Cats, eyesight and ageing

I recently read the report of a study suggesting that cat owners, in contrast to dog owners, have a raised risk of developing glaucoma due to an autoimmune response triggered by their pets. I don’t think this should cause too much alarm, because the study was only a preliminary one and the effect was small. But it was of some concern to me because a few years ago I was diagnosed with high intra-ocular pressure, which can progress to glaucoma.

My immediate reaction to reading it was “I’m not going to give up my cats.” My husband challenged me “Are you saying that you would rather go blind?” Logically the answer should have been obvious, because going blind is among the worst fates I can imagine. Yet I did not know what to say, which made me wonder if I care too much about the cats.

Concern for companion animals can affect many of the decisions which may have to be made in the case of their owners’ declining health or advancing age. After adopting Magic and Leo it was a bit of a shock to realise that I should probably not get any more kittens in case I die before they do, even though I belong to Auckland SPCA’s “Circle” program which provides for this eventuality. I wouldn’t want to move into an apartment without a safe outdoor space for cats to play, or enter a retirement home where cats were not allowed. And though I sometimes wonder about returning to live in England for my declining years, I wouldn’t want to put my cats through the stress of relocation – even though when we once brought two other cats from England to New Zealand they did not seem too upset by the long flight.
Maybe it is misguided to let cat-related considerations carry too much weight when making major life choices. And I can’t predict how I would actually feel if and when one of these situations arises in future. Meanwhile I am happy to be still fit and well, and living in a house with a large garden which is ideal for cats.

Foster kittens

As a result of the chain of events following the death of Felix I am now fostering two small kittens, a brother and sister whom I have named Marco and Polo. They came to me through the Lonely Miaow Association of Auckland, the same charity through which I acquired Felix fourteen years ago.

Marco is a male mackerel tabby, Polo a female tabby-and-white. Both of them are lively, playful,  friendly little cats. Fostering involves a lot of work but is very rewarding. I am busy all day long with feeding them, changing their litter trays, playing with them and keeping them out of danger.

I love them both, though not in the same way as I loved Felix, which is just as well because in a few weeks’ time I will have to part with them. When they are old enough to have been desexed, vaccinated and microchipped they will be ready for adoption.

Although Felix himself would no doubt have detested having them here, it is good to know that his death has had the positive outcome of helping other rescue kittens to find “forever homes”.

Do cats go to heaven?

The Rainbow Bridge is the name of an anonymous poem, probably written in the 1980s but based on a much older myth. It describes a beautiful meadow for pets whose earthly life is over, where they play happily until their owners come to join them and they cross the bridge into heaven together. I don’t think I had read this poem when I had a dream about one of my other cats, Floella, a few years ago. In my dream she was flying over a deep valley before coming to rest in a beautiful meadow full of flowers, sitting upright and looking content. Remembering this was a great comfort when she died a few months later.

The following story was told to me by a trusted friend, so I can vouch that it is genuine. Here is a shortened version of the letter she sent me:

My cat was snow white, aristocratic, a prince among cats, fairly haughty. You had to deserve his respect and he was never cuddly. I loved his independence and obvious self-esteem. The only time he jumped into my lap and put his paws on my shoulders was when I was sitting in my kitchen, being deeply unhappy and at a loss what to do. He sensed it. At other times he didn’t allow anybody to pick him up.

Unfortunately he suffered from a genetic weakness which snow white cats sometimes have – he developed a terrible eczema all over his back. Our local vet was a saintly animal lover who did all he could to help, but nothing worked and my cat obviously suffered. Eventually it got so bad that the vet suggested euthanasia. I felt terrible, having to play God, but eventually, with enormous heartache, I agreed.

I then cried for a week. A friend suggested that I visit a deeply spiritual clairvoyant, to find some solace. So I went to see this lady and as I entered her beautiful drawing room, she said “Hello – that’s a beautiful white cat that came in with you!”

 So I cried some more. Yet at the same time I also felt comforted.

Companion animals sometimes feature in the personal accounts from survivors of near death experiences which can be found on the internet.

