It’s been just over a week now since I lost my 14-month old cat, Sophie. I’ve been waiting to write about this until I felt able to crawl up from beneath what felt to me like a train wreck to view the events that unfolded with some perspective, untainted by the grief and trauma that I was feeling while it was all happening.
Sophie died exactly a year ago to the day that I brought her home, as Facebook so helpfully reminded me in the picture it presented in my feed, a photo of me just walking in the door with her snuggled in my coat.
Searching her out on kijiji and going to pick her up with my BF, Mark in Woodstock as an 8-week old kitten was my way of dealing with the grief of losing my previous cat, Boo Boo, who I loved for 8 years until he died at age 12 from what was likely pancreatic cancer.
We got her 3 weeks after his death and I expect that a large part of my ‘Sophie-grief’ was suppressed or delayed ‘Boo Boo grief’ which added to the intensity of my feelings when Sophie passed away. Boo Boo’s death felt more manageable to me, likely because I had more warning and was able to care for him at home with IV fluids and be with him at the vet’s where he passed over incredibly gently during his appointment to be euthanized. Mark had already prepared a grave for him and my son, Chris drove us directly to his farm with Boo Boo on my lap. The three of us laid him to rest at the edge of Mark’s forest where there was already a lovely large stone to Mark his grave. Later in the spring I transplanted some trilliums and forget-me-nots and it makes me happy to know that his remains are there and will become part of the forest ecology. To whatever degree one can say such things, Boo Boo’s death was a ‘good death’.
Not so for my wee girl Sophie and this is why I need to write about this. I need to be able to wrap my head around the circumstances that led to her passing and I need to come to terms with the intensity of the feelings that overwhelmed me.
I do have enough perspective, 8 days later, to see how at first I was looking for someone to blame, even if that someone was myself. Here is a point-form summary of the events:
Mark gets Levi, an 8-month old black-and white male kitten. We hope he and Sophie will play together and become friends. We do a ‘by-the-book’ introduction routine to avoid territorial behaviour and find delight in how they play together. I worry because I feel he is stronger than her and when they would occasionally scuffle I would separate them to give them a ‘time-out’ and prevent injury. By visit 7, they are able to sleep on the same sofa together, and can walk by each other without triggering each other. Mark says that they are ‘playing’ not ‘fighting’. I am not sure.
One of these visits Mark and I cook an organic chicken. I cook up the liver that comes with it and feed it to Sophie in tiny bits to ensure she tolerates it. She loves it. I then buy from the refrigerated section of the grocery store soft kibble made with chicken liver and whitefish. I give it to her as a treat, bit-by-bit increasing the amount I give her as she LOVES it. By the end of the week, she wants it instead of her regular food. It is billed as a complete food, approved by the AAFCO. I think ‘why not’?
March 23rd I bring Sophie to her vet as she has a sore on her ear that is starting to look unpleasant. I have been so careful with her food, I am assuming it is because her and Levi went at it too hard and that he has clawed or bitten her. The sore is infected so the vet gives her an antibiotic injection, which is more convenient than giving her oral medication. It is to stay in her system 2 weeks. Sounds good to me! Later I read on to discover that some cats die after receiving an injection of Convenia. If they react badly to it, you cannot get it out of their system in the way you could stop giving an oral medication and this can kill them.
Another week later, around March 30th Sophie has two sores on her ears, some redness in her ‘eyebrow’ area and the original sore is getting worse. She is scratching and looking very uncomfortable. I am now thinking that this was NOT a result of scuffling with Levi. I bring her back to my vet and we have a talk to try and figure out where this is coming from. I mention the food change. She recommends stopping the new food and reverting her back to her previous food. She gives her a steroid shot. Again, one that will stay in her system for 2 weeks. A few days previously I had put a cone collar on her to stop her scratching. My vet said that the steroid shot would stop her itching, make her more comfortable, and promote healing.
I bring Sophie home. That night she manages to get her cone collar off. I leave it off she is not scratching. That week her sores heal. It seems clear that it was the new food causing her sores. I learn through this that if a cat is going to react to a food, it is not necessarily going to show you this through standard digestive upsets (vomiting, diarrhea) but can also come through with skin issues. This is news to me.
She seems back to normal. Sunday, April 2nd I bring her to Tavistock to visit with Mark and Levi. They are happy to see each other. I find that she is less energetic than she used to be and spends a lot of time on a chair, just watching him. She eats some of his food. I bring her home that night and for the next two days she doesn’t eat and spends resting/sleeping. I am noticing this, but not over-worried, as romps with Levi would often leave her resting the next day. She had eaten quite a bit at Mark’s so I wasn’t too concerned about her food intake.
