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Sam, the night before his vet visit: keep calm and carrier on.

Sam, the night before his vet visit: keep calm and carrier on.

Unlike when we lived in the garret, the new apartment is practically drama-free. This has left me with a lack of interesting material to relay to the reader about Hannah and Sam. Not that anyone is complaining, of course.

A few weeks ago, it dawned on me that Sam was guarding the refrigerator not for a second helping of his duck dinner but for the mouse that might be hiding in the hole in the corner pocket, an unreachable spot for not just a human but a cat.

I was adamant that Sam was not going to catch an escapee mouse as he did when we lived in the garret. I didn’t want to have to dispose of a corpse, for one thing, but even more importantly I didn’t want Sam to acquire a parasite from a mince-mouse meal.

Unlike in the garret, our current apartment has a maintenance team, and they filled the hole upon my request – in fact, they measured it (5×7 inches!) in order to seal it properly (such a deed would’ve never crossed the mind of the garret landlord).

IMG_1560Still, you can bet I worried anyway when maintenance moved the fridge and I spotted what looked to be mouse turds on the floor (mixed in with some dried up peas I’d spilled a week after move-in). I had no idea how long the turds had been there—perhaps as long as the previous tenant. So, at Sam’s yearly appointment with Dr. Parker, our vet, last week, I asked if it was a concern. The answer, thankfully, was no.

I knew going to the vet was going to be a nightmare for Sam, and that even getting him “familiar” with the carrier days or weeks before was not going to quell his anxiety, as it didn’t last year, or the year before, or when we moved. I used the Feliway spray and Rescue Remedy, again to no effect. I hated having to chase Sam around the living room—while Hannah hid under the bed—and extricate him out from under the couch, a crawlspace not intended for a cat Sam’s size. I held him in a towel as I lowered him into the carrier and shut the door. His whimpers turned to terrible screams, and an old lady who lives downstairs came running. I think she thought I was in the process of killing a child.

“It’s my cat,” I told her.

Her chest heaved, “Oh, there, there,” she cooed at Sam. “It’s okay.”

IMG_1519Sam got a clean bill of health and even—dare I say—enjoyed sitting on the scale (he lost a half-pound since last year, to the delight of Dr. Parker), despite his persistent crying jags. Our cat sitter, who works at the vet clinic, tried to soothe Sam with petting, but he was inconsolable.

“I know, I know,” Dr. Parker said softly to Sam, examining him gently. “You have such a hard life.”

Sam whimpered in agreement.

After it was all over and Sam was back in the carrier, and I took him to the reception area to pay the bill, a familiar stench permeated the air: in his upset, Sam had lost all bladder and bowel control.

IMG_1606When we finally arrived back home, Sam scrambled out of the carrier (Hannah was still under the bed, probably worried she was next) and, after cleaning the carrier and putting it away, I sat down on the couch, let out a breath, and closed my eyes, trying to still the vibrations in my mind. All that screaming had activated my PTSD.

Sam quickly forgave me, of course. It was dinnertime, after all. And soon enough, he and Hannah were on the couch, sleeping soundly.

 TLS

Does your cat or dog enjoy seeing the vet? Share your stories and comments below.

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Hannah & Sam greet our resident lady bug.

Hannah & Sam greet our resident lady bug.

Summer has been flying by…I just returned from the Tin House Writers Workshop in Portland, Oregon, where I was in a memoir workshop led by the author Cheryl Strayed. I left Hannah and Sam in the care of a wonderful cat sitter, a woman who works at the vet clinic. It was the hottest, most humid week of the year here in Boston, but Hannah and Sam did well in my absence. Sam actually made friends with the cat sitter, emerging from his hiding spot under the bed to rub up against her legs and meow a few hellos. Hannah took everything in stride, but this was another first for Sam.

It’s been a summer of new beginnings. Can’t wait to see what August brings.

 -TLS

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Hannah, the contented.

I still haven’t mastered the art of the vet visit.

