Monday, April 23, 2012

Sun Protection for Cats?

The way cats love to sun themselves, you'd never think they'd need sun protection! But the sun can actually damage a cat's exposed skin just as it does a human's. And too much time outside can also damage your cat's eyes, just like it does yours.

Known as "solar dermatitis", sunburn is most likely to affect hairless breeds like the Sphynx or Russian Peterbald, as well as thin-haired cats, those that have been shaved, and those with white areas or thin coats on the nose and ears. Basically, if you can see your cat's skin, that skin can get sunburned.

Although cats don't sunburn as easily as people (largely because most of them have the sense to get out of the sun before damage is done), it can happen if a cat is outdoors for a long time or gets trapped where there's no shade on a sunny day. And if you live in a climate where it's warm most of the year or at a high altitude, your cat is also exposed to more damaging UVA and UVB rays.

Initially, you may notice a little redness on the exposed skin after your cat has been in the sun for a while. This is similar to a first-degree burn, involving only the uppermost layer of skin. No blisters will appear with this mild type of sunburn and it can be treated at home.

You may see some hair loss along the edges of the ears. This would be similar to a second-degree burn that would cause blistering on a person, but the cat may not have blisters. Kitty may shake his head and scratch at the places because, as you know from getting sunburned yourself, they're painful, and then itchy! This may cause them to bleed and possibly even get infected.

In a severe sunburn, the cat's skin will appear leathery and may look white in color. This is comparable to a third-degree burn on a human and will require hospitalization for your cat to recover. Kitty will need IV fluids to stay hydrated and keep the electrolytes in balance. The veterinary staff will clean the wound and change the bandages daily until the area has healed enough for home recovery.

If there's infection, or if you suspect the third-degree situation described above, make a trip to the vet. But even a mild burn may warrant a visit, just to be on the safe side. Because there are typically no blisters with a second-degree sunburn on a cat, it may be difficult to tell the difference. The vet can shave and cleanse the area of the burn, analyze its severity, and monitor your treatment.  There are also topical steroid creams your vet can prescribe, as well as many other over-the-counter skin remedies that can help with the itching and dryness.

Why is it important for you to pay attention to sunburn in your cat? Because if it's left untreated and continues over many years, it can lead to squamous cell carcinoma, a type of skin cancer! Cats actually have a higher risk of developing skin cancer than do dogs, and white-haired cats have a risk of it that is 13 times greater than their pigmented cousins. Over many years of sun exposure, the cat's skin will thicken in the areas where it's exposed. You may see a small red spot on the ear or nose. Get treatment quickly for this, as it can become much more severe, damaging surrounding tissue and even adjoining bones. And monitor that site in the future, as well, because SCC can recur in the same spot after removal.

SCC has many contributing factors in addition to sun exposure, including living with a smoker, eating canned food without good oral hygiene, and the use of flea collars. If you have a cat with white ears/nose and any of these risk factors, you definitely don't need for repeated sunburns to add to the risk! When caught early, SCC can be treated by removing the tumor. If it's not in the mouth, recovery is typically good. (But why treat when you can prevent?)

Fortunately, there's no need to panic. Pet sunscreen is available for cats who will be outdoors for lengthy periods. Always use a sunscreen approved for use on pets, not a human one. Sunscreen should be applied to the cat's ears and nose, or all over for the hairless breeds. It's especially important to apply if your cat has been sunburned before. This will prevent further skin damage. You can also put T-shirts on the hairless breeds to help protect them from sunburn, but make sure to cover the still-exposed areas with sunscreen, too. Keeping your cat out of the sun between the hours of 10 a.m. and 2 p.m., when UV rays are strongest, is also helpful.

A cat's sensitive eyes are susceptible to sun damage, as well. Just like we squint in bright sunlight, a cat's pupils narrow in bright light to protect the eyes. Even so, many senior cats develop cataracts, just like humans. Cataracts will appear as opaque areas on the cat's eyes. These are caused by UVB rays, which damage the front part of the eye. With more cats living into their 20s these days, it's important to protect your cat's eyes from sun damage that can contribute to cataracts.

Cats can get SCC on the eyelids, an area where you can't apply sunscreen. Crazy as it may sound, protective eyewear is the only way to keep the sun from damaging your cat's eyelids. This may take a little adjustment, especially for cats not accustomed to wearing anything around their faces or eyes. But use patience, calmness, and distraction to introduce them to your cat gradually.

