Pet ownership is even more work and anxiety than home ownership. Maybe this is because our love for our pets is deep and heart-gripping, while our love for our homes is mostly narcissistic. We love what our homes say about us, how they protect us, how they fulfill our needs, whereas we love our pets for themselves, and because they need us to love them.
Since we moved into our new home, we have dealt with infected foot punctures (Cat B – the culprit seems to be some chicken wire that we finally pulled up), and inflamed bites, scratched corneas, and now, tapeworms (Cat A, although the worms have no doubt made their way into Cat B as well.) All this in the space of 6 months.
It troubles me because, before the days of Cat A and Cat B, I was the star-crossed owner of Cat O and Cat Z.
O and Z were sick their whole lives with digestive and excretory issues – urinary crystals, constipation and obesity – that required repeated enemas and surgeries, life-long administration of medications, and constant minute adjustments to their diets. After Cat Z’s zillionth urinary blockage, one vet advised me to give him a 2-minute saline IV drip every morning to hydrate him and thin his urine. Thankfully, Z was a docile cat who just waited sadly until the drip was over, but he developed another blockage after 3 months of this treatment. The next suggested step was to surgically remove his penis. I was single, and poor, and trying to finish my thesis; it was too much for me. I had Cat Z put down. It was an agonizing decision, but once it was made, I felt overwhelming relief, even if, almost ten years later, I am still haunted by the sense that I failed him.
His sister, Cat O, lived another five happy years, despite the chronic conditions she shared with her brother (females with urinary crystals are less susceptible to blockage; she never had one). Her doctors and I, and later my husband, found the right recipe of wet food, dry food and laxative, and after her brother was gone, she slimmed down to a perfectly healthy weight. When she was 15, she developed a tumor in her jaw, and my husband and I nursed her with morphine and let her sleep in our bed despite his allergies, until it was time to let her go. It was a terrible time, and there was no relief at all; I wept for two straight weeks, and I still can’t see a picture of her without tearing up.
We adopted Cat A and Cat B too soon after Cat O’s demise. I couldn’t stand the silence in the house. We got them from the local SPCA: one big, the other small; one black, the other black and white; one suspicious and retreating, the other primed to run off with the first friendly stranger who offered him a treat. Under their different colourings, they had the same pointy face.
And, of course, they were sick. Cat A sneezed a bit before we took him home. “Oh, they might have a touch of the flu,” the staffer said, “it will pass.” Two weeks later, when they could hardly breathe through their swollen noses and tapeworms were squirming out of their butts, we were convinced that they were going to die on us. A kind emergency vet refused to charge us for making him come in on a Sunday; he instructed us to bring them back to the SPCA, have them treated for every possible disease a kitten could have, and never, never adopt from the SPCA again.
They survived. They are, it is widely agreed, the cutest and most charming cats in the world. (Cat A is a bit of a tart; Cat B tends to hide from strangers, but when he does come out, they can’t stop talking about how beautiful he is.) They’re too fat, but otherwise, their health issues come mostly from getting into scrapes and eating birds.
Nevertheless, every time one of them seems out of sorts, I feel that old panic rising – am I going to be saddled with a chronically sick animal? Can I really do that again?
How on earth do parents manage? I’ve never wanted children, partly because I don’t know how I could bear the weight of such a love. When my cats are sick, my whole body aches. How would I feel if they were my children? Granted, I have boundless empathy for animals and little for humans (one of many reasons I suspect I’m autistic), but I assume my feelings about my children would be rather stronger than my feelings about other people.
There is a line I love from Banana Yoshimoto’s novella Kitchen.
If a person wants to stand on her own two feet, I recommend undertaking the care and feeding of something. It could be children, or it could be house plants, you know? By doing that you come to understand your own limitations.
Sometimes, when I think I’m going to buckle under the strain of another trip to the vet, another medication to be given on the hour every hour, another night when Cat B disappears without a trace, I think of those words: I’m coming to understand my own limitations. They’re not what I think they are. If faced with the choice Cat Z presented to me many years ago – do I do what’s needed to keep a little life going, even if it’s hard? – I think I’d choose differently now.
The care and feeding of a house isn’t the same, but it has some of the same results. Some days, I think I can’t stand another botched attempt to find a contractor, or another worrisome buckling window frame. And then I think: I love this house. I don’t love it the way I love my cats, but I love it. Before we bought it, if you’d asked me about my limitations, my answers would have been very different than the answers I would give now. Love makes you capable of surprising things.
If I dared to love a child, who knows what I’d learn about myself?
However. Life is short, and cats and houses are tough enough for me. As it turns out, the worms will be dealt with easily – a quick trip to the vet up the block, without any cats in tow, just to pick up some pills. The next incident may be more dramatic, but it will be worth it. They are warm little teddy bears, they entertain us by juggling felt mice and wrestling each other, but they also give us the privilege of loving them, and that’s what matters most.
It puts a buckling window frame in perspective. The house is here for me, but it sometimes lets me down. Cats can’t let you down. I can only strive to do right by them, and so they can only make me better.