Wednesday, February 20, 2013

Three Months With Sandy

She arrived around the time of the hurricane, a somewhat small, pretty white cat with large black markings, dainty paws, and horribly infected eyes. She moved into Bonesy's dog house on the porch. Bonesy, our very territorial outside cat, moved out without challenging. This surprised us, but maybe Bonesy knew how sick the newcomer was and wanted to steer clear of her.

Because of the hurricane connection, my son named her Sandy. I wasn't crazy about the name because she didn't look like a Sandy. But I used it often, and hope she eventually recognized it. Every cat should have a name.

She was feral, and we couldn't get near her. But she stuck around, dining on the porch, occasionally curling up in an old tire in the sun, and spending her nights in Bonesy's dog house. We set up another dog house for Bonesy, in the shed across the road. But it wasn't satisfactory. In fact, nothing was satisfactory about the situation. We didn't like Bonesy banished to an outbuilding, and we couldn't sit by and watch Sandy's eyes get worse. As it was, they looked so bad we feared she might have lost some vision. Plus cold weather was coming, and my daughter-in-law observed that Sandy's breathing was congested. Who knew what would happen to a sick cat in winter?

We've had a lot of cats, and in one way or another they were all rescues. I belong to Alley Cat Allies, and I'm familiar with the practice of trap, spay, and release/return. We did it ourselves years ago with several strays. My life is full of happy cat stories. I decided to trap Sandy and get her spayed. I was certain how this would go. She would recuperate in a dog crate in my guest room, where I would see if I could tame her. The vet would treat her eyes, and give her a rabies shot, and after two or three weeks I would find her an animal-loving farmer who would be happy to have a nice spayed barn cat.

I set up a Havahart trap on the porch, and as I watched Sandy check it out from all sides, including the top, I realized her vision was just fine. Good. We'd get the infection fixed, and she'd be in great shape.

At the vet's, Sandy tested negative for feline leukemia. But she had fleas, the eye infection, an upper respiratory infection, and a bad infestation of ear mites. She was treated for all this, given the rabies shot, and spayed. I picked her up that afternoon.

After a couple of weeks Sandy was tamed to the point where I could pet her on her head. Even though the dog crate was fairly large, I felt she needed some exercise and would be less stressed if she had some freedom. So I opened the crate and let her have run of the room. The way I envisioned it, I would spend some time in the room with her every day, perhaps reading on the bed. Sandy would gradually come closer and closer to me until we were cuddled on the bed together. It was a nice vision.

What actually happened was that she spent most of her time hiding under the bed. She was up on the bed when I wasn't there; I could tell because the bloody discharge from her infected eyes was on the pillows. I was sure it was elsewhere in the room, too, so I reluctantly lured her back to the dog crate.

A week or so later we were back at the vet's. The eyes hadn't improved, nor the congested breathing, and the ear mites had returned. Another round of treatment ensued, and this time the vet told me I'd have to put ointment in Sandy's eyes twice a day for 10 days. This took the taming effort up a notch or two.

After the 10 days, I could pet her from her head to her tail, but her eyes were no better. In fact, they looked so raw that I was glad I could stop torturing her with the ointment. I consulted with another vet, who told me both the eye and upper respiratory infections were caused by a herpes virus that should have been treated when she was a kitten, long before she showed up on my porch. The vet said I could try giving her 500 mg. of l-lysine twice a day, dissolved in food, for a month.

So I did. To me, lysine tastes vile, but Sandy was so good about eating it in her food. She loved her food, canned and dry. I kept her supplied with the dry as soon as she finished each meal of canned. Once a day I tossed her favorite chicken-flavored Temptations treats into the crate, and she would make a tiny pouncing motion, or step on them—fast—with one paw. Her reflexes were excellent. This was her only play time.

The dog crate was lined with a piece of carpeting. It held both food dishes, her water dish, a small litter box, and a large pillow. My daughter-in-law hung a little toy from a string on top, but Sandy never played with it. A couple of times I put a furry mouse toy in the crate, but both times later found it outside. I got the feeling it landed there not from play, but from being banished.

Sandy could have escaped from her crate countless times, but she never tried. When I opened the door she would come to the edge of the opening, maybe put one of her little paws outside the crate, and then stop. I was able to pet her from her head to the tip of her tail now. She would purr and purr. But if I tried to pick her up, ever so gently, she would ever so delicately raise her feet over my hands and back up into her crate.

