This morning, as soon as the Veterinary Clinic opened, I made an appointment for Pouncer. What was going to end in less than an hour had started just a few months ago.
Back in 1998, in Michigan, I moved into my first apartment, but decided that I didn’t want any pets. Too much hassle to clean and care for them, and I was single and rarely in my apartment. But, moving from a house full of people and pets (birds (cockatiels), fish (betas), dogs and cats) to a silent apartment where all I could hear was my neighbors walking around above me – bothered me. It was too quiet. It was antiseptic, and frankly it was a bit lonely. So I decided to go and get a cat from the Humane Society. I ‘rescued’ an adult white female and named her Snow. She was good company and I liked her calm demeanor and predilection for sitting in my lap quietly for hours in the evening.
But, one very cold, winter day, I heard a mewing outside of my apartment. It was night and there were inches of snow on the ground; it took me some minutes to locate the source. There was a tiny orange kitten locked out of the apartment building! I wrestled with what to do; on the one hand, I wanted to bring him in and care for him. On the other hand, I didn’t want a feral cat in my apartment and I didn’t want a sick cat infecting Snow. So I tried to split the difference and bring the kitten in, but then locked him in a cat carrier. I gave him a tiny bowl of food and water, but in his thrashing around to get out, he knocked them both over. I meant to tough it out, with him mewing and running in circles around his cage, until the morning and I could get him checked out by a vet – but I gave in and let him out of the carrier. That was the first time I held him in my hands, and he was tiny enough to fit in the palm of one!
I did get him checked out and confirmed he was healthy, but Snow did not like the new intruder in her domain! Over the next few months, she spent nearly all of her time hiding under my couch. It took a long time for her to move freely around my apartment, and I don’t think they ever became “friends,” though there were times they’d chase each other around and perhaps that’s close enough. Where Snow was calm, almost regal in her way of moving around and carefully choosing where she was going to sit or not, Pouncer (the name I chose after watching him endlessly play-hunt in my living room) was much more active, aggressive, demanding. He’d try and play with Snow, who was rarely in the mood, and he loved clawing and biting me in our own disfunctional hunter/prey games. I didn’t mind, but there was one time that a co-worker thought I was a ‘cutter’ because my right arm was so scratched up! In any case, the three of us made my apartment more like the home I grew up in and I was pretty happy with the arrangement.
Unfortunately, I didn’t get Pouncer neutered as soon as I should have! He began ‘marking’ corners in my apartment with his urine, and would get abandonment issues when I left. This led to him clawing up the carpeting in front of my bedroom door (until I relented and stopped shutting him out) and in front of my apartment door! This was my first apartment, and Pouncer was doing a lot of damage. I did get him neutered, albeit two years later than recommended, and had to come to an arrangement with the landlord when I moved out, to compensate for the damage that was done. In any case, when I moved to Massachusetts, I brought Snow and Pouncer with me; an 800 mile move across country into my new condominium.
I traveled a lot for that job. When I was only gone for three or four days at a time, I’d just leave them a big bowl of food and a large capacity watering bowl (the kind with the upside-down 2-liter in the back). I even bought an electronic litter box that would detect the cats visit and scoop itself when the cat stepped out. [For the record, it never worked as well as I had hoped, but it was better than my alternatives.] When I needed to travel for more than four days, I’d arrange for a neighbor to drop by and watch them until I got back. We did OK, but I don’t think they got the attention they deserved, and the condo was never as clean as it should have been.
While still living in the condo, I noticed a lump growing on Snow’s side, under her fir. I know that some older animals get fatty deposits, and that’s what I was hoping. But when I got her to my vet, he reported that it was cancer. In fact, it was a very fast growing, very aggressive form of cancer that cats are susceptible to. I opted for the surgery, but he warned me that if even one cancer cell was left, it would grow back. Sure enough, it did, only instead of one large lump, it was hundreds of little ones. I kept opting for surgery, and then do my best to care for Snow as she recovered. I’d clean the stapled up incision every day, but I was watching her lose weight and become very sedentary. When I took her in for the third surgery, the vet or someone should have stopped me. When is it too much? If I could keep her for another six months, was it worth it? What about another three? This decision haunted me, so I kept agreeing to surgeries (which were very expensive, and took an enormous toll on her). During her third surgery, the vet saw the cancer had progressed into her organs and euthanized her on the operating table.
To this day, that really bothers me. Not because I think she could have been saved, but because I know I drug it out too long, and because I was not with her at the end. Rationally, I know she’s ‘just a cat’ and not a person, but I loved her all the same and had wanted to hold and comfort her when she died; but I wasn’t. Her last day was spent in a cat carrier, then being left with a vet, handled by strangers, before being anesthetized and finally euthanized. That’s not what I wanted her last hours to be like. 🙁
Some time after Snow’s death, I moved out of the condo and in with my then-girlfriend-now-wife, Lisa. Lisa had a Brittany Spaniel (or just Brittany) named Zuzu, and she didn’t want the dog and the cat in the same part of the house. Her mother, Marilynn, lived upstairs with her aunt Polly, and Marilynn agreed to take care of Pouncer. So one pet went upstairs and the other remained downstairs. I could visit Pouncer whenever I wanted, but I didn’t worry about him. He was getting much more and much better care than he got from me! There was always someone home with him, they played with him and fed him (too much!) and he had about fifteen different places to lay down or run around. In fact, he liked climbing the stairs up to the third floor (Polly’s bedroom) to sleep in the afternoon, and climbing all the way down into the basement (or cellar, as they say here in New England) to prowl around and look for mice, I suppose. But climbing down into the basement and up into the third floor bedroom were nearly daily activities. As soon as he heard food being put on the table, he’d race back to Marilynn’s kitchen and beg for scraps, which he was as likely to turn his nose up at, as to actually eat.
