Death and illness may seem an odd topic for humour, however I sometimes feel sorry for my regular vets who see a succession of old or infirm moggies. Mostly they (the cats, not the vets) tick over very nicely for a few years with maybe a bout of cystitis or conjunctivitis requiring treatment until all systems go into catastrophic failure culminating in that incurable ailment called "TMB" (Too Many Birthdays). Many of my conversations with the vet seem go like this:
"Hello Mrs H, what can I do for you?"
"I'm afraid I've reached the end of the road with this one."
"I'll print off a consent form …."
After 20 years, they know I don't make the decision lightly. If life becomes too burdensome due to illness or Feline TMB, I don't prolong it unnecessarily. The matter-of-factness can be a bit of a shock to the new wave touchy-feely vets though.
If an archaeologist cares to excavate my garden in 100 years time, he'll find a range of grave goods ranging from a pork chop bone (I buried Queenie's uneaten portion of pork chop with her "for the journey") to evidence of cat toys (since I'm note sure what entertainment the feline afterlife provides). I can image Phil from Time Team remarking on the presence of a stray jingle bell from a much loved catnip mousie or on the weave of a not-yet-decayed tea-towel.
"This 'ere t-shirt it was buried in seems to have a ritual significance," he'd tell Tony.
"This pattern was mass-produced in the early 1990s, and was fashionable in British kitchens for a few years," Mick might add.
Skinny, ever-hungry, tabby Kitty would now be diagnosed as hyperthyroid. In her day, thinness was considered due to an ageing and inefficient digestive system. A trainee vet, alarmed by Kitty's boniness and practically accusing me of starving my cat, called my regular vet into the consultation.
"Oh, it's just Kitty Hartwell," said the regular vet, "She's just a skinny cat." Kitty, who loved vet visits, then climbed around his neck. This habit often caused difficulty in taking Kitty's rectal temperature. On second thought, maybe she had an ulterior motive unrelated to affection..
Grumpy, senile Holly needed anti-inflammatory tablets. Too suspicious to eat "tainted" food, the only option was wrap her in a towel and poke the tablet into her mouth. She had extremely strong fore-quarters, probably compensating for weak back legs, and excellent teeth. During one bout, she bit my finger to the bone and I was the one needing anti-inflammatories and antibiotics. The vet, again a trainee, couldn't believe I was unable to tablet a mere pussycat.
"Perhaps you could show me how?" I asked sweetly, after she cast aspersions on my competence as a cat owner.
After several minutes of wrestling with Holly, the defeated vet gave a long-acting injection. That vet didn't endear herself to me when she remarked that cat shelter cats were always sick or tatty. My regular vet wasn't pleased to hear it either – the cat shelter was one of the clinic's main customers and did not deal solely in threadbare, worn out moggies.
Sappho was the only Hartwell cat responsible for a late-night emergency call. This soft, black-and-white cushion of a fluffy cat had undergone surgery to remove a mammary tumour. A day later, her wound ruptured. Placid Sappho didn't contribute to this by over-exertion or worrying at the stitches.
I met the vet at the surgery, with my blood-soaked cat and blooded clothing. Hammer Horror couldn't have done better with the gore. I left with a cross cat sporting a tight bandage of bright pink pressure bandage round her middle. I ended up with a pink-corseted and very grumpy cat whose main mode of locomotion was to roll herself from one place to another.
Affy, the only cat I've had from young, suffered a couple of heart attacks and failed to respond to cardiomyopathy treatment. She had no prospect of recovery and, as a formerly active cat, wouldn't have understood the limitations heart-disease placed on her life. Confinement and inactivity might have suited some cats, but not Affy. Determined to show her disapproval of vets to the last, she took 2 doses of the euthanasia drug.
"That wasn't the cleanest euthanasia I've ever done," admitted the young vet as I consoled him. I thought he was going to cry.
"She left this life as she came into it – hissing and biting," I told him.
"You're being very good about it Mrs Hartwell," he said.
"I take on old and difficult cats – I've seen it many times."
He sent me a condolences card, bless him.
Cindy required emergency surgery for a punctured eyeball. She was hyperthyroid and I'd intended to let her fade gracefully rather than put her through surgery or wrestle tablets into her. Unfortunately the injury scuppered that plan. The decision making wasn't hard: She couldn't stay with an untreated ulcerating eye and euthanasia wasn't an immediate option so I opted to try surgery, but if she died during surgery she'd be no worse off than if I'd opted for euthanasia straight away. It was the logical decision.
"I wish all owners were as sensible as you," sighed the vet as I explained my decision and signed a "do not resuscitate" form to cover the risk of heart failure. Cindy's heart held up fine, but the vet phoned to say she'd never recovered consciousness in spite of being kept on oxygen for an hour. I didn't think he'd ever stop apologising.
"What I said about not resuscitating her from heart failure applied to respiratory failure as well," I said, "We gave her a chance, that's the best we could do."
"Mrs Hartwell, I wish all owners were as sensible about it as you," he said, sounding utterly relieved.
"I'll come and pick her up this afternoon when I pay," I said on the phone.
"You want her body?" he sounded a bit surprised.
"She may be clinical waste, but she's my clinical waste. I'll take her home and bury her."
A couple of weeks later, the same vet removed Motley's mammary tumour. She gave him a fright by having a fit in response to the pre-med. Poor Motley ended up with a line of stitches from groin to throat and, thanks to her penchant for chewing them, spent the next 2 weeks in an Elizabethan collar. Sorry Motley, I didn't mean to laugh at you, but a cat wearing what appears to be a lampshade with cat food encrusting the edge is even funnier than a fluffy cat with a bright pink corset.
Motley, possibly the most laid back ct ever, did not like people messing with her belly. On stitch removal day, I hung onto her front paws while the vet held her back legs and removed the stitches. By the second stitch, Motley's teeth were fastened onto the ball of my thumb with sufficient pressure to inform me that she resented this sort of treatment. After unstitching Motley, the vet almost had to stitch me. Having doused my hand in bright pink antiseptic, he complimented me on restraining my cat and showed me a wrist shredded by a previous patient.
"She's my cat so if she bites anyone I'd rather she bit me," I explained.
"Mrs Hartwell, I wish all owners were as sensible as you," he said (by now it was almost a catchphrase), "She's doing very well so I hope this makes up a bit for Cindy."
My vet's triumphant glow was short lived. A few months later, Motley displayed neurological problems and the fit suffered at the vet surgery was evidently not a one-off. Within a few weeks, there was no Motley left inside that shrinking tortie body. Her personality and will to live had already departed. She was put to sleep due to a suspected brain tumour.
"But she recovered so well from the surgery," the vet said morosely.
"Yes, she did," I reassured him, "And it's just bad luck she already had a brain tumour."
"Mrs Hartwell, you must think I kill all your cats." He gave me a hug.
Bad luck always happens in threes and a few months later, Thenie went in for assessment of her hyperthyroid condition. The vet, the irrepressibly cheerful chap who'd dealt with both Cindy and Motley, looked at me with a serious expression.
"Mrs Hartwell, in view of the outcome with Cindy and Motley, I wouldn't be offended if you wanted one of my colleagues to perform this operation." The poor chap was genuinely worried that another one of my cats would die in his care.
"Let's hope it's third time lucky," I told him after he'd outlined every possible worst case scenario short of a meteorite hitting the building during surgery.
He got his third time lucky; Thenie went on to make a full recovery and the vet is no longer a nervous wreck when I turn up with one of my oldies. He regularly performs minor miracles, but even he has no cure for Feline TMB.