When it comes to sun protection for your cat, Ben Franklin's old statement again rings true: "An ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure." Not only do cancer treatments and hospitalizations for sunburn cost a lot of money, they put your cat through unnecessary stress and trauma. And we all know how cats hate those!

Sunday, April 15, 2012

Cat on the Titanic?

It was 100 years ago that the "unsinkable" RMS Titanic sank in mid-Atlantic on its maiden voyage, taking 1,500 people with her. If you're not Titanic-ed out by now, I wondered if there were any cats aboard the ill-fated ship.

There is a children's fiction book called Kaspar, The Titanic Cat. It tells the tale of a cat taken aboard by a boy who stowed away. But in fairly extensive research on the Titanic for a novel I was writing at one time, I have never come across any stories of cats actually being aboard. This is unusual, as most ships keep cats aboard to control rats.

A story is told in a book called Ghosts of the Titanic about a stoker named Mulholland who observed a mother cat the crew had named Jenny carrying her kittens off the Titanic onto the quay at Southampton.  She had just given birth to the kittens earlier in the month. Surmising that the cat knew something everybody else didn't, he decided not to continue on the trans-Atlantic journey and disembarked himself, thus saving his life. Others claim to have seen Jenny aboard once the ship sailed from Southampton, so her fate is uncertain.

Some say there was another cat kept in the engine rooms to control rats that went by the name of Mouser, but there is no official record of such a cat.

There's also a story about a cat belonging to the Empress of Ireland that was brought aboard Titanic and ran back down the gangplank moments before it was taken up. A steward caught the cat and returned her to the deck, but she again ran off the ship and the Empress was forced to sail without her. But there was no Empress of Ireland aboard the Titanic, and there was another ship named the Empress of Ireland, so this story is undoubtedly false.

So if the only cat commonly accepted as having been aboard the ship ran off it before Titanic left England, that means there were none aboard at the time of the sinking. 14 dogs were on board, three of which were rescued. There was even a dog named Kitty that belonged to John Jacob Astor. She was an Afghan hound and did not survive. But nowhere could I find confirmation that there were any cats aboard the ship at the time of the sinking.

In addition to their usefulness in controlling rats, cats aboard ships are considered to be good luck. So it begs the question: if a cat had been aboard the Titanic, would the ship have made it to New York safely? Certainly something to think about!

Friday, April 6, 2012

The Final Act of Love

Tom Petty said it best: "The waiting is the hardest part."

A couple of years ago, when the lesion on my little Vixen's chin was flaring up especially bad, I'd taken her to the vet to see if it might be cancerous. After taking a cell sample and examining it under the microscope, the doctor came in and said he was sending it off for analysis, but that he didn't like the look of what he'd seen. As soon as he'd left the room, my little girl looked up at me with an expression of alarm on her face as if to say, "Oh, my goodness! What's to become of me?" She couldn't have been clearer if she'd actually spoken the words.

I reassured her that everything was going to be okay and made her a promise at that time that I would never euthanize her. That was an awful decision I'd made for my first cat, whose kidneys were failing. He'd left his body in fear, on a metal examining room table in the vet's office, and I've never forgotten how he reached out to me with a paw in fear as they held him in preparation for the shot. Luckily, Vixen's biopsy came back as benign and it wasn't anything I had to worry about at the time. That place on her chin has never gone away; it bleeds sometimes and she tends to drool a bit on that side.

Vixen had told me many things during the consultation with pet psychic Laura Stinchfield that we'd had a short time before then, so I knew of Vixen's tremendous love for me and reluctance to leave me. She also revealed that she'd had discussions with my mother's spirit about her fear of going to heaven without me to teach her anything, and my mother's reassurance to her that Vixen could come and live with her until she was comfortable going off on her own. She was aware that her spirit was going to leave her body someday soon, and even said that sometimes she thought she may have already done so, and then she would wake up and still be here. Vixen told Laura that she knew she would come and sit with me often when she was in spirit. She asked Laura to ask if I would mind if she died in her sleep, and I confessed that I was hoping she would go so peacefully as that.

So when little Vixen's vet recommended that I start giving her subcutaneous fluids about six weeks ago, I knew to begin preparing myself emotionally for the day when we would say our final goodbye. I also knew that moment would come at home. And the waiting process began.

