I like cats. I've always had one or two around. Having a cat used to be quite straightforward. You would acquire a kitten, try to keep it out of traffic, and hope it survived to a ripe old age. When it got too old and sick you would take it to the vet and have it gently put to sleep. Mourn. Repeat.
That was then.
Today, almost any medical procedure available to your mother-in-law is also available to your dog or cat. Artificial joints? Check. Cardiac or neurosurgery? Check. Biopsy, ultrasound, MRI, stem-cell therapy? Check. And why not? These creatures are now members of the family. They've moved steadily from the barnyard to the porch to the living room and up the stairs into our beds, where we happily let them push us to the edge.
I began to realize things had changed when our latest cat got a toothache. The vet extracted the infected tooth and told us he needed a thorough tooth-and-gum cleaning. Who knew you were supposed to brush your cat's teeth? Unlike people, cats and dogs require a general anesthetic to get their teeth cleaned, so this procedure isn't cheap.
My husband and I adored our little cat. He was extremely sociable. He was the star of all our dinner parties, and followed us around as if he were a dog. His favourite places to hang out were in front of the fire, on top of the TV converter, and on my chest. He loved heat.
A few months ago the cat got droopy and lost his appetite. So we took him to the vet. They did blood tests. The vet suspected small-cell lymphoma, but recommended more testing to make sure. They could do a biopsy (very expensive) or an ultrasound (not as good, but only $900). He reassured us that in any event, the condition is highly treatable. "Ninety-five per cent of cats recover," he told us. They aren't cured but they go into remission. "I have cats who've been living for six years with this."
And so it began. No one ever says to you, "You could spend thousands of dollars on this animal and it could die in a few months anyway." It doesn't work like that.
The ultrasound confirmed the cancer. They gave us chemo drugs to treat the cat at home. The vet cautioned that some cats get pancreatitis because the drugs suppress the immune system, but that was treatable too.
I read up on small-cell cat lymphoma and discovered that the average period of remission was two years, after which it was game over.
For the next few weeks the cat seemed okay. Not his old self, but at least he kept his food down. We took him in for a checkup and more blood work, which took 35 minutes and cost $750. The vet pronounced himself pleased.
That same day the cat started acting seedy again. He wouldn't eat. So we took him back. The vet suspected pancreatitis. His advice was to have the cat hooked up to an IV drip for 24 hours and pumped full of medication to stabilize him. "Let me get you an estimate on that," his assistant said. The estimate was $1,170.86.
By this time the vet bills were already well into four figures. It wasn't the money that bothered me the most. It was the slippery slope. It was the prospect of months or years of anxiety, relapses and medicalization, and, for the cat a semi-crummy life.
And yes, there was the money, too. I asked what else we could do. "I'll sharpen my pencil," she said, and came back with a revised estimate of $770. I looked at her unhappily. She disappeared into a back room and re-emerged a few minutes later. "You could treat him at home," she said. We agreed to try that. I left with a bag of pills cut up into tiny pieces – Zeniquin, Mirtazapine, Famotidine – plus some vitamin B12. I would bring him in every day or two to have him subcutaneously injected with fluids. She said there'd be no charge for that.
The home treatment was a bit tough. The liquids were no problem. I could just squirt them in his mouth. The pills were another matter. The cat would spit them out all over the room. I was never sure how much actually got in him. Pretty soon my forearms were covered in bloody scratches.
I was trying to get used to the idea that the cat might die sooner rather than later. I kept an eye on him all the time to see how he was doing. The cat, once noisy, grew increasingly quiet. The feline alarm clock no longer sounded at the crack of dawn. My husband was stoic. That was his job.
When the cat stopped eating again, the vet's assistant gave me some concentrated high-calorie food. She told me that if he wouldn't eat it, I could mix it with a bit of water and force-feed him with a syringe.
That weekend I got a tiny bit of food into him. Both of us were miserable. He didn't want to lie on me any more. He kept shifting positions on the ottoman, trying to get comfortable.
"I think it's time to switch to comfort care," I told the vet's assistant Monday morning. She summoned the vet, who said there were other things we could try. Then he examined the cat and found a tumour in his abdomen the size of a golf ball. "This cat isn't going home," he told me gently. I called my husband, who told me he'd already said his goodbyes. They asked if we wanted the ashes but I said no. I'm not big on cremains.
"You did everything you could," said the vet. Did I? I don't know. I shook his hand and hugged his assistants and thanked them for their help. These days, death is a complicated business – even if it's just a cat.