Several weeks ago I read a wonderful book: Dewey, The Small-Town Library Cat Who Touched the World. Toward the end of the book when Dewey, now an elderly cat, has a medical crisis, his life-long guardian has to make some agonizing life-and-death decisions. As the owner of an elderly cat, this situation hit particularly close to home. I read the last chapters of the book with lots of tears streaming down my cheeks. Little did I know that I was about to be faced with my own kitty health crisis.
We were adopted by our cat more than 18 years ago. She appeared on our deck out of nowhere and dropped a dead bird at my husband's feet. When it became clear that she wasn't just passing through, that she had no home, she became a part of our family. I'd like to think that she searched far and wide for the perfect adoptive family before she chose us as being worthy of her trust and care. But I know that, in reality, stray animals are desperate and I am just thrilled that we were able to be there when she needed someone. We named her Hermione Roane Harris so coincidentally her monogram is HRH, as in Her Royal Highness, and it's a very fitting title.
While she is totally intolerant of any other animals, she has always been very sociable around people, running to the door when she hears the doorbell to see who has come to visit. She thinks of visitors as "guest laps" and that is always where she ends up, the perfect welcoming hostess. The only time she gets upset with any person is when she goes to the vet. She starts growling and hissing as soon as the doctor walks into the examination room.
Hermione has experienced a fair number of health problems including urinary tract infections and an overactive thyroid that have required hospitalization and treatment. Given how much she hates being around other pets and her dislike for doctors, we know that these treatments were traumatic for her. But considering the clear diagnosis and likelihood of complete recovery we found it easy to decide that she should have them.
Like all elderly pets, Hermione is showing signs of aging. She naps more and grooms less. Her back legs have gotten so stiff that she can no longer jump very high. We realize that every day we have her is a special gift and that her remaining days are numbered. Still, nothing prepares you for the day you have to say goodbye.
On a recent Saturday afternoon Hermione was throwing up, and exhibiting other signs of distress that I knew required professional attention. We were vacationing in another state and considered ourselves fortunate to find a medical facility open and able to see her. After a preliminary examination, the veterinarian recommended that we admit her to the hospital for treatment and further testing -- blood tests and an x-ray of the abdomen. Early the next morning we had a telephone consultation and the prognosis did not sound good at all.
The blood work indicated multiple problems. The first abdominal x-ray was not clear and had to be repeated, the second one showed no obvious obstruction to explain her distress. They then did a chest x-ray which showed an enlarged heart. The doctor suggested a succession of more tests if we wanted to try to determine the source of Hermione's problem: a consultation with a cardiologist, an internal scoping and a body scan. And so we found ourselves facing that most difficult of decisions -- where do we draw the line? Given her medical status, her age, and her temperament we decided that we would not do surgery or anything invasive on our cat, so what could we gain by putting her through more tests? We made the agonizing decision to decline further testing.
We returned to the hospital to determine how Hermione was feeling. Based on the report we had gotten we didn't know if we were going to say goodbye or to take her home. Our cat was placed in my arms and we were thrilled, and surprised, to see that she looked much improved. After further discussion with the veterinarian we decided to try a new diet, maybe that would help. We bought a case of prescription canned food and, two weeks later, Hermione is doing okay.
In any discussion of medical treatment you can't ignore the cost issue. Dealing with a pet's health crisis is difficult enough, your first priority is deciding what course of action is in the best interest of your pet and that can be hard to determine. But, given the high cost of medical care, and the hard economic times, the expense may also be a factor in the decision making. What if you have to choose between your pet's health and your mortgage payment, between your pet's health and your child's needs?
We know that Hermione is not "cured" of her ongoing medical problems. We are taking it one day at a time and hoping for many more days. We hope we are making the right decisions for her, that we are proving ourselves worthy of the trust that Hermione showed when she placed herself in our care.
If you have an elderly pet you have probably already given some thought to this issue. If you have a young, healthy pet you may feel you have years to go and hopefully that is the case. But accidents and health problems can arise at any age. I think all pet owners could benefit by preparation and forethought. So the question that I am posing is a difficult one, a very personal one -- Medical Intervention for Your Pet: Where Do You Draw the Line?
Mary Jane Harris is the author of the blog: Petopia, All About Pets. She resides in New York and, along with her husband, serves as 24/7 chief-of-staff for their cat, Hermione.