Time of Transition

At first it was her difficulty in eating that concerned me. I'd tried liquefying her food in the food processor and that worked for a while. But then she got to where she wouldn't eat it that way and seemed to want it in the paté style, like it came in the can. Even then, she'd only eat about half of what I put out at the most. I threw away at least as much dried-up food as she consumed. She'd already lost so much weight when she was at the vet that she was less than half her weight in her prime. And yet he said that beyond the few teeth that were bothering her and a slightly elevated thyroid hormone level, she was reasonably healthy. The kidney diet we'd had her on for a few years seemed to be doing a good job of keeping her kidneys functioning properly. The only reason he could find for her refusal to eat more was the painful teeth.

But I feared something was going on in Vixen's digestive tract. She got to where she'd eat a little, then within the hour it would come back up. Failing kidneys can do that; my first cat went through it. One day I was thrilled that she kept quite a bit of food down for most of the day, but then she threw up later that afternoon, mostly water mixed with a little bit of the food she'd eaten earlier. Maybe this is normal for a 24-year-old cat; there aren't that many people who'd be able to tell me. Even Lillian, my vet's receptionist, told me she thought Vixen was the oldest cat they cared for there. So we were in uncharted territory. Not so surprising for such a bold girl as my little Vixen.

The Flood of Memories

I first encountered her almost 24 years ago, walking past the mailboxes at the apartment complex where I lived then. A spotted paw swiped at me from out of the bushes, inviting me to play. Her odd markings and prominent lynx-tipped ears sticking up like little antennae on her ears reminded me of an owl. You could tell from her size that she was probably young, but she definitely wasn't a kitten; probably 6-8 months old, it looked like. I'd often see her tagging along behind one of the maintenance men, batting at a wrench dangling from his belt, so I figured she belonged to him.

One afternoon as I was doing laundry, she was sprawled across the middle of the laundry room floor for a nap in the afternoon sun, making everybody step over her. This was a feisty little cat! And her coat was so interesting; most of her chest was yellow, there was a prominent stripe down her nose, and she was speckled all over. The backs of her ears looked like somebody had flicked a paintbrush onto them to make little droplets of orange.

I'd recently adopted my first cat from the Humane Society, and he was lonely while I was at work all day. As he sat in the window of our apartment, she would climb the tree outside to "flirt" with him. There was another cat who belonged to a lady I worked with that I'd tried to take in as a companion for him, but he was so intimidating to her that I had to give the kitty back. This little cat didn't seem like anybody could intimidate her. She was smart as a fox, and I started thinking of her in terms of a female fox, a little vixen.

But it was she who chose me to come and live with. I'd taken my boy kitty outside for a walk (he loved to "hunt" the ducks that wandered around the property, but of course I never let him catch one), and he'd run underneath the bushes outside my front door. Unable to get him out, I opened the front door and tried to shoo him in. When I walked back inside, I heard crunching coming from the kitchen and wondered if he'd slipped in without my noticing. But there was that little owl-kitty, eating my cat's food! I chased her back outside, but then felt bad that she was so hungry, and once I got my boy inside I took her some food and put it out on my front walkway.

When I asked Laura to ask Vixen about those days and what she remembered from them, she said that a man used to feed her, but that nobody had really loved her until I came along. One of her friends there had recently died, and she was going through a rough time. It was near the time that I was going to move to another apartment, and I'd decided to take her with me to the new place. That way, she wouldn't be invading anybody's space, and both cats could discover the new place together. Those were the days before the spot-on flea treatments, so we had to have cats dipped for fleas. I made an appointment with my vet to take both cats in for that before taking them to the new place. She'd spent a night inside my apartment but had run out the door when I went to work the next day, and I wasn't sure if I was going to be able to find her again when it was time to move.

The next afternoon, I looked out the front of my apartment, and saw that yellow chest of hers where she was sitting in a drainage pipe that led to the retention pond my apartment fronted. I stepped outside and called, "Vixen?" She meowed, ran straight over, and circled around me to come up beside me. Then she let me pick her up and carry her inside. That was it; this little Vixen was mine. It was March 1, 1989.

I quickly learned just how smart she was. The new apartment was on the 3rd floor and had a balcony on which the railing had a board running horizontally along the lower inside part of the slats. When I looked out there and both cats were standing with their front feet outside this railing and their back feet up on it, I just knew they were going to try to climb down to the balcony below, and from there to the ground and escape! So I scolded them and said, "No back feet on the railing!" A short time later, I was standing on the balcony with a friend as we chatted, and she casually propped one of her feet on that lower rail. Vixen went over to her and batted at her foot, remembering my warning to them! What an amazing little cat.