Tuesday April 4th I came home from work at 4 for my dinner and she hadn’t moved from my bed since I’d left at 1. I noticed that her chest was going up and down very rapidly and when she looked up at me she looked seriously ill. In fact, she reminded me of Boo Boo when he was dying and I called right away to see if I could take her in to be seen by my vet. They fit us in an hour later and we discovered that she was respirating 120 times a minute. A healthy cat breathes 20-40 times a minute.
Staff kindly stayed later than normal at work to give her an x-ray, which showed a large amount of fluid in her lungs, a seemingly normal heart, no intestinal blockages or tumors. She received an diuretic injection and my vet gave me 3 injections to take home with me to give her every 3-4 hours. I had some experience with injecting Boo Boo (although Mark had mostly done the needle part for m) to give him fluids to make him more comfortable in his last days. I had to get over my own discomfort with this and was able to inject her as prescribed.
Wednesday morning, April 5th I brought her back in to my vet at 10 am. She had not improved. Another x-ray was taken but their machine to read it was broken. The vet said she needed an ultrasound but the earliest appointment she could make for me was a week away. Looking at Sophie I knew she wouldn’t survive a week. My vet called Guelph Small Animal Clinic to refer her and I called Mark to see if he could drive us there from his place enroute.
We arrived in Guelph at 2 pm and staff took her right away to put her in an oxygen tent,. We elected to wait until they completed tests. Her heart seemed to show early signs of congestive heart disease but they did not believe that this was the cause of the fluid in her lungs. The diuretic was not draining the lung fluid, and by this time she was also dehydrated. It seemed as if to treat one of her symptoms was exacerbating her other symptoms.
We left her in Guelph around 6 pm where they were going to try and treat/stabilize her. Our next step would be to let them put her on a respirator under sedation so that they could extract fluid from her lungs to try and figure out what was causing it and how to treat it if she did not improve overnight.
I received a call at 8:30 in the morning April 6th from the Guelph vet telling me that Sophie was now mouth-breathing and that I had to authorize them to start her on the respirator which I would have to commit to for at least 3-4 days which was going to cost around $7,000. Even with this option, her prognosis would not be good as she was deteriorating so quickly that if they were to diagnose and treat her she might not survive long enough for the treatment to work. If I were not to allow this option, she was suffering and should be euthanized. They had her sedated and if I wanted to see her before she died, I had to hurry up and get to Guelph from London as fast as I could.
Again, I called Mark, who dropped what he was doing to meet me at his place so he could drive me into Guelph. I don’t know my way around Guelph and I was so distressed I did not trust my ability to drive myself there safely.
When we arrived we were brought right into the ICU where she was in her little cubicle -and I am trying really hard not to cry as I write this-in a state of mouth-breathing. She had earlier tried and failed to get into her litter box to pee which very much distressed her. I was able to put my hand in to talk to her and pet her. Unlike when I left her the night before and the sedation had left her looking like ‘the lights are on but there is nobody home’ in this case she really did seem to know who I was. As I pet her she made these very sad cries that I had never heard from her before and then she suddenly jumped up as if she wanted me to take her out of the cubicle. This meant that she lost oxygen and the vet said that what happened to her is that she panicked from lack of air which generated a surge of adrenaline and made her look ‘wild’. She gave a big wild-kitty cry and then collapsed. I didn’t realize she had died until the vet told me.
I cannot express how upsetting the last few minutes with her was. It has taken me quite a few days to get past this, to let it go and as I write this I am sad, but not feeling the trauma that I felt initially and for the few days after.
We were able to hold her privately in an exam room where we had to decide whether to have them conduct a post-mortem on her to determine the cause of her death (or rather the cause of the fluid in her lungs and why she regressed so rapidly). This was a very difficult decision as part of me wanted to carry her home and bury her beside Boo Boo at Mark’s farm. It was pouring rain, so we would not have been able to do this until a few days later. Part of me has that Scorpio brain that will not let things go, that needs to understand root causes. Part of me was in trauma which I now understand is getting stuck in something terrible in large part because you want to figure out how to make this terrible experience never happen again. This is the part that won out. I was thinking that in order to ever get closure on this, in order to ever parent another animal, I needed to know what happened. Where did I ‘go wrong’. Or if it was a vet decision, at what point was a wrong turn made? I was seriously looking for someone to blame at this point. As the days have passed and I have been able to look back on events, I realize that at each and every point everyone involved sincerely did their best, sincerely cared about Sophie’s outcome and were all incredibly kind and compassionate. I also think that medically, every step was likely the ‘right’ step at that time based on the knowledge we had and the symptoms she was presenting.
There were also other little scenarios: A few weeks before Sophie got sick she had ingested a length of dental floss. I saw about 3 inches of it hanging out of her mouth and slowly pulled it out. In the whole year that I had her, she had never seemed interested in dental floss. I was pretty careful about not leaving it dangling in my little bathroom trash bin, but still.