This week was Hannah’s annual checkup. Last year, she was diagnosed with an autoimmune disease that affects the liver, and includes such symptoms as vomiting and a lack of appetite. After months of steroid treatment, in October her liver level tested at the higher end of the normal range, so Dr. Parker recommended a re-test in six months, before then if her eating habits or behavior changed. During these past few months, Hannah’s appetite has remained normal – although she won’t eat her entire meal in one gulp (in the fashion of her brother Sam), she does finish her food, most days. Of course, the night before her annual vet visit, when I took out the cat carrier, she refused half of her dinner, and, for hours, Sam hid under the bed.

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Sam, always the prankster.

Going to the vet holds a host of anxieties for the cat, but for the human, especially this human who has PTSD, it’s a whole production of mental and physical coordination. In years’ past, a vet visit would completely unhinge my ability to hold a thought in my head, and would send my mind back into the terror of my childhood. I’d have to refer to my pre-scripted (on a Post-It) list of statements and questions for Dr. Parker. Now, I manage to “keep calm and carry on” as well as can be expected when one is trying to get an unwilling cat into a carrier and transport her to a vet clinic in time for the appointment: layers of fur on one’s shirt, and some sadness and/or guilt for the inability to explain to the feline that she is safe and you’re not giving her away, will always be a given (for me, at least).

Five years ago, Hannah almost died of life-threatening pancreatitis and I’ve tiptoed around her ever since, fearing I might otherwise upset her to the point of psychosomatic-induced death. I worried about her wellbeing at times to the point of driving friends (and Dr. Parker) crazy. It’s taken a long time to work through my visceral fear of losing this being whom I love.

DSCN1224This year, on the verge of her tenth birthday, Hannah, at a trim 7.95 pounds, has received a clean bill of health. Dr. Parker says she has one of the best teeth he’s seen in a ten-year-old kitty (and I’ve never brushed her teeth, as I have to do for Sam). And, the great news: Hannah’s liver is functioning normally. She has exhibited a change in behavior – she has become quite insistent on cuddling on the garret chaise, during which time she rubs her wet nose and mouth, forehead and ears, all over my hands until my palms are drenched and my arms are covered with fur; she has also begun a practice of sticking her butt in my face for minutes at a time, which, Dr. Parker says, is simply her way of asking me to scratch her back near her tail, something she never liked before. I’d thought she’d been trying to tell me something was wrong, like she was the time she developed struvite crystals in her urine and kept running her tail (which was wet with pee) along my hand.

“Do you have any questions?” Dr. Parker asked.

For the first time in a long while, I didn’t. I felt suddenly relieved and happy, and my body relaxed. “I guess I just have to get used to the fact that Hannah is healthy.”

“Yes,” said Dr. Parker. “No more kid gloves for her.”

I tend to think of a cat’s lifespan – both physical and emotional – as reflective of a human’s, but at warp speed. Hannah has reflected to me the salvaged life of an abuse survivor, a kind of healing I never thought was truly attainable. I’ve always questioned its veracity. Now, I know such recovery is real, and to be trusted.

 TLS

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Hannah

Two weeks ago, on the cusp of February, Hannah, who had grown increasingly constipated in December and January, left her litter box empty. Still coping with the death of my mother, I became worried that this might be the start of the feline slippery-slope towards death (it was also the four year anniversary of Hannah’s life-threatening pancreatitis). I gave in to my PTSD-induced anxiety and brought her to the vet.

“Oh she has a heart murmur?” Dr. X said, after struggling to hold Hannah down on the exam table and placing the stethoscope to her chest. Dr. Parker, our regular vet, was out for a few days.

Hannah hid her face in my arms. “A heart murmur?” I repeated. What did this mean? I wasn’t sure if I trusted the opinion of this vet, who was a stranger to Hannah. I decided I would follow up with Dr. Parker after he returned.

In the meantime, I took the advice of my friend Stephanie and fed Hannah pure canned pumpkin, which she loved, and then I chased her around the garret (my own idea) until, finally, she went to the litter box and did her business. Unfortunately, three days later, she stopped loving the pumpkin and snubbed her nose at the tablespoon-full. Luckily, Dr. Parker had just returned. He recommended 1 teaspoon of Metamucil daily mixed in her wet food, and an echocardiogram for the heart murmur.