My first cat never scratched my furniture, but Vixen did. She took my gorgeous black upholstered chair in the living room all the way to the wood frame. All four corners of both my white loveseats were fringed by her. She ate the house plants. She tore up the junk mail sitting on the dining room table. She chewed off the ends of my aloe plant on the balcony. Loved playing with a tennis ball, which she'd grab with her claws and throw for herself so she could catch it again. Strings were another of her favorite toys. And every time I'd try to touch her, she'd give me "the look" to let me know she didn't like it. When I persisted, reasoning that I had to push the envelope to "tame" her, she'd bite me, unsheathing her claws to pull my arm in so I couldn't get away. "Okay, okay, I'll stop touching you!" I'd say as her grip loosened. She seemed to be saying, "Well, I tried to warn you!"

When I had a Christmas party, the first person to show up was an older lady from my choir. Fern sat down on the sofa, and Vixen came over and sat down right at her feet. I told Fern, "Be careful of that cat; she bites." Fern just said, "Oh, no, this is a nice kitty," and petted Vixen, who sat as sweetly as you've ever seen, making a liar out of me! She spent most of the rest of the party camped out under the Christmas tree, where guests were feeding her bits of food throughout the night. Always a surprise from this one.

Five years later I got a promotion that required me to move to Atlanta. I packed up the two cats into their carriers, loaded up my car with everything I didn't want the movers to handle, and off we went. My first cat never liked riding in the car, but as long as Vixen could see out the window, she was fine. We both had to endure my boy kitty's yowling, which he kept up for 5 hours and 45 minutes. He finally fell asleep with his head on my arm that was holding the steering wheel, and I was thinking, "Please, God, don't let me have to move my arm and wake up this damn cat!" Vixen's only complaint was during a multi-mile stretch of roadway they were resurfacing that had been roughed up.

Her favorite part about the condo we had in Atlanta was basking in the afternoon sun that flooded in through the southwest-facing windows that lined the front of the living room. I knew this because my mother came to stay with me for a week or so after my father's death. Having taken so much time off before he died, I didn't have a lot of vacation time left and had to go to work, but my mother was happy to sit there at the condo with the cats and read or watch TV all day. It was she who told me that they knew the sound of my car, and would sit watching for it at about the time I was due home from work. I had to drive past the front of the condo to get to the garage underneath the building. Once the cats saw me, they'd get all excited and run to the door to greet me as I entered. I'd known that they greeted me every day, but just figured they'd heard me unlocking the door. My boy kitty demanded all my attention, but little Vixen was always nearby and had finally gotten to where she'd accept a little pet on the head from me. Just not too much of the touching for her.

When another promotion brought me back home, we moved in with my aging mother to be there when she needed me. Vixen accepted being confined to my bedroom with that boy kitty she so hated. He began yowling to be let outside, now that we had a yard, and once we let him he got into something that shut down his kidneys and killed him a few months later. I worried that Vixen would be lonely without him, but she loved being an only cat. I'd leave the TV on Animal Planet while I went to work. My mother fussed about that, saying it wasted electricity, but I came home one day to hear her say, "You know what? That cat really does watch TV!" She had seen little Vixen up on the bed, sitting right in front of the screen and watching a show. I'd known she watched those shows because she had changed the way she'd bite...oh, yes, she still bit after too much touching! But after watching so many snake shows on Animal Planet, she'd strike my arm more like a snake would, instead of her earlier practice of grabbing my arm to pull it in as she bit me. Smart little cat had learned from those shows!

My mother decided to take in an outdoor cat we called Frankie, and he was a delightful fellow. Vixen was indoors during his tenure at the house, and only encountered him toward the end of his life, but she gave him the "demon growl" when she saw him. When Frankie died of FIP, I was talking about how much I missed him, and my mother said, "Yes, but this one here," pointing to Vixen, "is really going to get to you when she goes." Five months later, my mother also died and left me alone with my little Vixen.

And I've been thankful for these years...almost three now, that we've had with just the two of us. We've grown even closer, and I have come to respect this strong-spirited girl even more and regret all the times that I let the boy cats monopolize my attention while she was patiently and faithfully waiting on me to appreciate her more. She's made sure I stopped working every so often to take a break. She's reminded me that it's time to eat, and was never satisfied when I just fed her; I had to also eat for her to finally settle down. Her devotion and intelligence continually amaze me. And I've often said it was her stubbornness that has ensured she's lived such a long life. She just is not leaving this world until she's damn good and ready!