After a few weeks of the lysine, I had to reluctantly conclude that it wasn't helping. I read up on the herpes infection, and learned what the vet later confirmed: The infection was highly contagious. It could, with no guarantees, be treated with some pricey antivirals, but Sandy would remain contagious as she could shed the virus even in remission. And a remission, if it came, was almost certainly temporary. The virus was likely to reactivate again and again.

There would be no kindly farmer and community of barn cats for Sandy. There was no hope of integrating her into my own family of cats. We couldn't even consider releasing her to go back to living as my porch cat. For one thing, she could transmit the herpes infection to Bonesy. For another, Sandy's illness would make her vulnerable to predators and a poor candidate for winter survival. I painfully came to the realization that there was no place for Sandy.

When you tame an animal, when you succeed in gaining its trust, the absolute last thing you want to think about is having that animal put down. This isn't the first time I've talked about the end-of-life decision in this blog, and it's always a complex, multi-layered, knotted issue. Unlike the decisions I faced with my dogs, Angel and Wolfy, this decision was all about Sandy. I wasn't suffering. Yet in a way I was.

My son urged me to put Sandy out of her misery. But how miserable was she? Certainly a human with eyes as raw and oozing as Sandy's would be miserable indeed. But she had lived with this her whole life. Does a cat get used to infected eyes? I have no idea. I did know this: Sandy ate well and enjoyed being petted. I also knew she wanted more--not more food, but more attention. And I knew, too, that she didn't groom. I took this as a sign that was stressed, but the vet told me some cats simply do not groom.

One thing was not debatable: Sandy was alone. I visited several times a day, changing her water, bringing food, cleaning the litter box, petting her. But then I'd leave. Sandy was a quiet cat, never keeping me awake at night, never voicing her displeasure at anything. But she always meowed, just one sad sound, each time I left the room. She could hear me talk to the other cats--in the bathroom next door, in my bedroom on the other side of of her wall, out in the hallway. Did she interpret my tone of voice as cat-conversational? I wondered.

From the way I agonized over all this, you'd think Sandy had been a beloved family pet for years. The truth was, I did love her. But I also felt a crushing responsibility for her. Crushing responsibility. I'm trying to avoid the word guilt.

It should be hard to feel guilty about something when you can't think of a thing you would have done differently. But somehow we manage it. When a pet of long standing dies, we say, "She had a good life." But this bit of comfort didn't apply here. I felt as though Sandy had no life.

It took me a long time to make that final phone call to the vet. All the while, I went over and over Sandy's situation, past, present, and future. I couldn't second-guess my decision to trap her, although as it turned out in the end, that led to her death. As the vet told me, after she'd put Sandy down, the cat never would have survived the winter outside. She also told me I gave Sandy a warm place, a bed, and an endless supply of food. That was good, she said. But if it was good, I thought, was I right to end it? 

What it came down to in the end was my reluctance to sentence Sandy to any more time alone in that crate. To me, the crate looked worse and worse every day. My attempts to clean it scared her. White fur covered the rug and pillow like a thin pelt. Cat litter landed not only on the rug, but on the tarp as well. Her frequent sneezes sprayed the tarp in an 8" border around the crate. I kept her dishes and litter box clean, and gave her the best care I could, but it all began to seem like an exercise in futility. Sandy was in quarantine.

"Aunt Deer will take care of her." A few weeks after my granddaughter said this to me, I was as ready as I would ever be. "Aunt Deer" was Lizzie's name for my daughter Jill, who had a real gift for understanding and loving animals. I had every reason to believe in the survival of animals' spirits as well as our own, and every reason to believe Jill would indeed take care of Sandy. I told Sandy I was sending her to Jill.

This decision was so wrenching that I had to break it down into pieces. I would call the vet. On the appointed day I would feed Sandy some tuna—some real tuna. Somehow I would transfer her from the crate to a large carrier. Then I would take her to the downstairs bathroom, where I would close the door and open the carrier, giving her the first real freedom she'd had in a long time. She would walk around and check everything out, and if I were really lucky she might jump into my lap.

Maybe Sandy's psychic sense made her refuse her last meal. I did manage to get her into the carrier, but knew even if I opened it, she'd never step out into the bathroom. It would have been all too scary for her. No tuna, no freedom, no lap.

But then, some things just don't go the way you planned.