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Deciding what to do is a tough choice many pet owners face

“Here’s the thing,” says Stephanie Takes-Desbiens. “When you have lots of cats and you’re indulgent, your house will be filled with cat toys—half of which they won’t play with—you’ll have cat litter in all sorts of places you didn’t want it, and you will find cat vomit behind the couch.”

It goes with the territory, says the 56-year-old blogger, painter and cat mom, who lives in Yarmouth with her husband Don. “You’re going to do crazy things for your animals,” she says.

Another truth: You will most likely have to say goodbye to your cat long before you’re ready to.

Takes-Desbiens has said heartbreaking goodbyes more than once over the years. On a shelf in a cabinet just off her kitchen, there’s a small collection of paw prints pressed into circles of clay, each one a testament to a cat who slept each night at her head and who batted toys across the family room floor.

One of Stephanie Takes-Desbiens’ cats, Gemma. Photo by Shannon Bryan

Nearly a dozen cats have touched Takes-Desbiens’ life (more than that, really, if you count the strays she’s nursed back to health and the outdoor cat her family had when she was 8, who she barely saw but adored just the same). Among them are Omar, Rabbit, DC, Eartha, Marpa, Buster, Mini (“not Minnie,” Takes-Desbiens clarifies, “or she’ll be offended”), Smidgie, Kshanti, Gemma and Neena (“She spells it that way, not me,” says Takes-Desbiens).

Another one of Stephanie Takes-Desbiens’ cats, Mini. Photo by Shannon Bryan

Each of her cats came from a shelter, chosen by her and Don for reasons she can’t always explain. (“It’s like meeting a guy,” she jokes, you just know it’s “the one.”) In the case of Marpa, the cat did the choosing. “He was the best cat ever,” says Takes-Desbiens. “When we got him at the MSPCA, he came running out and jumped into Don’s arms. I was like,”OK, I’m taking you home, I guess.”

Marpa, as it turned out, had a host of issues. When they brought him home when he was 6 months old, his ears were oozing. “He had an overactive immune system,” she says, which led to a litany of medical issues over the years. An average cold would turn into pneumonia, a minor scratch would turn into an infection.

But that didn’t deter Marpa’s undeniable charm. “He had no fear and no hang-ups,” says Takes-Desbiens. While some cats choose to hide when a visitor comes to the door, “Marpa would run down the stairs and flumph down at their feet.”

Eventually, Marpa developed diabetes, requiring insulin injections every days. “We took care of him for four to five years that way. He died at home suddenly, lying down next to me,” she says. “I had just taken him to the vet that morning. Then he died that night; it was kind of a shock.”

There have been other goodbyes, too. There was Buster, who had cancer. “We did chemo and surgery,” she says. The chemo continued for six months, until it became clear that Buster’s quality of life had diminished too much. “We knew it was time to let him go,” she says. Eartha had thyroid disease, which was treated with medication first, then surgery and then radiation therapy. She developed renal failure, so peritoneal dialysis began once a day. “She slept next to my head every night,” says Takes-Desbiens. But when the treatments stopped working, “we knew we had to let her go, too.”

“When Eartha passed away, it was just gruesomely painful,” she says. “She was my heart.”

Less than a week later, Takes-Desbiens brought Mini home. “We got Mini five days after Eartha died,” says Takes-Desbiens. “I don’t know who rescued who. I think she rescued me…It’s not that you’re replacing a cat that died, but you’re filling a place in your heart that’s empty.”

Stephanie Takes-Desbiens cuddles Mini at her home in Yarmouth. Photo by Shannon Bryan

Mini, who spends her days napping contentedly in her favorite spots or seeking out Takes-Desbiens for pets and snuggles, has diabetes. Every day, Takes-Desbiens gives her shots of insulin. She’s gotten good at being quick about it, and Mini doesn’t seem bothered by the routine. But as adept as Takes-Desbiens has gotten at insulin injections, giving pills and tending to wounds and ailments over the years, it’s not easy.

Choosing whether to even proceed with a treatment is a hard decision many pet owners have to make. Pet medications and medical interventions can be expensive, and knowing whether it’s the right choice for any given animal can be a struggle.

“It can be paralyzing because there are so many options out there,” says Deirdre Frey, a veterinarian and owner of Vet At Your Door, a veterinarian service that makes house calls. “But it’s an individual decision; there’s no one who knows your pet better than you.” Frey often helps pet owners navigate these decisions and says, “the most important thing is to focus on the relationship people have with their animal and to nurture that bond.”

Some pet owners might feel that sparing no expense is the right way to go, others might not have the money to do so. And that, says Frey, is OK.

“You shouldn’t make yourself feel guilty because there are financial limitations,” says Frey. Besides, all the money in the world doesn’t guarantee a positive outcome from a treatment or surgery, so it’s important to consider all the angles, like the time and difficulty of recovery and the animal’s prognosis. Sometimes, recognizing that it’s the right time to say goodbye is the most compassionate thing an owner can choose for their pet.

“I think of euthanasia as the final act of love to show to an animal,” says Frey. “It’s not selfish. It’s not a wrong choice.”

Frey’s goal is to “help guide people and to affirm what is the right thing for them and their animal.” It’s a position she says she’s honored to be in.

When it comes to her cats, Takes-Desbiens has spent thousands of dollars on medical care, but she also knows that treatment isn’t always the best option. “I know we’re fortunate to be able to handle our vet bills. It’s a priority for us, but it can’t be that way for everyone” she says. She’ll pay whatever is needed, “as long as the animal isn’t suffering and is enjoying quality of life.”

Paw prints for Buster, Marpa and Kshanti, all cats Stephanie Takes-Desbiens has said goodbye to. Photo by Shannon Bryan

“That’s what I signed up for,” she says. “I think that it’s like a vow…you have a certain agreement about how you’re going to treat an animal.” And for her, that means recognizing what’s best for her cats.

She recalls a comforting thing her vet once told her: “Animals measure their lives in quality, not quantity.”

“You might have an animal for a week,” she says. “And that animal won’t make the same impact if you had it for 15 years, but if you give that animal quality for a week, it’s something to be happy about, that you had this animal and you loved them for that week.”

Frey echoes the sentiment. “Focus on your love for this animal and how you’ve created a great life for this animal,” she says. “There’s no one better to have raised this pet.”

If you experienced the loss of a pet, or are dealing with a pet’s terminal illness or end-of-life decisions, find support at an area support group in Portland, Brunswick and Camden. For more info: www.pet-loss.net/resources/ME.shtml

Shannon Bryan is an editor of Maine Women Magazine. She lives in South Portland and is always up for an adventure.

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