Adjustments for A Geriatric Cat

Vixen had been showing her age for several years, walking more painfully and developing cataracts on her eyes. She started losing teeth, as cats will do when they get older. Never one whose teeth I could brush, I hated hearing all the information on proper feline dental hygiene and the new products that make it possible to better care for a cat's teeth, as there was no way to ever do any of that for her. And I knew that would take its toll on her one day. But she just kept going, on and on.

She'd told Laura that her knees hurt her, which prompted a fish oil addition to her diet. And when she tried to walk toward her dish the following year and her back-end went to the side instead, I figured she might have suffered a stroke; the look of surprise on her face told me she hadn't expected her body to do that, either. So I scooped her up and took her to the vet, where he told me that she didn't show any signs of a stroke, but that her knees ground so much when he manipulated them that it made him jump! "Well, she'd told me that already," I assured him. Yet more credibility for my pet psychic.

I tried to do other things to make Vixen more comfortable, raising her dishes so she didn't have to bend down to eat and often giving her a little warm water that she seemed to enjoy. When she wasn't able to step up into her litter boxes any more, I went to the auto supply store and bought oil pans, which held a thin layer of litter, and she could again step into her boxes. Not that she always made it there; the wood floor in that room is ruined, and will need replacing once she's gone.

She wasn't able to groom herself any more, so I brushed her more often - which she hated - and cleaned her ears for her. Also hated that. She tolerated claw trimming, even using a Pedi Paws on her...wished I'd had that back in the days when she used to grab my arms, because it made her claws so much less sharp! Her coat was still shiny, but got to where her hair would come out in chunks. I'd see a chunk of hair sticking out from the rest of her coat and grab it; the whole thing was already detached and would come right out in my fingers. Don't know what that was all about. She'd get mats in her hair around her painful joints that I'd have to work out, which she also hated. She did comb her face on her arched brush, which I think was her favorite thing I ever bought for her. After she ate, she'd go over and comb, even holding up her lips on the side so she was almost brushing her teeth!

When Vixen was 21, we were interviewed for a local news story on pet longevity and appeared on the front page of the Florida Times-Union. That was two and a half years ago. A comment on that story yielded the name for this blog and the retail site that now surrounds it. So it's actually because of my little Vixen that I have this business.

Over the past few months, Vixen had taken a liking to sitting up in my lap in the mornings for a little cuddle time. She seemed to enjoy looking out the window next to the table in the den, so she'd sit next to me on the floor while I ate breakfast, then give me a little "aiow" to remind me she was there and it was time for cuddles. I'd pick her up and hug her, get a purr, and pet her for a few minutes until she'd had enough, then she'd be ready to get back down. She got to where she'd tolerate the hugging much more than when she was young.

The Waiting

Which brings us back to the present. The waiting. I found a website that gives some useful guidance on what to do to help an animal companion transition into spirit, and have tried to follow as many of those guidelines as possible. Each morning this week, I've wondered if she would arise, and each morning, she'd wake up. If I was still asleep, she'd patiently wait for me to stir before greeting me. If I was already at work, she'd come into my office and peek around the end of my desk to say good morning. Amazing me yet again, every morning.

Yesterday morning, Vixen had slept curled up in my lap all night, very uncharacteristic for her, but she'd wanted to be held more recently throughout the day, whether I was sitting on the sofa or in my office chair. I'd hug her, holding her close to my body, and she'd purr so loudly. Knowing that cats purr to comfort themselves when they're sick or in pain, I wasn't sure if she was purring from pleasure or pain. But she seemed to enjoy it, so I'll opt to believe it was for pleasure!

When I awoke yesterday, I petted her a few times and she didn't move. I thought, "Oh, my girl is gone!" but when I moved to get up, that woke her and she started trying to get up herself. But she was so weak, from not having been able to keep any food down for a couple of days, that she just laid back down. Leaving her curled up on the sofa, I went to the bathroom then picked her up and carried her to her bed underneath my desk, still curled up. Even when I put her down there, she didn't make any attempt to get up, so perhaps that would be her last day. I e-mailed my vet and posted about it on social media, so people could lift us both up in prayer. And they did, and we felt buoyed by it. I tried to do a little work, in between the tears that came from time to time. Every now and then, I'd hear her stomach growling; still there. I'd look every so often to see if she was still breathing. She seemed to be sleeping peacefully.

