Monday, July 15, 2013

Tiggy's Death and New Beginnings

I write today with deep sadness.

During a recent road trip from Knoxville to Dallas, the unthinkable happened — I lost one of my kitties. Overwhelmed with disbelief and despair, at 9:53 a.m. CDT on Sunday, July 7th, I watched Tiggy take his last breath in the very place where he started his life twelve years ago.

To understand the depth of my grief requires an understanding of what my cats mean to me. As a single woman without children, a spouse, a roommate, or any stability in my life, my cats are my family, my stability, my life. They're my greatest joy—nothing else even comes close. My decision to RV across country literally revolved around them—for example, which model RV would make them most comfortable? 

We sleep together nightly. In the same bed. We cuddle. We communicate. We support each other. We provide love.

I once callously told a then-boyfriend that I loved my cats more than him. To me, it was obvious, but to him it was offensive. Needless to say, that relationship was over shortly after that.

So.... for as diligent and borderline-hypochondriatic of a cat mama as I am, I still have no idea how my big boy's heart failure got past me. Or how he declined so quickly. Or how any of this happened. I just...... don't know.

Looking back, there were recent signs that something wasn't right with Tiggy—but his heart?

In 2011, he started having "asthma attacks" whereby he would cough repeatedly, as though he were hacking up a hairball—without the hair. However, due to the infrequency of these coughing fits—and his history of developing diabetes when given steroids—I decided against asthma medication. Instead, I removed the carpet from my bedrooms and started him on a homeopathic asthma remedy. His asthma stopped.

Flash forward almost two years. Around when I first arrived in Knoxville two months ago, he started projectile vomiting around the RV with more frequency than what would be considered normal—or tolerable by me, since I had to mop and do laundry every time it happened! 

So I took him to see a veterinarian who did a blood and urine panel and determined he had a UTI and kidney infection. He received a shot of antibiotics and was sent on his way. The vomiting indeed stopped after he got those antibiotics.

I thought he was in the clear, so off we went—the whole gang and I—to Dallas. Tiggy seemed to really enjoy the road tripping. While the other two seemed agitated by the incessant driving, Tiggy hardly left my side up front. He either sat on my lap kneading me while I drove, or on the passenger seat, or on the ground between the front seats. 

Every time we arrived at a new location, he begged to be let outside to explore. He truly was fearless. In the right circumstances, I'd let him step outside the RV with me. He never went far, choosing instead to sniff the immediate area around the RV and bask in the sunlight.

Two nights before he died, while staying at the Sandy Lake RV park in northwest Dallas, he developed a sudden onset of labored breathing. Luckily, the RV park was a five-minute drive from a 24-hour Animal Emergency Hospital. 

The veterinarian (whom I will call Vet No. 1) kept him in an oxygen chamber overnight, gave him a bronchodilator, a diuretic, and a nebulizer. She also took an X-ray, which wasn't clear enough to determine whether he had a lung condition or a heart condition, but she warned me against giving him steroids in case he suffered from heart disease. She said steroids can worsen the heart's condition.

That was the first time any vet he had ever seen mentioned any concern over his heart.

We ended up right back at the ER the following evening when his labored breathing returned. (To be honest, it had never gone back to normal). 

Me and Tiggy on our second trip to the ER

Tiggy wasn't feeling well, I wasn't feeling well, and the vet techs and now Vet No. 2 (not the one I had seen previously) belittled me when I expressed concern over their advice to give him steroids. When I mentioned that the previous night's vet had cautioned against administering prednisone, she insisted it wouldn't damage his heart. The vet techs echoed her sentiment.

I was desperate. We gave Tiggy a prednisone shot. His breathing rate immediately increased. When I expressed to the vet tech that he was breathing more rapidly and suggested that had an adverse reaction to the prednisone, the man dismissed my claim as Tiggy being "nervous" after being "handled". Umm, no. I know my cat. I know my cat better than that vet tech knew (excuse me for saying this) SHIT about ANYTHING.

Not only had Tiggy's breathing become more labored, but his gums turned white. I noticed this because I'd kept an eye on his gums throughout the day—and they had been pink until this point. With his now-white gums and rapid breathing, I insisted he'd had a bad reaction to the prednisone, and went to tell Vet No. 2, but she had very little interest in my cat at this point. In fact, she had very little interest in anything, it seemed.

I took him home. It was 4:30 a.m. I lay with him and the others in a cuddle pile in bed in my RV and just cried. I was losing hope, and he was progressively worsening before my eyes. My heart felt as though it were literally breaking into a million pieces. I prayed for an end to this torture.

In between falling in and out of sleep, I noticed Tiggy trying to sleep but struggling to get comfortable enough to sleep. Finally I gave him another oral bronchodilator. He didn't even fight me to get the pill down. Minutes later, he started gasping for air and opening his mouth wide. Then came the distressed, deep-throated howling.

Seeing his condition so far worsened, it took me a split second to decide we'd be making our third and final trip to the ER vet to have him euthanized.

       How I was able to physically drive us to the ER I do not know.

       How I was able to put one of the loves of my life to sleep I do not know.

       How I gathered the strength to get through the day I do not know.

I had a supernatural force guiding me, driving that car, making that decision for me. I never questioned what I had to do. I never would've thought in a million years I would be putting my twelve-year-old cat to sleep, but we had tried everything else we could do. Nothing more could be done.

The vet who administered the euthanasia drugs was Vet No. 1. I was grateful that the knowledgeable and caring veterinarian would be by our side. She informed me of the moment his heart stopped beating. I cried and cried. I kissed his deceased face repeatedly. The vet also informed me that the fluid that leaked out of the cavity surrounding his heart and lungs upon his death was confirmation that he indeed had had congestive heart failure. We needed no further proof.

I let them keep his remains, since I had no place to bury him. (I also didn't think I could take the additional grief of handling his remains). And then I drove home in complete shock.

Tiggy was the alpha of my three cats. The only extrovert in a group of introverts, he loved attention from anyone who'd give it to him. This earned him the ranking of "favorite of Leila's cats" among my friends.

One thing Tiggy would do was rub his head against everyone's toes. He could rub against toes for five minutes straight. We all determined that Tiggy had a "foot fetish".

When I notified my friends via text message and Facebook that he had passed away, a number of people who'd had the privilege of knowing Tiggy stepped forward to express their grief. Several of them expressed that he was their favorite. Even my non-cat-liking friends, ones who I didn't even realize had bonded with him, grieved that "their Tiggy" was gone.

I don't feel like I just lost a cat. I feel like I lost a piece of myself.

After mourning with loved ones for a couple days, I left Dallas. The drive back to Knoxville was a long and difficult one, but I'm back—and looking forward to moving into my house this week. And starting a new chapter.

One last thing. I don't know much about what happens to animals after they leave their bodies, but about six days after Tiggy's death, while sitting by the swimming pool at the RV park, a brown butterfly practically flew into my face a few times. It then settled at my feet—both on my feet (toes, ankle) and on my sandal—for almost an hour.

Now, I've never seen a brown butterfly that looks quite like this. Its pattern is almost a brown swirl. Nor has a butterfly ever sat by my side for 55 minutes. Even when I held my cell phone up close to it to take a photo, it didn't flinch.

I'm not saying with certainty that anything is anything. But, it sure was interesting how much it loved my feet.

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