I bought a carton of Metamucil – the smallest I could find was itself the size of Hannah (I think this will last us for more than nine lives). Struggling to make ends meet each month on a part-time teaching wage, I admit I debated whether or not to skip the echocardiogram, which cost a few hundred dollars. But, if Hannah had a heart condition, she could die if I were to leave it undiagnosed and untreated. So I went forward.

Two days later, I awoke earlier than usual to bring Hannah in for the echo. As I removed the carrier from its hiding spot next to the refrigerator, in reflexive reaction, Sam fled under the bed. Hannah seemed relieved to have the living room to herself, finally. I picked her up, held her close to my chest, placing a towel over her paws to prevent her from straddling the top of the carrier (and thereby preventing entry), and lowered her in. When I opened the garret door to carry her out, she began to whine, and then her throat opened with crying meows that echoed and tore at my heart.

“I know, sweet girl,” I said. “You love living in this apartment much more than I do.”

“Hmmnh,” she responded as I turned the key to lock the door.

Sam refused to come out from under the bed, even for his favorite "cat dancer" toy.

I hated the idea of leaving Hannah at the clinic for the day, but that was the procedure. Drop off the cat at 7:30 a.m., pick up the cat in the late afternoon. The doctor would call when the results were ready. I left a plastic Ziplock bag of her duck and green pea kibble, in case she got hungry after the test: comfort food.

“This is the plan,” I talked to Hannah as I drove, my injured tailbone hurting without the donut pillow beneath it (in my anxiety I had forgotten it inside the garret). I knew she could not understand my words but I hoped my tone would somehow communicate to her that I was not giving her away. I was not giving her up. “I’m going to drop you off,” I began, “and you’re going to have this test so that we know what is wrong with your heart, and I’m going to go to work while you do that, and then, this afternoon, I’m going to come pick you up and take you back home, ok?” Hannah shuffled around the carrier as I spoke, meowing intermittently. “I love you, sweet girl.”

With my mother’s recent death on my mind, I wondered if this was the beginning of another end. I did not think I could tolerate losing my best feline friend, who had been with me through three apartments, four jobs, two brief relationships, and almost six years of PTSD recovery. She had been my one constant while my life fell apart and I worked to build it back up again.

Standing in the lobby of the clinic, watching the vet tech take Hannah out of my grasp, the scene from four years before flashed in my mind.

“This is not then,” I told myself firmly. “This is not then.”

In fact, it was not. Hannah’s Auntie Stephanie was here now, with new cousin Gabby-cat. Four years ago, I did not even know Stephanie. There was some comfort in having a familiar human – and her cat – present. It was, in some small sense, kind of like having family, which distracted me from feeling too much of the ache that spread across my chest and throat as I caught a glimpse of Hannah’s eyes, her gaze veiled with confusion, as the vet tech carried her away.

Seven hours later, Hannah was diagnosed with a heart condition labeled “dynamic right ventricular outflow tract obstruction” and “diastolic dysfunction significance unknown.” This was due to a benign cause, Dr. Parker said, however it could progress to heart disease quickly, or never in her lifetime. A blood panel would be a wise thing to do at this point, he added, to rule out any underlying disease in other organs that could be causing the murmur. The results showed that Hannah’s liver enzymes were elevated, which indicated inflammation, and her thyroid level was borderline. Testing for hyperthyroidism would be prudent. I agreed to this, despite the accruing bill, because knowing the answers could save Hannah’s life.

“She was very cuddly the whole time,” the vet tech said when she brought Hannah to me.

When I brought Hannah home, and opened the carrier door, she galloped around the garret, from room to room, checking to see if everything was still in its place – the living room, the water bowl, the mouse toys, and Sam – Sam looked at his big sister but he stayed under the bed. Not even his favorite “dancer” toy could lure him out. When he did finally emerge, he remained very quiet, refraining from his usual somersaulting over mouse toys and throwing his body off high ledges. He approached Hannah delicately, sniffed her tail, and made a face as if to say “ewww, you stink!” and backed away. To a cat’s nose, Hannah smelled foreign, like the clinic. She spent the next hour giving herself a bath and chewing off a patch of skin on her hind leg where her blood pressure was taken.