Following the website's advice, I turned on my Chopin nocturnes playlist for her. Even though she can't hear any more physically, Laura had told me she could hear things through me, and Vixen had told Laura she could still hear music in her mind, so I hoped that calming music would soothe her. I called my vet's office to update them and talked to Elsa, the very experienced vet tech who'd cared for Vixen while I was out of town a month ago. She told me my experience so far was right on track with what cats go through at the end of their lives. Right at the end, she said, there's sometimes a bit of a seizure, and then they go calm. So there was another unpleasant thing I needed to be on the lookout for.

Oh, and here's something odd...when I was reading the newspaper, I did the little "Jumble" puzzle on the comics page. The first scrambled word? V-I-X-E-N. How weird is that?!

In the early afternoon, Vixen sat up in her bed and immediately fell over on her side. I helped her back up, she stood and walked around to the end of my desk and peed on the floor; I've gotten used to cleaning up pee, poop, and vomit lately, as it's all just been going wherever it comes out on her way to the potty. The paper towel manufacturers should really send me some flowers. There's always a roll within reach, all over the house.

Then she kept walking into the kitchen and seemed to want something to eat. I'd already picked up all her food dishes and put them in the sink, so I washed one and opened a fresh can of chicken & turkey food for her, which is usually her favorite. It was, interestingly, the last can of cat food I had on hand. She hung over the plate and licked it once or twice, then promptly threw up a bunch of water on the floor next to the dish, as well as onto her front feet. Paper towel time again! She sat there for a long time, then curled up on the floor in the den. I threw her bed from out there in the wash, as I'd had to pull it up after she'd vomited in it a couple of days ago and hadn't gotten it washed yet.

Later in the day, Vixen started vomiting in her bed under my desk. I picked her up, then laid her there for a while at the opposite end of it, as she was too weak to stand. Then, amazingly again, she finally stood up and started walking, wobbly, but still trying to keep going. She fell over a couple of times, after which I'd pick her back up to help her get to wherever it was she felt she needed to go. I kept thinking she needed to pee, but there wasn't really much more in her body that hadn't already come out. She headed to the den, where her other bed usually sits, and sat on the floor there, slowly moving into lying down. She seemed to be uncertain of where she was, going from place to place and watching things unseen to me, almost as though a mouse were running back and forth on the floor in front of her. This went on for a couple of hours before she settled.

She went back and forth between the den and kitchen, wandering into the dining room for a while, too. So weak that she'd sometimes fall over, she had me following closely to be of assistance if needed.  I finally carried her out and laid her in her bed in the den, now finally dry, and petted her softly, talking to her about our wonderful life together for the past 23 years, reviewing the places we'd lived, and telling her that I loved her and always would. She looked exhausted, her head resting on the bolster of the bed, her eyes half closed, the right one appearing almost sunken back into its socket the way her head was resting. I told her again that it was okay to go, reminded her of Laura's kitty's advice to "fly as high as you can" when she left her body, and to look for my mother, who would be waiting for her in heaven as she'd promised.

Within a few minutes, she wanted to get up and walk again and wanted a little water. But when I gave her a bowl, she just sort of hung her head over it, her mouth partially open. It seemed like she'd forgotten how to drink, but she made several attempts and seemed to be comforted by being near the water. She was drooling and I kept dabbing her chin. It almost looked like she'd been bleeding out of her nose a little, but perhaps that was just a little vomit I'd missed when cleaning her off after one of her spells. As her body is shutting down, it's hard to know what will happen. I got a wet washcloth and wiped her with that, which the website recommended as a comforting feeling. She seemed to not mind it too much.

I finally went to get some dinner around 8 p.m. and offered her a little of my fish, but she wasn't interested in it. Didn't even sniff it, although she was still walking around from time to time then. As I finished my dinner, she came and sat right under my feet, her body as close to my leg as she could get it. When she curled up on the rug in the den, I carried her over to her bed out there so she could sleep more comfortably on its more padded surface. And I settled into my spot on the couch, knowing that I'd spend the night sleeping there next to her.

I woke up around 4:00 in the morning and started writing this, having yet to check on her to see if she passed in her sleep. "The sun will be up soon, and I'll do that," I thought. But for now, I was remembering our life together and trying to document this process of shepherding her into her next life, in the hope that others going through the same thing may benefit from my experience. It's something I had to do for her, my smart and darling little girl, my little beauty. There's not much else I can do for her at this point. In keeping my promise to allow her spirit to leave her body at home and surrounded by love when she's ready, instead of on a cold examining room table at the vet's office at the end of a needle, it's the greatest act of love I can give her.