I also used to tie her outside on a lead, either in my back fenced-in patio, or out front. I watched her very carefully and am pretty sure she did not come into close contact with any other animals. On one occasion, she jumped down from a stool and didn’t leave much length of leash so I had to go untangle her. Did she choke herself? Did she choke herself the night that she managed to get the cone collar off her head? What about the time about 2 months before where I discovered she wasn’t wearing her collar and found it between the bookshelf and the wall where I had a key hanger thing being stored. Did she somehow choke herself on that? I already obviously knew that you had to watch that your cat didn’t hang itself on its collar but I did not know that even a quick ‘choke’ that lasted just a second could trigger a nerve response that could affect the heart negatively and cause fluid build up.
Part of coming to terms with this and finding closure is about figuring out the cause. I want to know exactly why and how she died, so if/when I ever get another kitty, I can stop this from happening again.
Another aspect of coming to terms with this terrible event is finding a way in my own self to reconcile the the interconnection between the potentially conflicting ideals of doing what is medically best for my pets and doing what I can realistically afford financially. Should I be buying pet insurance from now on? After spending $2,000 on Sophie’s last days at this point, I have to say I cannot realistically afford to be a pet owner.
20 years ago, I might never have even had the option of having her put on a respirator, having her diagnosed by a cardiology team at the local University Veterinary School-affiliated Companion Animal Veterinary Clinic. She would likely not even have had an x-ray. Having these advanced medical options similar to those we have for humans is a huge stresser because we really don’t know for sure what is best for our animal. If what is best for our animal is diagnostics and treatments we can’t afford, we are placed in a very difficult position rationalizing our love for our animal and it’s well-being with our own financial wellness. I am still in the process of working out what this means for me. I am also a Grandmother now. That $2,000 that I spent could pay for several trips out west to visit my new grandchild who I have not yet seen. Buying pet insurance for my next pet means that I might not be able to afford to retire when I thought I would be able to.
I do know that I have ‘animal love’ energy inside myself. I am a cat-lover with no cat to love at this point. I also know that much of my relationship with Sophie came from inside ME, I chose to play hide-and-seek with her, to talk to her and learn to listen to the way she tried to communicate with me. I tried to make her as happy as I could by giving her enriched experiences, feeding her the best food I could afford, allowing her to be her cat-self by playing with her, providing her with the drip-drip water that she loved, getting her proper veterinary care when she needed it. All that potential love and care came FROM me and still exists INSIDE me. I also know that there are infinite number of cats who would enter my life and relate with me in their own cat-like way. Nothing is really lost here except my relationship with THIS particular cat and her own unique life expression. How my relationship with her impacted so many aspects of my life and thinking and how this process of unpacking her sudden decline and death and my intense reaction to it has been a learning experience that is still unfolding in the realm of animal health, ethics, my own philosophy of pet owning, my own emotional responses and intense grief, my need to ‘figure it out’ and get closure. My need to find blame and then my shift to understanding and the perspective that everyone did the best they could.
As I conclude this essay a few days since starting it Sophie had been gone for about 10 days. Easter has come and passed. I have had a call from the faculty member in Emergency and Critical Care Medicine who was supervising Sophie’s care in Guelph who so kindly responded to the letter I sent enclosing a link describing the possible influence of steroid medications on cats with early states of heart disease in case there was a link in Sophie’s situation. I look him up and see that one of his areas of interest is in the human-animal bond. He is incredibly compassionate and tells me that the staff in Guelph were also thrown by Sophie’s quick decline and are working quickly to sort out what happened to her. Sophie’s own vet was upset and told me that she needed time to process her death. A dear close relative told me that she was ‘just a cat’ and reminded me of some very ill human adults she knew, that were ill in very tragic circumstances. She told me this so that I would have perspective.
Almost two weeks later, I do have perspective. Sophie wasn’t ‘just a cat’, she was MY cat with whom I was developing a lovely relationship and who brought me incredible delight and joy each and every day that I spent with her. I am still grieving her sudden and strange loss. I am hoping for closure when the post-mortem results are back. I know that I need to learn more about feline health and have more of a game plan in terms of how to manage the inevitable decline of my next cat, if I do end up getting one. I also know that I am a ‘cat’ person, who feels incomplete without a feline companion in my home. Why post about this in my blog that is dedicated to ‘pigs and ukuleles’? In part because it is the best context I have to record such long-winded musings about something so important to me. But also because of advice I received about working through my grief: bring more fun in your life. What this reminded me about Sophie and Boo Boo and all animals that I encounter is how much delight they bring into my life. As does my ukulele, as does seeing pigs in pasture and as do so many things. Part of moving through grief and forward into a joyful life is to remember all the possible ways that you can be delighted. The delight Sophie brought into my life as a sweet and lively kitten is not limited to her nor does it end with her. I will soon experience the delight of seeing for the first time ‘in person’ my beautiful grandson, Owen. I will grieve again and I will pull myself out of it and love again and delight again and so it goes, the circle of life.