That night, Hannah cried, waking me. I turned on the light: 3:30 a.m. I got out of bed and followed the sound, found her sitting in the middle of the living room floor. She let out long mournful cries every few minutes. What she in pain? I wondered. Hungry? She hadn’t cried this way since the day I adopted her. I ran my palm across her back, and she pushed her head into my hand. I sprinkled some kibble in front of her, which she gobbled up quickly. Sam sat a few feet away, looking anxious. I gave him a pat, then got back into bed. The crying went on intermittently for the rest of the night, and nothing I did made it stop. I came to the conclusion Hannah was distressed from her day and needed to get it out of her system. Crying was her release, her way of returning to herself again.

Three days later, hyperthyroidism was ruled out and Hannah was placed on a prescription of feline SAMe to bring down the liver enzyme count. Dr. Parker asked if I could “pill” Hannah. I reminded him that it took two vet techs to hold Hannah down to pill her when she was deathly ill four years before – and even then she spit out the pill. She was a fighter. Dr. Parker said SAMe had to be taken on a empty stomach but using a pill pocket would be okay. I was skeptical about whether or not Hannah would be tricked by a pill pocket; while SAMe had her little b(r)other’s name in it, it was known for having a bitter taste, one I was sure Hannah would detect upon licking. I imagined she would eat all around the pill and leave its tiny pink face glistening on the floor.

When I opened the package of duck-flavored hypoallergenic pill pockets, Hannah arrived at my feet, sat, and looked up at me expectantly. She wanted the pill pocket. Quickly, I stuffed SAMe within the malleable “treat,” and placed it on the floor. In her usual cautious manner, Hannah first sniffed, then sampled a brief taste, then ate the rest, pill included.

“Good girl!” I praised her and repeated, hoping she would not spit out the pill. “Good girl.”

Having ingested her medicine, she walked away happily to perch on the back garret window and sun herself. Twenty minutes later, however, she vomited up the pill pocket, and the pill. So I took out another pill pocket and placed the (undigested) pill inside, and fed it to her again. This time, thankfully, she kept it down.

Soon, Sam caught on and wanted a pill pocket too. However the package only had 40-count and with 30 days of pills for Hannah, anticipating having to do it twice should there be vomiting, I could not afford to give out free samples. So I bought Sam a new toy: a large mouse stuffed with catnip. I tossed it on the floor and he went for it as if it were prey. He held the toy mouse in his mouth, sat and growled, then scared himself with his own growling and ran into the bedroom, where he kept the mouse beside him as he watched the traffic go by the window. Later, he buried it in the water bowl in the hallway.

Last night, as I sat down for the first time to relax after the long week, Hannah and Sam began to play a game of “cat hunt.” All of a sudden there was a blur of orange tabby and calico cat rolling on the floor in a ball, Sam on the bottom, his mouth open, Hannah towering over him (even though he stands an inch taller than she), pounding him with her paws…more tussling…then a scream (I’m still uncertain if it was Sam or Hannah), and then both were on all fours with Hannah blowing a tremendous hiss in Sam’s face. Sam’s eyes watered from the play-fight. He blinked and licked his lips and began to caterwaul with a baby voice. Hannah stood her ground as the alpha and hissed again, inching her body forward, putting her paw in the air as if to say “don’t make me hit you.”  Finally, Sam backed off and, a moment later, all was calm.

{Postscript: Just after posting this blog entry today, Hannah refused to ingest her SAMe pill. She ate all of the pill pocket around it, then left the pink pill. I tried again. No luck. I’m going to wait an hour and try again. I welcome any and all suggestions, readers….Post-Postscript: Ok, two hours and four pill pockets later, I shut Sam in my bedroom and gave Hannah some extra-special brushing by her favorite window seat, and then offered up the pill. She ate it, finally. Now let’s hope she keeps it down!}

TLS

How do you deal with a sick pet? Share your stories in the comment box below!

My essay, “Writing Taboo: Speaking the Unspeakable,” has just been published in the anthology Women on Poetry: Writing, Revising, Publishing and Teaching, available at your local bookstore.

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