Time went on. I married Lisa. Zuzu became very, very sick (we think it was a type of brain tumor) and we had to have her euthanized. [Still one of the saddest days in my life.] A few months later Lisa adopted another Brittany named Patches. Polly passed away. [Pouncer was good company for Marilynn, especially as she coped with the passing of her sister.] But then, just a few months ago, Marilynn noticed that Pouncer wasn’t going upstairs for his afternoon nap. And he wasn’t going downstairs to prowl around in the basement. And then, he stopped jumping up on the furniture or the bed. Something was wrong.
I took him to the vet, and they noted growths in his ears which sometimes happen to cats. They’re benign, but cause problems with hearing and ear wax build-up, so they gave us droplets to use. They checked him out for motor-function issues, and did a full blood work-up, but he was OK. The only thing they noted, then, was that he had lost some muscle mass in his hind legs and his hind knees were swollen with arthritis. But, our vet noted, arthritis rarely cripples cats like it can do to dogs, because cats don’t weigh much and can last much longer with it. Unfortunately, their livers can’t process human pain relievers (like NSAID’s) so there is actually little that can be done to help manage the pain, other than some food supplements and weight loss. So, we started that.
But his mobility declined very rapidly. Just over a month ago, Marilynn told me that he hadn’t been getting out of his cat bed and hadn’t been using his litter box. So I took him back to the vet and they did more blood work and x-rayed him, and all they could say is that he wasn’t eating much and so his stool wasn’t moving through his system. They rehydrated him and sent him home, we used a pet laxative to help with his digestion and he seemed to do a little better. He’d have some good days, in which he’d come out of the bedroom and want attention, he’d eat, he’d use his litter box. He’d have some bad days, in which he’d stay in his bed all day, or not make it to his litter box and pass stool on the floor.
There were a couple of times where he’d tumble over and not be able to right himself, and someone would have to turn him right-side-up, and help him to stand. A few days ago his back legs were so weak that he couldn’t use them at all and Marilynn saw him crawling with his front legs only, trying to get to his food dish. She interceded and helped, but he wasn’t able to stand any more. Two days ago, Lisa showed me how, even with her helping to keep him upright, his legs would buckle and he’d sit back down. We got him back into his pet bed, but he peed in it, unable to make it to the litter box, and then just laid in his own urine. That’s when we knew; his quality of life had fallen to near zero and trying to make him continue would just be cruel. And I kept thinking about how things had happened with Snow years earlier. I didn’t want to make that mistake again.
So this morning, I called our family vet and made an appointment. I asked for the specific vet who specializes in cats and had performed the most care for Pouncer. I took him in about 9:15 AM and showed her how he could no longer stand. She weighed him, and noted that he had lost 20% of his body weight in just a few weeks. She was as surprised by his sudden and catastrophic decline as we were, and theorized that it may be arthritis in his spine, causing a swelling that impinged on a spinal nerve, which enervated his hind quarters. In other words, he was becoming paralyzed in his back legs, and they were atrophying; it wasn’t the arthritis in his knees or hips. We can’t be sure, to test this we would have had to get an MRI and even then, there was no guarantee that a surgical solution could be found or that after a surgery, his thigh muscles would regrow their former strength. I said, “No.” This had been enough.
So, she took him away to implant an IV shunt and then returned him. He lay on a towel I brought for him, so he wouldn’t have to lay on the cold metal table. As I petted his head stood beside him, the doctor injected one syringe of a barbiturate into the IV shunt. He put his head down, and was gone.
For nearly fifteen years he had been a good companion, for me and then for Marilynn. My mother got to watch him a couple of times and when I told her he was gone, she cried for him. Marilynn wouldn’t cry in front of me, but she cried for him after I left. Lisa, who would sit with him in the evening while visiting with her mother, missed him and cried for him. I note all this, just to say that he was loved. Not all animals get treated this way, not even all cats. But some do; the lucky ones do.
While I’m trying to be careful and not anthropomorphize him into something he wasn’t, there are a few things I can say about what he was. He was endlessly curious, and always wanted to know what was inside of boxes and behind doors. I don’t think I’ve ever seen a cat more bothered by closed doors, and demand that they be opened, even when he had no interest in the room beyond. He always wanted to be involved in what you were doing, from preparing food, to making the bed, to folding clothes, to just sitting around watching TV. He loved playing his cat games, and stalked me on the stairwell or pounced and attacked my hand, just to stair at me for a moment, and then run off again. He wasn’t always overweight; he was very athletic for most of his life and I’ve seen him on more than one occasion jump straight up from the floor to the top of a refrigerator in a single leap. When he spent time in my mothers house, he got along with her dogs and cats, and when he was the only pet in Marilynn’s apartment he soaked up all the attention he cared to. And finally, he was very human-social. He liked looking over the guests and picking who he was going to sit next to or on! [I suspect he had a little fun picking “not cat people” to focus his attention on.]
He had a unique personality, and a beautiful spirit. I loved him; he’s gone; and I’m going to miss him.