself almost rehearsing how I’ll react when the inevitable day comes – when I stroke her curled-up body and don’t hear or feel that sweet little warning growl.
I can’t quite accept the fact that one day that furry bundle of selfish, playful daftness who has drawn blood more times than I can remember will be still and cold, and not demanding that everything be run strictly on her terms.
Worse than that is the possibility that we’ll have to take her to the vet one last time. There is nothing she hates more than going there, and the knowledge that she’d be anxious and furious in her final moments has my stomach in knots.
What happens if I discover her death before I’m supposed to be at work? Could I possibly function in the office? Could I even leave the house? What would we do with her body? Would I have a boss who would understand that the death of a pet would be almost as heartbreaking as the loss of a family member?
A lot of people simply don’t understand the deep love one can have for an animal, and how devastating it would be to lose them; and I simply don’t understand what it would be like to be that kind of person. Maybe they’re lucky to be immune to this kind of pain, but they’ll never know the true joy of spending years with a furry creature with a funny personality all of its own.
For many years I resisted the idea of getting a pet because I couldn’t stand the thought that one day they’d die, and yet, 14 years ago, we were unable to resist when my other half’s colleague found herself overrun by tabby kittens one summer. Stockwell, who looks a bit like a Scottish wild cat but actually comes from the suburbs of Surrey, has been an important part of our lives ever since.
Anyone who’s ever loved and lost a pet will understand the agony, though some can articulate it better than others. If you’re feeling sensitive, do not on any account look at critters.com, one of several websites on which people can commemorate their deceased pets by leaving pictures and comments about them. It’s kind of heartbreaking, and also rather strange that they’d want to be so public about it, but, hey, whatever gets you through.
Former Labour deputy leader Roy Hattersley, a man not known for being over-sentimental, found himself more profoundly moved by the death of his dog in 2009 than he ever expected. “I sat in the first floor room in which I work, watching my neighbours go about their lives, amazed and furious that they were behaving as if it was a normal day,” he wrote. “Stop all the clocks. Buster was dead.”
And in the late 1990s, comic Julian Clary said the lifespan of dogs should go into Room 101 because “it’s a cruel twist of nature” that they should die when you’ve only known them a relatively short time. He said: “It would be lovely if you could choose your dog at 22 and they would grow old at the same pace as you do.”
It’s even worse for people who live alone, particularly if they’re elderly and have been widowed. For many, a pet is the closest they have to physical affection – a constant symbiotic presence.
An old man who lives near me has a wonderful dog – a friendly, stinky Border collie-cross – who has a huge growth on his leg. Whenever I go past his house and Murphy’s not in the garden, or I can’t see his sweet nose peeping through the window, my heart hurts a little and I can’t help imagine the worst.
As well as keeping him active and providing him with companionship, that lovely dog has probably introduced his owner into hundreds of conversations with strangers that he might never have had otherwise. And, of course, the life and death of a pet provides valuable life lessons to children. The short- and long-term joy overrides the pain.
When Stockwell goes to the big radiator hammock in the sky I’ll be devastated but I’ll have felt so lucky to have known her, despite her temper. She’s trained us well and making sure she’s happy and comfortable is one of our main aims in life. She still lights up at the sound of a prawn punnet being opened, and if we can keep her in suspended animation for a few more years then I can stop joking about having her cloned.