A friend said goodbye to her cat today. Cancer, she said. “I will be the responsible pet owner and take care of her before she suffers.” Her voice broke, uncharacteristically. She’s tough, but that’s how it is. “It’s just that she doesn’t understand.” And that’s the hardest part for any of us. It’s more humane. You always have to look at the quality of life factor and measure that against treatment outcomes.
“She’s, you know, she’s a sweet cat,” she managed. My friend, not one to overstate things, what she really meant was, she shared our home, made me laugh, took up residency in our lives, was just the right amount of dependency, and for no good reason at all, loved me.
Cats love. It might start with food, but they bond to the one who provides it and the result is love. They need affection, touch, just as we do. And for the most part, they remain kittens in need of their mother when they live with us. The drive for affection is much stronger when their physical needs are met, just like ours.
Saying goodbye never gets any easier. My friend’s husband took off work to take the cat away because the last time she did it and that’s a hard thing to do again when you know what you’re in for.
My husband collected the ashes of my beloved Chloe, because he knew I’d walk in there and, in front of God and everyone else, start weeping. The day I said goodbye to her I wept so hard in the exam room the vet didn’t want me to drive. Well, these things don’t embarrass me. I cry. I don’t care who sees me or what they think. It just never occurs to me that it matters. Though, perhaps it should.
A soul cat, those only come along once in a lifetime. You don’t plan it, can’t look for it. You must take them on their terms. Is it like that with dog people? Do dog people feel a soul connection to their four-legged friends? I knew someone who, each time her dog died, went to the same breeder to get as close an approximation of her former dog as possible. She even gave him the same name. When we met she was on Charlie number three. I saw a newscast from f a woman who cloned her dog for $50,000. She said he remembered some things she’d taught him, going to the refrigerator, opening it, returning with her favorite beverage, for example. But his personality was different, similar but not the same. Is that a dog person version of what I mean?
Not that I believe in souls. I don’t not believe in them, just don’t know that there’s any hard evidence to support the idea. Nevertheless, I think of it as a kind of expression. Soulmate. Sure, I get it. There’s no better way to describe the connection when it happens.
Cats bond, even if their owners don’t understand it, and many owners don’t. I foster. Cats are abandoned, surrendered and euthanized far more than dogs. Kittens are euthanized more frequently than that. Don’t blame the “kill” shelters. By law they must take every animal. Do something about it. Adopt. Foster. Give them money to expand. Cats don’t present well in shelters. They sit in their litter and won’t respond when you come. They’re terrified and probably grieving. They’ll bite and be labeled as unadoptable. They’re not.
Take Ollie. A six-year-old scaredy cat who sprayed all over his house and bit when overstimulated. Just about anything set him off. Neighborhood cats wandering through the front yard. Spray. Raccoons in the garbage. Spray. Possums slinking through the bushes on the side of the house. Spray. After four years his owners took him to the vet who told them it would only get worse.
In a last ditch effort to save him, they brought in Mirian, a feline behaviorist and owner of Lily’s Haven Rescue. To their surprise and delight, he began improving. So they changed their carpets. It set him back. They made an appointment to euthanize him on a Monday.
Mirian, far from her vision of some land with small structures to rehome unwanteds like Ollie, made a Hail Mary pass. She put out a call on Facebook. But when a cat sprays, well, you do the math. Hundreds of shares, but no takers.
I took him. Mirian and I brought him to my vet who, after blood tests and a physical exam declared him as healthy an adult cat as he’d ever seen. I brought him home and held my breath. I have two resident cats and am fostering a feral kitten.
That first night he keened. I don’t mean meowed. I mean he sounded like a human mother who’d lost her child. He wailed. It went on for an hour before I realized he wasn’t going to stop. I made a bed in the bathtub and lay down. He stopped crying immediately, came to me, pressed his whole body against me, and stayed like that for as long as I, and my chronic neck pain, could last, a couple of hours.
The following day he refused to eat. The next day, the same. If he didn’t eat within the next day, we’d start to lose him. At this point some of you might ask, why not give him fluoxetine, a type of animal Prozac. It can turn a cat around. My resident senior takes it for extreme anxiety. He’s a pretty happy guy now.
When a cat isn’t food motivated, is traumatized, and isn’t eating, you don’t want to do anything that will further traumatize him. I tried to squirt some fluoxetine in his mouth. He bit me.
Cats grieve. Vets will say they don’t; but I’ve seen perfectly healthy cats stop eating at the loss of a companion or owner. After blood tests and exams and x-rays, healthy. But still, the animal won’t eat. Within a matter of days, they’re gone. How does a vet explain that?
Am I preaching? Do I sound preachy? Have you stopped reading? Well, for those of you who haven’t, perhaps you understand; they’re not just cats. They’re unique beings with singular personalities and preferences. While they can manifest aberrant behaviors that all fall within the realm of “cat,” when scared or threatened, the key to their mental health is as individual as our own. Unlike dogs, they don’t want to please us, making dogs far easier in many ways to help. But like us, cats want to be loved. They have sympathetic nervous systems similar to our own. When they feel safe, you will unlock their love and when you do, it’s like experiencing a kind of magic.
Safety is the key, and the key to that is patience. I mean patience of a kind you’ve yet to know. My whole life I’ve been an angular, impatient, irritable person. My work with cats has changed me, forced me to be compassionate when it’s counterintuitive, make sacrifices no human should make and wait longer than my interest holds.
Why have I done this? I need to be a better person for myself, my spouse and everyone else.
And, I know, each cat I save and help place within a loving home, is not just good for the animal. I’m not in this just to save the animals. I’m in this to save us. To bring more love to humanity. Animals love with a capacity far greater than our own and offer a kind of unconditional companionship unrivaled by other humans. Many times, so much so, that they can even save their owners’ lives.
When suicide beckoned, a long time ago and I shut out all human contact, Chloe and Charlie called me back from the edge every time. They pulled me to life because they needed me exactly the right amount. Mental illness makes you selfish. Human need will overwhelm you, but animals? They’re the ticket back to sanity.
Animals meet us where we are without judgement and ask for relatively very little. And the animals you rescue are, in fact, grateful. They know they’ve got it better than where they were and they recognize that you are the reason.
How’s Ollie? you ask. Not spraying. Not once. And though Mirian said he’s the toughest case she’s ever seen, he’s making progress every day. I do exactly as she says. I never trust my own instincts because I’m out of my depth with him. He bit me six times. Never broken skin…I’ve learned his limits and by giving him more of what he loves and learning his warning signals, that’s stopped. Many cats bite when pushed to their limits. It doesn’t mean they are always going to bite. It’s not like they get a taste for flesh and that’s it, they’re hooked. They hiss, scratch and bite when pushed to their extreme limits. And most of the time they’ll warn you before it happens. They’re wild animals. When you live with one, you must respect the wild in them. And when you do, they’ll give you the domestic.
What’s more, remarkably, he and my youngster, a nine-month old calico, have made the first steps toward friendship.