Maundy Thursday

Holy Week is the most holy time to Christians, and Maundy Thursday marks the evening of the Last Supper, when Christ last dined with his disciples and foretold of his betrayal and death on the cross. How much more I feel its heaviness and solemnity this year, with my little Vixen's life nearing its end! I just went into the den and opened the shades, then went to see if my little girl was still with me. Amazingly, her side rose and fell with her breathing. She felt me near and lifted her head a little, but I petted her and told her it was okay, she could still sleep and stay in bed longer if she wanted, so she laid her head back down.

I went about a few things that needed to be done around the house, checking on her from time to time. She seemed to be remaining awake this day, but made no attempt to roll over onto her other side or shift position. She just appeared exhausted. Her eyes were tearing quite a bit, and some crusty matter had hardened on the inner corners of them. I wet her washcloth with some warm water to wipe that away, and she actually rubbed her face on it; that obviously felt good to her. The site said that touching a dying animal can delay the process by keeping them focused on the physical body, but it also says that the warm washcloth can be soothing to them. So I think this was a good thing to do. But I hesitated to linger over her too much, so as not to encourage her to stay here in her failing body.

As much as I would like for this whole thing to be over for my girl, I wouldn't dare rob her of one moment to stay here in her body with me. It's a reminder to keep repeating, that dying is a process, and that it's not necessarily easy or quick. And so we wait.

In the late afternoon, she started struggling to sit up. I helped her do so, then thought perhaps she was trying to turn over; maybe she was uncomfortable or hot having been on the same side all night and day. Without having been able to get any fish oil in her over the past week, her joints were stiffer than when it was helping her. So I positioned her on her other side, but that was a mistake. She started retching and threw up a little fluid that had to be nothing more than digestive juices. I grabbed a nearby paper towel to clean it up and put her back on the side where she'd been resting comfortably. The warm washcloth wasn't as enjoyable this time for her. I lowered the shade closest to her to keep the outdoor light from bothering her eyes.

Later on, as I approached her bed, she tried to lift her head and opened her mouth as if to say something to me, but all that came out was a sigh. It wasn't a hiss, she just wasn't able to meow. After the last few years of yowling, it was pitiful to hear. I almost missed the yowling.

We were singing some beautiful anthems for my church's Maundy Thursday service, but I couldn't bring myself to go. My girl might need me during that time. An in-home hospice vet that my own vet referred to me suggested by phone that I get some anti-nausea medication in case she got sick again. She seemed to be resting comfortably on her right side, but just to be safe, I went to the vet and got it, still knowing on some level that she wouldn't need it. While not sitting right next to her, I remained at home for the rest of the evening, mostly handling a little work as I checked on her from time to time. OldMaidCatLady's Twitter followers had a #pawcircle going for Vixen, which was a nice gesture.

Just before 10 p.m., her breathing had become more shallow. It was the upper part of her chest that was rising and falling now instead of the abdominal area. Her head was also lower, having moved more toward her front legs than when it was resting up on the bolster of her bed. She was beginning to curl more into herself, in a fetal position, having already been keeping her feet more curled over the past couple of days. The site had said that their extremities may get chilled as their circulation centers more toward the major organs, so I put a blue hand towel over her feet to keep them warm. Settling in on the couch to watch some TV, I quickly fell deeply asleep. When I awoke, it was after 3 a.m. On Good Friday. I didn't have the strength to check on her just yet, certain that she was gone by now.

It Is Finished

Around 5:30, I finally got up the courage to check on my girl, and she had stopped breathing. Her body had become stiff. She'd stretched out her legs and positioned all her feet close to each other before she went, her head unmoved from the last time I'd checked on her before bed. I pulled the blue towel over her head to cover her completely. My morning's task, as soon as the sun comes up, will be to dig her grave in the yard. I try to console myself with the thought that her spirit is now free of the body that was failing, and that she will always remain near me. But it still hurts like hell.

Would I recommend that others take the route of allowing their pets to die naturally at home rather than going the euthanasia route? Well, it's certainly not for everybody. Losing a beloved pet is never easy, especially one who's shared your life for many years. It's filled with tears whether that death comes quickly in a vet's office or more slowly at home. And each animal is different; Vixen wasn't in as much pain as a cat who had been severely injured or was suffering from a terminal illness. I work from home and my schedule is flexible, so I could be here with her throughout the day. And her desire to remain with me for every possible moment was unusually strong. So in Vixen's case, it was the right path to take. Each animal is different, and each person has to weigh their own situation to make that decision.

