About a month ago, I awoke to feel my 16 year old cat, Shadow, trembling and twitching on the bed beside me. She saw me open my eyes and struggled to stand up only to collapse in a heap. Instantly awake, I picked her up and held her to my chest. “What’s wrong baby girl?!” I whispered. Her whole body was contorting and she stared at me with wide eyes. Holding her more tightly I willed the twitching to stop. It slowed as she relaxed into my embrace. I held her, tears running down my face. What was wrong?
After an eternity, I got up and placed her on the ground so that I could get dressed. She attempted to stand, swayed and fell. Her cries came soft and scared. After some struggle, she was able to get all four paws beneath her before a tremendous spasm shook her off her feet again.
I called the vet stating that I thought she had a stroke and then we raced to the hospital, where they already had our records out. Shadow had just had a complete senior cat blood work up done just 3 months ago and all the levels had tested normal. As Shadow twitched and leaned in to me, the vet took her vitals. All seemed relatively normal, a slight fever, pink gums, hydrated skin. The spasms, she explained, were called focal seizures. They are best described as a partial seizure set off by only a small portion of the brain. She noted that, many times, they are the result of a cancer in the brain that can cause symptoms that resemble those of a stroke. She noted that strokes are actually fairly uncommon in cats so it is generally medically accepted that the symptoms are reflecting an underlying cancer.
We watched as Shadow attempted to hold on to the ground without falling over, and discussed her quality of life. Since I had only been awake for an hour, I was not ready to proclaim her life or my fight for it quite over. As I talked, Shadow looked up and me and, for a moment was very still, staring into my soul with a steadfast gaze. Today was not the day she was ready to leave me. However, I did agree with the vet that, at 16.5 years old, it was not appropriate to put her through numerous tests and treatments trying to pinpoint exactly what sort of cancer or precisely where in her brain it might be. What kind of life would she have if the last year of it was filled with fear and pain while I tried to fulfill some vague idea of how old I wanted her to be before she left me? It didn’t matter to me what type of cancer she had, just that she had it and I wanted to make sure that I made good decisions for her remaining life.
She had had a good long life with me, approximately 14 years longer than the expected lifespan for a feral kitty. Feral cats have an average lifespan of only 2 years due to the hardships of fending for themselves in a world that doesn’t value their lives or presence. She was one of a small litter of feral kittens that a co-worker and I rescued from the canyon behind her house. Momma was simply too wild to be rehomed, so she was relocated to a managed feral cat colony outside of the city. I kept Shadow, and the other two kittens were adopted out.
Shadow led a pampered life in the corners of my home. When she decided to make someone her friend, it was an honor bestowed with grace and with vigor. If she dared to be seen and then to be touched, she would ensure that your hand was petting her at every moment. My friends would brag to one another – “Shadow actually came out while I was over the other day” – “Oh yeah – well she let me pet her” – “Sure, but did she try to climb in your lap?”. Attention from Shadow became the goal of all my animal loving friends. Above all, Shadow was my baby. She always came out for me and was never far from where I was, even if she was tucked behind or under something. She never got bigger than 7 pounds so she always retained a kitten-like innocence. She was the only of my animals allowed to sleep in bed with me and was a constant presence through 16 years of life experiences. Often she would sit on my desk while I worked and just purr and purr. I miss seeing her there.
That day after the vet visit, we set up a small area on the floor next to my bed. We laid down a small throw, put the litter box at one end and food and water at the other with a small bed in the middle. She seemed able to navigate that distance although it pained me to watch her struggle. That night, when I climbed into bed, I heard her crying and then heard the thump as she threw herself against the side of the bed trying to jump up to her normal spot. I cringed at the sound and ended up sleeping on the floor. I slept on the floor many times in the ensuing months.
During that week, the spasms seemed to slow and she fell less often and I had hope. However, she stopped eating and lost a pound, and then more… We went to PETCO and bought one of each type of wet cat food. We went to the drug store and bought several jars of baby food. My floor became a virtual smorgasbord of smelly mushy enticing little bowls. Some she ate tiny nibbles of, some she would allow us to feed her by hand, most she ignored.
Every day I woke up and looked to see if she was breathing. Each day, she looked back at me as if to say, “not yet mom”. We’d spend the day enticing her to eat and watching to see that she drank, pooped and peed. Every day she purred to see me and staggered over for pets and love. It was the simple things we rejoiced in – the things that said her basest of needs were being met.
One day I came home from work and she had figured out how to get up on my bed. I added a stepping stool to help her get up and down. For the next month, my bed buddy was back. I would carefully climb into bed so as not to disturb her and she’d curl up tightly next to my side or she would totter onto my chest and fall asleep to the gentle thud of my heart pouring love out to her. Many nights I did not sleep as I didn’t want to disturb her and any potential life restoring rest she might have.
While we settled into a routine for her care, she continued to lose weight and soon was a skeletal shadow of her old self. One night she jumped down off the bed in the middle of the night and wandered the halls crying. I looked into her eyes and no longer saw the fight in them. It was time. By this time we were also battling my dog Midnight’s unexpected cancer and I think that Shadow was making the humane decision for us. She was not going to get better. We brought her back to the vet and allowed her to humanely slip out of the shadows and into the darkness.
Cancer claims the lives of 1 in 4 cats. Sometimes you can do something to stem it but often, because it claims the lives of so many older cats, the most humane thing you can do is nothing.
Our pets deserve to die of old age, not of cancer.