Monday, July 24, 2006

Blacky's Last Day

This is Blacky, one of my favorite cats ever. She is a sweet and gentle cat who also loves to cuddle. I adopted her in March 1994. A homeless field cat, she nearly died on my porch in Iowa during the coldest week of the winter, with temperatures well below zero F. She was malnourished, had worms, and a severe sinus infection (and nasal polyps) that eventually required surgery to cure. But since that first year of sickness, and aside from one illness about three years ago, she lived a wonderful and happy life. She was always playful, loved to sleep beside me, and was the most cuddly cat I had ever met.
I captured this picture of her just two hours before she died from kidney failure and probably also old age. I got out the camera intentionally because I could tell that her time was short. I had no idea how short.
About two or three weeks ago, she started to slow down. She stopped jumping up on the bed each night, and slept under the bed instead. Aabout 10 days ago, she started to wobble when she walked and spent most of her time under the bed rather than hanging out with the family. A week ago, it became clear that she felt miserable and had stopped eating. I took her to the vet and found what I feared... her kidneys were failing.
Sensing that maybe we could turn things around and buy her another few weeks or months of quality life, I started to give her subcutaneous fluids, to help rinse her body of toxins. I gave her a special formula canned cat food too, rather than the dry stuff she normally loved but had stopped eating.
Within one day, she perked up. I was hopeful that we had bought her some time, maybe weeks, maybe months. But over that week, she generally declined. She would walk a few steps and then one of her back legs would just slip out from under her, so she would slump to the floor, rest for a while, and eventually try again--just a few steps at a time. She always worked her way toward her litter box when needed, but sometimes didn't quite make it. As dilute as her urine was, it was more like a puddle of water than anything else. I started to help her along as she walked, and soon started to carry her to her box and setting her down. When she finished, I'd always be sure to set her by the food and water bowls on the way back to her soft cat bed just in case. But standing by her bowls, she just kind of sank there to the floor, and propped her head on her front paws and looked around.
Clearly, her energy was nearly gone. So I would carry her back to her cat bed, setting her down just a few steps away so she could get s small bit of exercise as she stepped into the bed. Each day, the climb into the bed got more and more difficult. So I kept doing the saline injection just under her skin, about 100 or 150 mL at a time, and kept feeding her (with a syringe type device, but no needle) the special formula cat food. She let me feed her most of the time, but a few days ago started to push my hand away with her paw.
Then Sunday, yesterday, I spent almost the whole day with her, sometimes taking photos, sometimes just holding her on my lap. She seemed a little more alert, but also extremely limp. When I brought her to the litter box, she just kind of laid down and nothing came out. Also, it seemed that the injected fluids were just leaking out through her skin, like her body was refusing to absorb them. Instead of tolerating the food, she started to push my hand away. I let her win. My goal was to prolong her life only if she was doing well, but not if she appeared miserable. Though alert, and watching me most of the day with her eyes half open, she was nearly completely limp and appeared sad. I "knew" that I would soon have to make that difficult and somewhat arbitrary decision on when to call the vet--to end her life before things got too bad, before convulsions set in.
And then, shortly after 9 PM, I gave her some fluids, and decided to try one more time to feed her--gently and just a little, and only if she did not mind. But the way she stuck out her tongue to push away the food, and the way she closed her mouth and gave out a weak growl, the first growl I'd heard in months, I could tell that she did not want to be fed. So I stopped immediately, wanting to respect her feelings, and realizing then it would only be a matter of time, maybe three days at most, before she would be ready to die.
About a minute later, Blacky seemed to hiccup or something. It took me by surprise. Then I realized it was more like a cough or a gag than a hiccup, like maybe she needed to puke up a hair ball. The "choking" occured about once every 20 seconds and got a little more frequent, maybe once every ten seconds. It was strange, like she was puking, but there was nothing to come out. I felt so bad for her. Her mouth looked so dry, I figured maybe she needed a little water. I watched a bit longer, and she kept coughing, not too often, and not too strongly, but still quite strange--kind of creepy.
She was breathing with some effort, but not panting. So I went a few feet away to the sink to get some water to bring back to her--which took about one minute. When I got back to where she was lying in her little round cat bed, I suddenly realized that not only had she stopped the coughing, but she had also stopped moving completely. And just like that, my baby girl was gone. She chose the time of her death. She spared me the pain of having to choose the time for her. She was ready, I guess, and then she was gone.
I wish I had been ready. Aside from simply wishing she could be healthy and happy forever, my primary regret is that I had walked away from her for that one critcal minute to get the water, having had no idea that her end was going to happen SO soon. I wanted to be there actually holding her in my arms, and I would have done so if I had only known what was about to happen. But how could I know, having never seen a "natural" death happen before? So I dropped the water on the floor and picked her up and held her in my arms. Perhaps she took another faint breath or two as I held her, but I don't think so. I think that she was already gone. In that brief moment when I went for the water, she took her last breath alone. As I held her still warm and soft body in my arms, I made sure to tell her how much I love her. And I do believe that for all of these past 12 and a half years, I think she knew. I loved her more than anyone else loved her, and she loved me more than she loved anyone else.

PS: I will return to posting wildflower photos soon, but I have been busy this summer. However, I just had to include a picture of Blacky, my sweet, cuddly cat.