In her second consultation with Laura, Vixen said that I had "taught her everything" and was her connection to the world. But she also taught me more than I had realized at the time. Laura noted, after one of Vixen's responses to a question, that she was very wise. She has taught me about strength of conviction, perseverance, and unconditional love. Forgive the people you love when they wrong you. Be there for them when they need you. Command respect from those around you. Pay attention to the things in life that really matter. And those things that matter aren't work, or volunteer hours, or social networking. Those things that matter most in life are the ones who love you, both humans and animals. Spend some time with them each day, thinking "good thoughts" together. Everything else will take care of itself, and is not to be worried about.

I apologize for the length of this post, but it was important to me to document Vixen's transition into spirit, and it just didn't seem right to break it up into multiple posts. We had a beautiful journey together, my spotted girl and I. Let's end with a poem I wrote several years ago that was published in the British magazine Poetry Now.

Ode To A Tortoiseshell

My beautiful spotted girl
So refined, in your dignity.
Paws crossed, ever ladylike,
Yet the lynx tips on those ears
Betray your true nature.
Speckled, as with a paintbrush,
You share with us your softness,
Sly and wise, and ever watchful.
“Is she expecting company?”
We wonder as she sits, pensively waiting.
With squeals of delight
And purr so loud, she greets me.
To be “tailed” is an honor.
But the purr turns gutteral
As she spies The Other through the window.
Growls and hisses, then a hasty retreat
To her place of safety, dark and cool.
Beautiful spotted girl,
Won’t you come back out
And grace us with your presence once more?

Wednesday, April 4, 2012

Protecting Your Cat From Heartworms

Did you know that there was an American Heartworm Society? Neither did I, until I saw a press release about April being National Heartworm Awareness Month. Their map, above, shows where cases of heartworms are most reported throughout the United States. Obviously, they're a bigger problem in the southeast, but can strike cats and dogs almost anywhere. So let's take a closer look at heartworms and how you can protect your cat from them.

In dogs, heartworms (Dirofilaria immitis) were discovered over 100 years ago. They were first mentioned as affecting cats in the 1920s. The only way they can be spread between animals is by mosquitoes. When biting an infected animal, the mosquito takes in larvae that have been released into the bloodstream by an adult female heartworm. It takes a couple of weeks for these larvae to mature within the mosquito. Once they reach the infective stage, they enter another animal through the mosquito's bite wound.

When the larvae enter your cat's bloodstream, it could take them several months to reach maturity. During this time, your cat may appear to be completely healthy, or exhibit some respiratory symptoms.  The symptoms mimic many other diseases in cats. Early stages, while the worms are first infesting the pulmonary blood vessels, may cause symptoms similar to feline asthma or bronchitis, with coughing and difficult or rapid breathing. This is a newly defined syndrome known as HARD - Heartworm Associated Respiratory Disease. During this time, less than 20% of cats will show HARD symptoms and blood tests for the heartworm larvae may not be consistently positive, so diagnosis is difficult.

Amazingly, some of our kitties can spontaneously rid themselves of heartworms! Only 61% to 90% of cats bitten by an infected mosquito actually develop the worms, versus 100% of dogs. While cats who live outdoors are more often bitten by mosquitoes, even indoor-only cats can be bitten if a mosquito gets inside your house, so all cats are at risk.

Within 7-8 months from the original mosquito bite, your cat could have from one to three adult worms living in the heart and pulmonary blood vessels. While dogs with heartworms can be treated, once the worms have infested your cat's heart, there is no treatment on the market to get rid of them. As the worms grow in size, your cat will start vomiting and gagging, become lethargic, and lose weight. The heartworms live for 2-3 years, and they may be fatal to your cat. Any mosquitoes that bite kitty during this time will then carry the larvae of those worms on to infect other cats, and the cycle continues.

Fortunately, none of this is necessary, as heartworms are preventable! Daily or monthly tablets or a monthly topical solution are available from your veterinarian to protect your cat from heartworm infestation. Four options are currently approved for use in the U.S. They work by interrupting the larvae's development so that they can't grow into mature worms.

We're having an early spring this year, so mosquito season will likely begin early. Make sure your cat is protected from heartworms by making a visit to your vet and getting your cat on a preventative medication. If you'd like to read more about heartworms, visit the American Heartworm Society's website.