I continually picture Felix still around: patrolling the garden, sunning himself on the grass, curled up on a chair, purring when I pick him up. I think these images are wishful products of my own mind rather than of spiritual origin, but who can tell the difference? I do believe in metaphysical forces, and perhaps it is not a coincidence that, of the several hundred songs in my iTunes library, the first two which came up on the Shuffle function while I was thinking about Felix were Don’t Fear the Reaper and Time to Say Goodbye.

Coping with the loss of a cat

For animal lovers, grief over the loss of a much loved pet can be just as severe as that which follows a bereavement in their human families. I know this not only from my personal experience, but from what I have heard from friends and clients who are mourning the death of feline or canine companions. It is also backed up by published research. However, the death of a companion animal is not always recognised as the major trauma which it is often perceived to be. What can bereaved pet owners themselves, and those around them, do to ease the pain? This post outlines some things which I have found helpful since Felix died.

The support of family, friends and veterinary staff: I have been greatly comforted by all those who have sent a sympathetic email or card, brought flowers for his grave, or offered healing therapies. I expect there are some who cannot quite understand the depth of my sadness, but everyone has been kind, and noone has trivialised my loss with comments like “it was only a cat” or “you can always get another”.

A funeral ceremony and a marked grave: It felt right to hold a small ceremony for him, and to bury his body in a secluded part of the garden which I can visit every day – although, as one perceptive friend said “You’ll never be able to move house now.”

Expressing feelings through talking and writing: Many bereaved pet owners benefit from talking with an understanding person, whether in a formal counselling setting or in everyday life, and I have a number of friends with whom I have been able to talk about Felix. For me, writing is the best medium for self-expression. I initially created this blog just as a private site where I could store photographs of Felix, but writing about a few cat-related topics has proved quite therapeutic, and drawn a few messages of support from strangers round the world.

Happy memories: I remember many happy times with Felix. There were also some worrying ones, because he suffered several episodes of serious illness during his life, but I can honestly say that I always looked after him in the best way I could.

Other cats: I am glad there are other feline presences on our property. Our female cat, Daisy, seems quite pleased that Felix is no longer around and Homer, a male cat who officially belongs to me but decided to move next door, has been making more return visits here. It would be impossible to “replace” Felix and I have no wish to try, though maybe I will fall in love with another black-and-white kitten at the SPCA one day.

Bach flower remedies: I took Star of Bethlehem, which is the main remedy to be considered for shock or grief. Other remedies could be suitable in certain cases, for example Pine for owners who feel a sense of guilt or self-blame, or Sweet Chestnut for those in deep despair. Remedies from the Bach series can also be useful for treating emotional distress in animals themselves.

The passage of time: Life goes on, and though I will never forget Felix and always miss him, it is getting easier as the weeks go by.

Feline euthanasia – some personal reflections

Euthanasia for cats, or other companion animals, is a complex and sensitive topic. I am not a veterinary professional, but my views are informed by my experience as a cat owner, and as a former medical doctor who has worked with many dying humans in hospices and cancer wards.

In an ideal world, I believe that euthanasia should be reserved for animals who have incurable conditions and whose symptoms cannot be adequately controlled. In the real world the wishes and practical circumstances of the owners play a large part in the decision, but these are not always aligned with the best interests of the animals themselves.

I suspect that many animals get euthanised too soon, or when they do not need to be. The owners may not have the motivation or practical resources to continue caring for them when they are sick, or they may find the situation so upsetting that they just want it brought to an end. Sadly, some animals who get euthanised are not sick at all, only unwanted or homeless.

Conversely, other animals are left to suffer too long because their owners have moral or religious objections to euthanasia, or cannot face the prospect of witnessing the process or feeling responsible for killing their beloved pets.

I hope I did not delay too long before making the big decision for Felix. I had accepted that he was not going to recover from his illness, whatever the diagnosis, but did not consider that in itself an adequate reason to euthanise him. Two other cats of ours had been euthanised in the past, and although I have no doubt it was the right decision in both their cases, I found it an agonising experience. I hoped that Felix would die naturally like another of our cats, Floella, who slowly and peacefully faded away at the age of almost nineteen years.

