Thursday, September 4, 2008

Scruffy the Kitten

Hi Folks! Thanks for stopping by. I had a rough morning, today, and I want to tell you about it.

My boyfriend's barn cat (who will be spayed ASAP) had a litter of four kittens this past spring. They were cute little buggers, as kittens always are. They spent their days chasing bugs, pouncing on each other, and watching as mama taught them how to kill mice. It seemed like an idyllic kittenhood. Idyllic, I know now, for all but one.

John named her Scruffy because she always looked so unkempt. She never really got the hang of bathing, so her coat was always matted and oily. She never seemed to gain any weight, either. While her siblings thrived, Scruffy did not. There came a time when her siblings were easily twice her size. She ate, but the food never stuck to her ribs. Indeed, she was terribly emaciated, with her bones sticking out sharply under her skin; when you touched her, you could feel every vertebrae in her spine.

At some point, she developed a respiratory infection. She was so weak and sickly that she couldn't even be bothered to clean away the snot that hung from her nostril. She was a pitiful sight, hunched over on an old couch, looking fragile. I wiped the snot off her face several times the day I visited, but her nose never stopped running. Hearing the bubbly, uneven breathing, you wondered how she stayed alive.

It was heartbreakingly painful just to look at her. She rarely made eye contact with me. Mostly, she huddled uncomfortably on that ratty couch, looking like she was waiting for death. That was how she passed her days - just waiting. I never saw joy in her eyes, or interest in anything. It was an existence, and barely that.

John and I assumed that she would simply pass away at some point, but she never did. Whatever compelled her to keep going is beyond me, because she certainly had no quality of life. When I'd had enough of waiting for the inevitable, I took her to the vet. I was pretty sure that she'd need to be euthanized, a fact I tried to get across to John as gently as possible: they may be barn cats, but he still gets attached to them.

I didn't give the matter much thought as I drove to the clinic. I was too busy being indignant about how long it had taken John to acquiesce. I hadn't formed a bond with this particular kitty anyway. In the first place, she always looked so unhappy, I didn't want to touch her and make things worse. At the same time, she was too sick to be cute and cuddly. Indeed, out of all the photos I took as the kittens grew, I'm sad to say that I only have one picture of Scruffy.

The doctor told me that there is a veterinary term called "failure to thrive," and it described Scruffy to a tee. For some unknown reason, Scruffy's siblings came out of the womb completely healthy, while Scruffy herself did not. The vet said that the kitten's future consisted of nothing more than illness after illness, with diagnoses and cures an uncertainty. The doctor went on to say that she wasn't even confident that she could cure the current respiratory infection. Gently, she concluded that euthanasia was a kind and reasonable alternative. I nodded in agreement.

There was a form to sign, authorizing the doctor to put Scruffy down. I had planned to be present for the procedure, but when the vet tech exlained that it would be impossible to find the kitten's veins - requiring the doctor to inject the needle directly into Scruffy's heart - I passed. That was not a picture I wanted stuck in my head for the rest of my life. Instead, I asked the tech if she would please be present in my place, and hold the kitten for me. She kindly agreed.

Afterward, the doctor wrapped Scruffy's body neatly in the towel I'd been holding her in earlier. I placed the package gently in the critter carrier, and left the building. The tears began to flow as I pulled out into traffic, and they continued all the way home.

It took a bit of wondering to figure out why I was crying so hard for a kitten I barely knew. I finally realized that I was crying for all the opportunities I knew she'd miss: Feeling healthy. Lounging in the grass. Napping in the sunshine. Chasing birds, and mice, and chipmunks. And I cried, too, for my own selfish reasons: Because I'd never have the satisfaction of seeing Scruffy get well. Because I'd never get the opportunity to see her grow and thrive like her siblings. Because for her all-too-brief life, she knew only sickness and suffering, and no animal deserves that.

Hindsight is a given: I should've done something sooner. I should've known more (in spite of my complete lack of veterinary training). I SHOULD HAVE. I'll torture myself with that thought for a while, then file it away in that mental folder called "Learn From Your Mistakes, Will Ya?!" If there is a next time, I can assure you that relief will come to the animal in question much more quickly. For now, all I have to go on is the doctor's reassurance that I did the right thing. Unfortunately, that knowledge doesn't ease my sadness.

It was Cleveland Amory - author of "The Cat Who Came For Christmas" - who summed up his sorrow at the loss of his beloved cat so succinctly when he said, "It was not just that Polar Bear was not there. It was the awful, overpowering weight of knowing that he would never ever be there again." Indeed, euthanasia relieves the animal's misery, but rarely the human's.

That's all for now, folks, but I'd like to leave you with this one request: please, when your pet is suffering, please take him to the vet and allow the doctor to alleviate that suffering. As a responsible pet-owner, you owe your beloved animal this one last act of unselfish kindness.

Until next time, please be kind to all the critters!