An Old Friend Is Leaving

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I called my vet this morning.

“I think,” I said, “that my cat is coming to the end of her life.”

Bagheera, my oldest cat, turned 18 last month. According to some website I found, that’s 78 in human years. A good long ride. She is down to four pounds — FOUR POUNDS — and the vet looked at her today and says her kidneys are shutting down. She went off her food this morning, and after wandering the house like a lost soul last night, standing in the guest bedroom and meowing in confusion, she lies on my bed, very still.

She doesn’t purr no matter how I pet her.

There is one last thing the vet says I can try. She is getting subcutaneous saline solution under her skin twice daily. I have hung a bag of saline from my ceiling fan and I inject her myself — so far, it does not seem hard to do. If this can flush the toxins out of her body that are building up because her kidneys are failing, she may turn around and become well enough to live awhile longer with an acceptable quality of life.

The vet says that as kidney failure progresses and her body fills up with the toxins, she may start vomiting and having seizures. If it comes to that I will call the house-call vet and have her euthanized here at the house. I want her to have quality of life, and if that is not available, a swift exit from her suffering. And I very much want her to die here at home.

The vet says she may not make it through the weekend. Last night I knew that this was the sickness that might take her. I knew when I made the call to the vet this morning. She is nothing but a skeleton with skin and fur stretched over it. The toxins in her body are causing ulcers in her mouth, making her drool foam that mats in her fur, making her little face stink to high heaven, a filthy, metallic stink. I washed her off last night so I could bear having her in my bed, and her wasted body was horribly revealed under her wet fur.

Baggie truly is a lovely and dear little animal, the most lovable cat I have ever cared for. Gentle, beautiful, affectionate, intelligent and wonderfully outgoing, she was once known for always visiting with the guests whenever my neighbors had garden parties. She loves everyone and never saw danger in the world, only hands that had not yet petted her. Most cats run from strangers but Baggie ran to them, always happy to jump right up in any houseguest’s lap and sit, purring away. Vets love her as a cat who remains calm and sweet no matter what they do to her. And even now in her wasted state you can sometimes see what a beautiful cat she once was, with incredibly soft black fur and electric green eyes. One of my vets told me that it was obvious to her that Bagheera had been a person in another life. I really think she is the smartest cat, the prettiest cat and the sweetest cat I have ever cared for, all in one. I’m not just saying this because she is dying. She really is a once-in-a-lifetime kind of cat. I have cared for many, many cats and Bagheera is the best of them all.

Do you know that for years she never even used a litterbox? She is so smart that she would just meow on the door to be let out and then go poop or pee outside. I only kept a litterbox for rainy days.  Once when she clearly wanted to get from the coffee table to the couch, I put my foot in front of her so she could just walk along my leg to where I sat on the couch. I thought she’d probably never be able to figure out what I wanted her to do; to a cat her person is her person, and not a tool. But she immediately knew what I was trying to do and walked right along my leg, using it as a bridge. It was a trick we did for years when she wanted to come visit me from the coffee table. I didn’t have to train her; she is that smart.

Now she is truly wretched, weak and reeking, unable to walk straight. She has become harder to love as she has grown smelly, expensive, unbeautiful and less affectionate in her bleary and snot-nosed old age. I want her to be well in part to because I’d just like one more chance to show her I don’t really mind so much that she stinks, and that she will always be my girl. I regret not understanding how close death always was. Always is. At some point there really is a line of division, and it is worth it to be prepared for it.

I have some takeways for those who have aging animals.

I wish I had been more aware of the changes in her body I needed to look for. I who love her did not notice she was dehydrated until she became severely dehydrated and near death. I see her every day; she has been ratty, pitiful and frail for a year or more. I hardly noticed her further decline because I had stopped noticing her. I hadn’t stopped loving her or petting her, but I had stopped paying much attention to her health. Now I know. When next my creatures are old and sick, I’ll set aside a time each week to check their health and hydration so I am always aware.

