The vet assures me our cat’s ill health is not my fault. Speedy, our thirteen-year-old tiger tabby, has lost over three pounds, has a urinary tract infection, bleeding gums, and failing kidneys. Cats are stoic, the vet continues, by the time you realize they are ill, they are at death’s door. Speedy is dying, and I’m pretty sure it is my fault.
He hasn’t been eating. We notice, but not consistently. He is lethargic. Well, lying around is sort of what he does. My husband, Bill, says his breath stinks. No one thinks to actually look in his mouth.
Getting Speedy was not my idea. In 2003, we already had a one-and-a-half-year-old calico, Reeses. But Reeses is a mommy’s girl: she follows me around the house, waiting for me to sit down so she can jump in my lap; she sleeps with me at night. Bill and our two sons want another cat, their cat. I’m a firm believer in one-cat households. This belief is probably fueled by the fact that I empty the litterbox, I pick up the hairballs, I feed and water, I take to the vet.
We become a two-cat household. A litterbox, and food and water bowls are placed in the boys’ bathroom: they will be taking care of this new kitten. And they do, for a time.
Fast forward thirteen years. Only our youngest son, Garrett, is still at home. Both cats use the one litterbox in the laundry room; they are both fed in the kitchen. I do everything for Speedy that I do for Reeses. I never bonded with him as strongly as I did with Reeses—she was needy as a kitten and I was her constant companion. Speedy had Bill and the boys—he got plenty of attention. I am his caretaker and I love him but I don’t feel connected to him by heart strings as I do with Reeses.
We begin to notice, slowly, bit by bit, that Speedy isn’t eating, is moving slow and sleeping more, and his breath stinks. I pass him on my way upstairs or on my way out the door. I look at him but don’t really see him. I don’t bring myself to his level; I don’t pay consistent attention. I keep waiting for him to get better. I finally call the vet on a Thursday and make an appointment for the following Tuesday.
By Tuesday his multiple infections are raging and he is severely dehydrated and his kidneys are shutting down. He spends the next twenty-four hours at the vet, we bring him home for a night, and then twice more to the vet for a day of intravenous fluids. Cats don’t recover from failing kidneys—there is no getting well from this; it isn’t a disease to be cured but a condition to live with.
The home care requires multiple pills shoved down his throat, a white liquid medicine that is awful tasting, and a daily subcutaneous hydration, which means sticking a large needle under his skin and squeezing a bag of fluid, praying that the required amount gets in before he starts freaking out. The liquid meds and the hydration are two-person jobs, Bill or Garrett holding him and I forcing in the meds or inserting the needle.
There is also the change of food to special kidney food. We have two cats. It’s important to monitor his food intake. We have two cats. It’s important to note his litterbox habits. We have two cats. I tried locking them in separate rooms with their food. Freaked them out. I feed her in her normal spot because she kept sitting there insisting and Speedy in another part of the kitchen as he, even in illness, is compliant. I have to stand guard because of course she prefers his canned food to her dry. I try to get him to eat at least every two hours. Feeding them is like the stereotypical opening a door to let the cat out: in or out, in or out, in or out. Not hungry? Put food up out of reach. Hungry? Okay food back down. Up. Down.
Now Speedy has my consistent and sometimes constant attention: someone is drinking water, which cat? Someone is peeing, which cat? I don’t walk by him anymore. I stop, stoop down, look into his eyes, pet him, tell him I love him, ask how he’s holding up.
Speedy does better. He does worse. He does better. We take it in two week chunks: this is what we are doing for two weeks, all the care he needs, then vet appointment: reevaluate. I wish he could talk and tells us whether the pills and the liquid meds and the needle are worth putting up with to stay alive, if only for a few more weeks, a few more months.
He is alive, and even lively, to the surprise of the vet: his numbers say otherwise. But Speedy plays with his catnip toys. Goes to work with Bill, walking across the keyboard, staring out the window at birds, sleeping curled in front of the fireplace. He finds me and lies on my chest, staring at my face and purring. He hangs with Garrett. He is alive.
It’s been five weeks now. How long can we maintain this level of care? On the one hand, Speedy has had thirteen lovely years. On the other, heart strings.