The Care and Feeding of Something

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.

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Cat B (above) and Cat A (below)

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.

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Image by Scott W. Gray

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.

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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.

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8 thoughts on “The Care and Feeding of Something

  1. I love the story of your love for cats!… I can relate so well to all your feelings. I’ve had animals in our house ever since I was married, Mainly dogs, but in the past twenty years it’s been cats.. Our youngest son kept returning home from working across Canada and each time would bring two or three of his cats with him and leave them for us to care for, until the day I ended it. At one point we had five cats here – I would not recommend it to anyone, but it is manageable if you love cats like I do. Two of them were wanderers and eventually got killed on the road near our house. Another of those five, our sweet orange tabby, Vince, succumbed to cancer several years ago at the age of eleven and now we are left with two of those five and they are precious to me. Oats is sixteen and never sick a day in her life. Sofie is eight or nine and has had several bouts with colds and three bouts of asthma, but that too seems to have passed in the past two years. Caring for them is the easiest thing in the world, except for when they get sick. Unlike children, they cannot tell you what’s wrong so sometimes I imagine the worse, until I can get them to a vet.. I have no qualms about having my animals put down when the time is right, either for me or for them. I don’t take doing it lightly, but I cannot have them live in misery if there’s nothing to be done. A struggling student should not have to live with the guilt of keeping a cat alive when there is no money to do it. Your cat had a life it would never have had if you hadn’t taken it and cared for it as long as you did.

    • Truvei: I totally agree that a suffering animal deserves a peaceful and comfortable end. As one of my vets said, “There are no wrong decisions” when it comes to keeping an animal alive or letting him go. In Z’s case, he probably could have been kept alive and mostly pain-free, but this would have involved a lot of expense, terrible anxiety for both of us (he HATED those saline injections, as well as the taste of laxative in his food), and periodic bouts with severe pain. His intestines were so distended that when he was constipated, he didn’t even try any more! It was really no life for a cat, even if I sometimes question whether I could have done more…

  2. I completely understand your feelings about putting down a cat. I did it several years ago, and I am so lucky I had an understanding and caring vet: I was a complete mess. I still tear up when I think about her, but I know it was the best for her. (There was nothing else we could do for her at that point, so it was either let her go or watch her waste away and be in pain and suffering for a few extra weeks.)

    It’s interesting, because I don’t normally feel that I’m the nurturing type. I am definitely a cat person, but I thought that it was mainly because they are at times self sufficient and at times lovey. But when my cat needed twice-daily shots and numerous vet visits, I didn’t hesitate to take any of that on when she needed the care. It’s weird to tell people that you need to get home to give your cat a shot, so you can’t stay out too late or she won’t get her supper in time. It was then that I realized that I can be nurturing if it’s something (or someone) I really and truly care for. (It also hit home when I got married and had no qualms about helping my husband during our first bout of stomach flu, when I normally can’t abide being around emesis at all. I just felt that I wanted to do anything that I could to make him stop hurting, and I think that love just allows that to be brought to the forefront.) But, just like you, I still don’t want children.

    Thanks for the thoughts and the post. It really is making me think about things in my own life. 🙂

    • Jessica: I had friends who were mystified by my determination to see O and Z through as long as I could. One person said something like, “But you could get yourself two perfectly good brand-new kittens instead!” Until I reached the breaking point with Z, it never would have occurred to me to put them down. And, like you, in both O and Z’s cases I had vets who helped me through and did everything they could to help me come to terms with the decisions.

  3. You have beautifully made into words my own panic-stricken thoughts on my mad love for my dogs and cats. I cannot THINK when they are ill and I always imagine the worst. Yet I have little feeling for humans. Ha. Well, I exaggerate, but you now what I mean. A great piece.

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