It did not work out quite like that. One morning, after Felix had been going quietly downhill for a week or so without apparently suffering, he began to show signs of distress. I felt it would be cruel to let this situation continue and arranged for him to be euthanised the next day, when the vet would be available for a home visit, for Felix hated being taken to the surgery. Meanwhile I had a sedative analgesic prescribed for him. Soon after I gave him the first dose he fell asleep, and died a few hours later. I was very thankful that he did not need to be formally euthanised. If the medication which was needed to relieve his pain and distress hastened his death a little, I consider that a blessing.

Another aspect of this topic to consider is the impact of euthanasia upon the staff who carry it out. They have to develop a certain emotional detachment in order to be able to do it at all, but it must still affect them at some level. I suspect this is one of the reasons why the suicide rate for veterinary surgeons is so high compared with that of the general population, and also higher than that of other healthcare professionals.

Only a minority of human patients with terminal illness say they would want euthanasia provided that their symptoms can be controlled, and with good palliative care they usually can be. Maybe the same is true for animals.

Farewell to Felix

My beloved cat Felix died last week. This post is wriiten in his memory, with some reflections on love, loss and the euthanasia of companion animals.

I have had many cats in my life and loved them all but Felix was somehow special. He came to me as one of four kittens needing foster care when they were just a few weeks old. Most people would probably have seen him as just another ordinary black and white cat but for me, for some inexplicable reason, it was love at first sight  and I knew at once I wanted to adopt him permanently. The close bond between us was maintained throughout his life, though he was a self-contained cat who did not relate easily to most other humans or felines. He became a skilled rat-catcher.

Felix was nearly fourteen years old when he died – not a great age for a cat, and yet he did well to live as long as he did considering all the health challenges he experienced: separation from his mother at a very young age,  a near-fatal attack by a feral tom cat when he was a few weeks old, a bladder blockage and a separate bowel blockage. His final illness lasted several months, during which he manifested a puzzling range of different symptoms, and temporarily improved on courses of antibiotics and steroids. No definite diagnosis was ever made but it gradually became clear that he was not likely to recover.

When the vet first suggested euthanasia I said no, feeling that neither Felix nor I was ready for such a serious step. Another course of steroids brought a little improvement over the following week but then he declined again. Some cats hide away outside when they are near the end of life but Felix stayed at home and continued responding to my touch, walking from room to room, trying to eat a little, grooming his paws, and using his litter tray. He was clearly fading away but did not appear distressed, until the day came when I knew it was time to make the heart-breaking decision. I arranged for him to be euthanized at home next morning and meanwhile the kind vet gave me three vials of a sedative painkiller, Temgesic, to calm him until then.

After the first dose was given at 4 p.m. Felix fell into a peaceful sleep, and stayed asleep all evening in my office. At 10 p.m. I left him to get ready for bed, then lay down to read a book until his next dose was due. About 10.30 p.m. I remember feeling a strange wave of cold. When I went down to give to Felix his medication at 11 p.m. I found that he had died.  I was overcome with grief yet thankful that the euthanasia did not have to be carried out after all.

Next day we had a small ceremony for Felix, a dear friend sang “Ave Maria” for him, and we buried him in the grave which we had prepared in the corner under the plum tree where he used to lie. I continued crying for days, and still miss him so much, but it is getting easier and I am thankful for the time we spent together, the memories and photos. I would like to believe we will meet again in an afterlife but I don’t know if I do.

It is not always easy to tell when an animal is suffering and sometimes I wonder if I should have agreed to “put him out of his misery” earlier – but I sensed that, until the last day, he did not want to die. There is much debate about euthanasia for humans at present and there are certainly complex “pros and cons” around the topic. During my medical career I worked in a hospice for several years and it was my impression that only a minority of the patients there would have chosen euthanasia if it was offered – is the same true of sick animals? We cannot know. Sometimes there is no doubt that euthanasia is the best thing for the animal concerned. In other cases, rightly or wrongly, it is carried out more for the benefit of owners who either want to avoid the trouble and expense of caring for a sick pet, or who can no longer bear their emotional pain while watching nature take its course.