Tuesday, May 26, 2009

On his own four feet

Well, I think I am finally accepting Sherlock's death. Still shocked and puzzled, but I have figured out the necessity of it, or the rightness. How he lived with his illness was not just something I could have "handled." It was a matter of relationships; he had a part in it too, even though he was a little animal who weighed about 18 pounds. You'd be amazed how difficult it could be to carry that. He didn't like to be carried. He liked to be on his own four feet.

Those who met Sherlock knew that he had the assertiveness that seems common in male cats, and then some extra. To the end, at 17 years old, he would sit on the floor every morning and watch me eat my breakfast. When he heard my fork laid down on the plate, he believed I was done eating. He was up on his hind legs actually tapping my thigh and looking at me intently. So put the plate down. I don't think he cared that much for leftover egg yolk, but his policy was, Could be tuna.

I mean to say, here was a strong, vigorous cat who really hated going to the doctor, and fought wildly against a blood draw. Even a physical exam, getting him to hold still and let someone feel his stomach, was a tense encounter, leaving the Vet shaken and cautious. Sherlock had no front claws, so he used his best weapon, his three sharp (canine?) teeth and just slashed out. The time we got those teeth cleaned he screamed like a woman in labor while I sat waiting in the exam room doing something like praying. That event was significant in us pulling back on his medical care. From then on his dental care was done several times a day with a treat called Dentabites.

He hated the special prescription feline kidney diet the vet recommended several years ago, and never let you forget it. He hated being put on a diet, and meowed and paced constantly around his empty food tray whenever you were in the kitchen, like a caged tiger. On a diet he began waiting for the next feeding - I guess we gave him food three times a day, whenever we ate. But he didn't like measured portions. He liked to have a full food dish. The empty dish made him nervous, so he made everyone nervous. Isn't the saying, "When the cat ain't happy, ain't nobody happy."

Eventually we caved on the special food, and on measuring out the amount, and went to a food for "senior" cats he found palatable - and tiny bites of whatever meat we might be having. To the end, he hated to see the bottom of the dry food bowl, and would nag anyone who came in the kitchen, seeming to say "There's a hole in the bottom of the bowl!"

When we took him to the vet after he quit eating, the vet came back from the blood draw pretty sober. He explained how advanced Sherlock's illness was, how he was dehydrated and would need to be coaxed to eat. He explained the option of IV hydration, but told us, "If he recovers, he will be difficult to treat." Maybe he said "a challenge." In other words, he struggled against any attempt to hold him still. Later, as we thought it over, we knew that cat was never going to stand, sit or lie still for the sub-Q hydration you can do at home, which takes about 15 minutes. He was a cat who wouldn't let you comb him, however gently.

So there you were. Yet, we did take him back to the Vet for two days of useless treatment. That was crazy hope, our own need to get used to the fact that suddenly he was dying. The treatment did nothing to stop the progress of his death, and I'm sorry he had to be in a cage and not at home. But we were honestly like people who have a plane fly into their house: we just couldn't believe it. He was so personable, kept to his routines, was so alive, and then - not.

It was never just us who determined how Sherlock lived. He was a strong force in his own life, which was just what we loved so much about him. There is no one right health decision for a cat or a person. We muddle along, responding to what happens in the way that we can. The vet probably wished we had kept up annual visits and the diet and so on, believed in his preventive care, but I tell you, that cat didn't want to slim down. It was his life, and like many cranky old people, he had a say in living it his way, not your way.

[the photo: Sherlock helping me organize a project]


  1. I'm glad there are vets. I think our vet is a good one. But I came to believe that he will do whatever we want to do, for as long as we want to do it to save a pet's life. He will also be completely supportive if we say enough...how long will the animal be comfortable? What are the signs that it's time to let her go?

    I agonized for DAYS over stopping meds for Fargo (who also had kidney disease). She hid from me, she wouldn't eat, it was horrible. I thought...this isn't how I want our last days together to be. So I stopped everything. She lived 5 more pretty good months. For Lu...it was different. She was struggling to breathe. So I knew it would only be weeks or even days. I hate this part of sharing my life with animals. But what value has our relationship had if I can't go through the hard stuff at the end...finding that balance between trying to save them and letting them go. I think they are smarter than we are about all this stuff. I'm still trying to learn.

  2. Yes Kit, trying to learn from them. I am remembering how my friend Nancy's mother died. She was very old, over 90, in a retirement facility, and not very able, and just stopped eating. Nancy had to decide whether to order some kind of feeding or IV hydration. After learning that her mother's death this way would be a comfortable slipping away, she decided to let her go. She and her daughter kept vigil there for several days, following her quiet progress. They had pain medication at hand in the room if she showed any distress, so they wouldn't even have to wait for the nurse, but she never did. It was a peaceful time for all of them.

    When we brought Sherlock home from that first vet visit, he curled up on the guest room bed, where he liked to go for a good rest or just to be alone. If I had it to do again, of course knowing now that medical intervention didn't help, I would let him be there, and die at home, in the way that's natural to a cat. We do have a lot to learn from them, especially about respecting them. Thank you for writing.