I’ll also take my pets’ health and aging more seriously. I feel like it is only today that I am realizing that Baggie is actually going to die someday, possibly within the next few days. And there was more I could have done to stave off this day, even busy as I was. I could have been giving her subcutaneous saline for months now. I was waiting for a day when she was really dehydrated to take her in to the vet for a lesson in how to inject her at home, and when the day came I didn’t even notice because I wasn’t even looking. I had put it out of my mind.

I am not beating myself up; I love Baggie and I have given her a good life that is not yet over. She’s just the cat who is teaching me about the death and dying of cats. How it all happens when it really happens and what the real consequences are for not realizing you are playing a game of life and death with a living creature.

I am prepared for what is going to happen to Baggie. I just want her to do it with minimum pain and maximum love, in whatever time brings her the most fullness of life.

8 responses to “An Old Friend Is Leaving

  1. I am so sorry, Jennifer. Watching the people and the animals we love die is so profoundly sad. But when we think back on it, being there to say goodbye was the only proper thing to do. And when the sadness begins to drift away, through time, the experience remains as something good. And it stays with us.

    I hope your summer is filled with quiet adventures and good times with friends.

  2. Oh, my dear. My thoughts are with you as you go through this, as this progresses as it will, as you take from it what it teaches you. It’s so hard, but your attitude sounds just right. Harold is purring to Baggie right now, across the distance.

  3. I am sorry Jennifer.

    Take care,
    Michelle

  4. Oh, dear, I’m sorry. It sounds like Bagheera has enjoyed a love-filled life – I hope you have a bit more time with her yet. Noel sends a purr too.

  5. I wish I had read this just one week ago, as I now find myself with a cat who is “teaching me about the death and dying of cats.” If had, I may have noticed her rapid decline. Now, I will blame myself for every week, day, or hour I think I could have had…if only I was more aware.

  6. I blame myself, too Brian. I feel better when I think that given reason, my cat would forgive me.

  7. I am posting my lessons here.

    What I Learned from Baggie

    Always keep your pet’s eyes, nose, mouth and fur clean. Keep nails trimmed.

    As your pet declines, at some point recognize that you will need to check her health and hydration frequently. Set aside a day to check her skin for turgidity and her mouth for nasty breath and ulcers.

    As your animal gets old, smelly and annoying, never forget that she is still the same animal that was once more beautiful and easier to love. Try to remember all that she was and is, and not just her decline. Not forgetting about who she once was will help you to love and appreciate her more as she ages and becomes stiff, smelly and less affectionate. Try to stay as affectionate as you always were.

    Decline is real, death is real. Don’t be lazy in giving your pet meds or annoying preventative care, like exercise, meds and Ringer’s. Ringer’s solution is an easy-to-administer way to help keep an aging animal hydrated.

    Don’t let your pet get smelly and ill-kempt. Keep her clean and well-groomed, and give baths as needed – even to aging cats. Your relationship with your pet will suffer if you let her get smelly and snotty. Hydration can help keep your pet’s eyes and nose from getting goopy – ask your vet about options to keep your pet hydrated.

    Euthanize your pet on a good day. You don’t want to euthanize her on a bad day. Wait until she can’t really walk anymore, then schedule at-home euthanasia. It may take or a day or two until the vet can get her in. As your pet declines, her remaining days will not be good ones, and if she starts having vomiting, having seizures or feeling pain, she will have to endure it for hours until you can get her to the vet. Plan for euthanasia, do it at home, do it on a good day. Say a good goodbye the night before. The day you plan euthanasia, plan for disposal of her body as well. You can bury her or have her cremated.

    As your pet dies, you will strongly desire to keep your pet in the environment she loves. But you can’t keep always her safe and comfortable there. Choose a warm, dry, safe area on the floor where your pet can be, night and day. (A bed is a place that a sick and fragile animal can fall from and hurt herself.) Think of it as a hospital room. Keep your pet there as she dies. Be prepared for your pet to poop and pee here. Be prepared to do a lot of laundry as you keep linens and towels clean.

    Caring for a dying pet is really hard. Try not to do it alone, but to have someone you can talk to who can comfort you and help you think more clearly.

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