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Ziggy liked to hang out on the back porch

 

One of my two cats, Ziggy, died unexpectedly recently. It was not an easy death.

 He was having trouble breathing, gasping through his open mouth, his sides heaving like bellows. His lungs sounded “horrible,” the vet said. An xray showed them to be almost entirely filled with fluid.

We can try drawing some of it out, the vet said, but it’s dangerous. He might not make it.

At that point, my only thought was to relieve Ziggy by making it easier for him to breathe. I didn’t think beyond that. He needed immediate action, but the one I picked probably wasn’t the best.

 Go ahead, I told the vet. See what you can do.

 Waiting alone in that little exam room, I could hear a cat yowling in distress. I told myself it wasn’t Ziggy (although it almost certainly was). Then I told myself if it was Ziggy, the procedure would not take long and would help him. When the yowling stopped, I told myself he was surely feeling better.

After a few more interminable minutes, the vet gave me the bad news. I handed him Ziggy’s cat carrier. The thought of bringing it home empty was unbearable.

Naturally, I’ve spent a lot of time looking back and wondering what could have been done differently. What did I miss? How could he get to death’s door without me even noticing? Hindsight suggested a few answers:

1. His behavior had changed. For several weeks, he had been spending most of his time in the basement, lying in the same spot by a window. Now I wonder if that was because he had a hard time with the stairs.

2. I had noticed his sides seemed to be moving in and out more than was usual, but wasn’t sure. He had just been to the vet for his annual checkup and vaccinations. Nothing seemed amiss.

3. The night before he died, he let out a couple of loud yowls like I’d never heard before. I called to him, but he didn’t appear. That was strange, I thought, then decided it didn’t mean anything important mostly because I had no idea what it meant. He made the same commotion the next afternoon, prompting me to take a close look at him and then rush him to the vet.

What I most regret now is the decision I made in the vet’s office. It would have been far kinder to Ziggy to quickly give him the shot that would euthanize him. It’s hard living with the knowledge that his last moments were filled with pain and fear that he could have been spared. The vet’s warning that he might not make it through the procedure didn’t overcome my unwillingness to realize he was fatally ill.

After an autopsy, the vet speculated that another animal must have punctured Ziggy’s chest during a fight, and the unseen wound got infected and festered beyond repair. This sounded plausible, since Ziggy (despite being neutered) enthusiastically picked fights with other cats.

Despite this, the only thing I’m still sure of was my decision, made years ago, to allow my cats to go outside. Of the seven cats I’ve had during the past 25 years, one disappeared, one survived a rattlesnake bite but was mauled by a neighbor’s chow and one got hit by a car.

They all enjoyed lounging in the yard, stalking prey through the grass, delivering the remains of their catches to my doorstep and exploring the neighborhood. Ziggy befriended a neighbor’s cat, alternately scrapping with him and hanging out with him on the front porch. That cat still comes around, and I wonder if he was the cause of Ziggy’s illness.

 A lot of people, including my mother, think it’s too risky to allow cats outside. The same argument could be made for children, as well. They’d certainly be safer if confined. 

But they’d never become fully human if they couldn’t experience the larger world, and confinement wouldn’t guarantee they’d avoid a painful, scary death.

Ziggy enjoyed almost every moment of his life. The only times he experienced boredom, frustration or loneliness was during confinement in a kennel while I traveled. 

I don’t expect to change my mind about this, but I would like to hear from other cat owners about their decisions. Have you ever changed your mind about keeping your cat in or letting it out?

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