Lessons from Tom

Sep 30, 2009
*Special to asia!

There's a saying that goes, "Everything I needed to learn about life, I learned from my cat." I always thought whoever said that was exaggerating.

When his owner returned from a two week holiday, Tom, now 17-years old, was deteriorating in health. He'd lost his appetite and refused his food while his owner was away. He'd had liver failure before and his last blood test indicated that his kidneys were weakening. He'd lost a dramatic amount of weight, and he was old. I was nervous to carry him because instead of fat and fur, I'd feel his bones when I touched him. He felt brittle and fragile. He now weighed less than 2kg. His eyes began to sink, and it wasn't until his feet began collapsing under him too many times that we decided an emergency visit to the vet was necessary (the vets were too busy to make a house visit).

The vet explained that Tom was old and that his condition was due to the inevitable degeneration of his health and internal organs. Tom laid motionless on the examination table as the vet took his temperature and peered into his mouth. The vet said, "His gums are very pale. He's very dehydrated." She said we could leave him in the hospital on the drip but also said that that would be quite stressful for him given his condition. She gave him a few weeks. Later, a friend who was a vet nurse at that same hospital said he had a few days.

The vet gave him a few isotonic shots to ease his dehydration, and prescribed some concentrated vitamins and anti-oxidant cat food that we had to mix with water, fill into a syringe, and pump into Tom's mouth. The lady at the hospital desk said the vitamins were tasty and should be easily received, but going by Tom's reaction, they were anything but. He took better to the watered-down antioxidant cat food though, and the syringes were useful to drip water into his mouth with. He was now too weak to lean over his water bowl and lap up the water.

A few days before we brought him to the vet, Tom attempted to hike to the bathroom where his litter box was to take a pee. He didn't make it in time and peed just outside the bathroom on the rug. Since then, he would stay in the bathroom and pee where he laid instead of mess up the house or any of its rugs. He was too weak to squat over his litter box and definitely too weak to scratch at it after he was done with his business.

I lived with Tom during his last days, feeding him food and water and a dilution of that concentrated vitamin gel that the vet prescribed. He hated the latter. I would pump food or water into his mouth until he pushed me away with his paw, indicating that he had had enough. When we went away from him (he continued to rest in the bathroom floor) he would suddenly find the strength to hobble himself, sometimes stopping midway to rest, to get back to the bedroom to lie next to us as we worked on the computer or watched the TV. Too weak to lower himself onto the ground slowly, he'd drop himself onto the floor with a thud - the sound of his bones hitting the hard tiles. We'd then move close to him to comfort and stroke him. Sometimes he'd get up and move towards the water bowl (we'd placed one in the bedroom) only to stare at it and then lie down next to it. We'd take our cue and load the syringe up with water and pump a few CCs into his mouth which he'd receive without protest.

From the bathroom to the bedroom, he'd hobble and sway as he walked. Catching his breath before continuing the rest of the way. He'd come back to us for company, then back to the bathroom to rest in the event that he needed to pee. We wished we could tell him that he didn't have anything to pee. Despite how much he might have felt a need to. He'd only drunk a trace of water over the pass 3 days. The vet said his bladder was empty, and that his kidneys were probably failing because of the severe dehydration. His tear ducts became infected because his immune system was failing and his dehydration led to thick and heavy secretions from his tear ducts. We'd dampen a gauze and wipe the secretions away. We put a kitchen towel under the side the face that he was lying on because his drool would pool up from his hours of lying on the same side in the same position and smear that side of the face. We'd wipe him down. Talk to him. Tell him it was OK to go to sleep. Tell him to rest, to close his eyes. We didn't want him to fight anymore, we were prepared for his demise.

But I remember what the vet said, "He's still got fight." And we could see it, as he struggled from the bathroom to the bedroom day after day. His breath laboured, his gums still pale. This cat had spirit. He wants to fight this, and we weren't about to take the fight out of him.

On the morning of September 28, I got up at about 9.15am and went to the bathroom to freshen up. Tom was resting right at the spot he always was when he was in the bathroom. I sat on the toilet and looked at him. His jaw was relaxed. I looked at his abdomen. Still. "Goodbye Tom." I whispered. "It's been a good run." I looked into his eyes. His pupils were dilated. I touched him. Still warm. I went to my friend's mom and said, "Tom's passed away." She pursed her lips and furrowed her brows. "Oh no," she said, then walked into the bathroom to stroke him. "It's OK now," she said, "you've been suffering."

Tom passed away in an awkward position. He'd dropped his left hind leg into the drainage hole of the bathroom which is just about 4 inches in diameter. When I lifted his leg out, it was stained with urine. "He's so considerate," my friend's mom said, "he couldn't get to the litter box, so he peed into the hole." Just 30 minutes ago, my friends mom stroked him and fed him. Now he was in a place where he didn't have to suffer anymore, chasing an infinite roll of wool, looking down on his brother Jerry, who's still in relatively good health at 17 years of age. The two of them were close litter mates, brothers. Sleeping together. Licking each other. Playing with the same toys. But Tom was always more sociable. Jerry was his own cat.

Tom would crawl onto the bed at night and cuddle up right next to your face. He found comfort in digging his nose into the palm of your hand as he slept. He wasn't content at sleeping at your feet. He wouldn't wake you till you got up. He didn't bug you for food but just give you a look as he stood by his food bowl, leaving Jerry to meow demandingly, as if on his brother's behalf.

debby ngDebby Ng forayed into journalism following failed attempts at becoming a world-class equestrian. A wildlife crime investigator, underwater photographer, dive master and founder of a marine conservation organisation, she spends what remains of her time writing about the environment, its wildlife, and its people.

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