Friday, 10 February 2012

Missy the cat: big ups, big downs

There’s a saying that goes ‘you’re only as happy as your unhappiest child’, which, as a mother of two, I would largely agree with. (Sometimes, and especially through the teen years, this can be more a case of ‘you’re only as homicidal as your unhappiest child’, but that’s another story.)

If you’re a ‘parent’ to pets, the saying also applies, especially when an animal is unwell. I learnt this when Sara the Wobbly Dog went through months of illness, including epilepsy, constant tremors, loss of weight, difficulty walking – the whole shebang. There was always a portion of my brain that was occupied with Sara and her health – whether and how much she’d eaten that day, what medications she was on, if she’d got through the night without a fit, etc.

Another of our animals is a small tabby/wildcat mix called Artemis – named for the Greek goddess of the hunt, which actually suits her much better than the light and fluffy ‘Missy’, which is what everyone calls her.

Missy came from the Wellington SPCA when she was about 2 months old. From the start, she was a challenge: she refused to eat for several days and it wasn’t until I hand-fed her tiny blocks of mature Cheddar cheese (she turned her nose up at the cheaper varieties) that she finally deigned not to die of starvation. And this food fussiness persisted – while the other 3 cats are happy to eat out of the same bowl, Missy would literally rather starve to death than share. So, every morning, the other cats come in and eat out of one bowl, and Missy waits, staring balefully at me, until I give her a bowlful of fresh food, all for herself.

Even as a kitten, Missy wasn’t playful. A dragged piece of string, which would send the other cats into spirals of excitement, held absolutely no interest for her. And when the other cats tried to play with her, she would turn into a spitting ball of pure fury – they soon learnt to leave her alone (although Evan, a neutered tomcat of good looks but little brain, persists – but I think it’s more that he just likes to irritate her, in big-brother fashion, than actually play with her).

As she grew older, Missy made her dislike of physical contact crystal clear: when picked up and petted, she growled; she put up with being stroked, but with obvious irritation. Weirdly, though, she would also go through periods of apparently genuine affection – rubbing herself up against your ankles, lying happily in your arms, and generally behaving like a normal domestic cat. We knew not to get too comfortable around this, though – it wouldn’t take long before she was back to her sullen, sulky self.

In the small zoo of animals that lives with me, I’ve dealt with various illnesses – Sara’s scorpion sting and its fallout; birdlice in the chickens (which spread to the cats); a cat with an allergy to fleas (when the vet diagnosed this, I laughed; I thought he was joking); a dog that got such bad pancreatitis she almost died; a cat that required a real human dentist do an extraction of a rotten canine and also treat his gums for periodontal disease; the removal of infected dewclaws; repeated re-stitching in a cat that refused to leave its spay wound alone; and so on.

But Missy has always presented with the most puzzling and difficult-to-diagnose problems. A few years ago, she just stopped eating – not even her own personal bowl held any temptation for her, and she lost weight rapidly. She’s a very small cat, so it doesn’t take much hunger-striking for her to start looking skeletal. So off we trundled to the vet (who always greets me with much cheer, and no wonder – I’ve put at least two of his kids through varsity so far), and after a prolonged examination and much ‘hmm’-ing and ‘hah’-ing, he said, ‘Has anything changed in the makeup of your family recently? A death? A divorce?’

‘No,’ I said.

‘Anyone moved in? Moved away?’

‘Oh, yes, my son’s just left home,’ I said.

He nodded knowingly. ‘Well, this cat’s stressed. She’s obviously missing him.’

Really?! I thought. (Bear in mind, this is a cat who seems to simply hate everyone.)

The vet prescribed Rescue Remedy (I’m not making this up) – three drops three times a day, straight down the gullet.

Neither Missy nor I enjoyed medication times – as anyone who’s ever tried to feed a pill to a cat knows, it’s all claws and clamped jaw and then, when you’ve finally got the medicine in, an enraged shake of the head which usually sends the pill skittering across the room and under the fridge. But I was dispensing a liquid, which made things marginally easier, and even though I didn’t believe for one second that it was going to make any difference, I followed the vet’s directions.

And Missy got better. Bizarrely, she soon began to eat again, and within a week or so was visibly putting on weight.

Last year I went to Holland for 10 days. When I got back, I had to endure about a week of all the animals sleeping on my bed – it was as if they suspected I might sneak off again during the night and wanted to make very sure I didn’t. All, that is, except Missy – who not only had visibly lost weight in my absence, but had also developed a nasty scratching habit, to the extent that she started opening wounds all over her head and neck. Remembering that the absence of people in her ‘pack’ upset her, I tried to be as loving to her as I could, but it wasn’t easy, given that she was constantly weeping blood or nasty plasma-looking stuff from her entire upper body.

And so it was back to the vet again. My own dear vet was on holiday and I saw his partner, a very able animal doctor but one without benefit of the knowledge of Missy’s highly strung personality. She wasn’t sure what to make of Missy’s state – looking at a skin sample under a microscope, she ruled out mites and ringworm – and finally suggested, in the absence of anything else that might help, that I just bathe the wounds in an iodine solution twice a day and wait for them to heal.

Let me say this about bathing a cat’s wounds in iodine solution – at least, when you give a cat a pill, you can wrap the animal tightly in a towel and so escape the worse ravages of its claws; but you can’t bathe a cat that’s wrapped up, so twice a day, I had to enlist the help of someone brave and then apply iodine to a spitting, snarling, squirming wildcat. Often, once the session was over, I had several more wounds to bathe in iodine – mine and my helper’s.

Two weeks later, the wounds weren’t only not healing, there were more of them and some were clearly infected. And Missy had added her usual protest to the picture: she’d stopped eating. In desperation, I offered her plenty of treats, including completely outrageous things like poached chicken breast and fresh salmon, and she turned her nose up at all of them.

At this stage, I must be honest: I actually thought of having her put down. It really upset me that this cat was so obviously unhappy, and that my best efforts were having absolutely no effect. But I thought I’d try the vet one more time, and off we went again. (Incidentally, each trip to the vet is 20km in the car each way – accompanied by a cat in a cat basket, yowling as if it’s being skewered with red-hot pokers. It’s quite traumatising.)

The same vet saw Missy again, and this time, after another thorough examination (including the microscope, etc), she asked some probing questions. ‘Is she the oldest cat?’ No, but she’s the only wildcat-mix. ‘Does she play with the other cats?’ Absolutely not. And, most interesting: ‘Does she refuse to eat out of the same bowl as the other cats?’ Yes!

‘Ah,’ she said, ‘every family has one.’ Then she diagnosed depression, gave Missy a huge injection of cortisone and antibiotics, and told me to keep an eye on her over the next few weeks. ‘Bring her back if her wounds aren’t healing,’ she said.

I didn’t have to: the wounds did heal. Not only that, but Missy seemed suddenly to bounce back in the most enthusiastic way. She ate hungrily, often sharing the other cats’ bowl. She began curling up on our laps again, even allowing us to rub her tummy. She wrapped herself around our ankles. She miaowed happily when she came into a room, and allowed herself to be carried around like a little queen. It was as if she was having a belated reaction to all the special treatment I’d tried to give her while she’d been ill.

Today I had reason to visit the vet yet again (de-worming tablets for the entire zoo, this time), and she asked how Missy was doing. ‘It’s completely bizarre,’ I said. ‘She’s a different cat. She’s friendly, loving, affectionate. She’s eating well. She’s not fighting with the other cats…’

‘Well, that’s what happens with this kind of depression,’ the vet said. ‘Big ups, big downs.’

‘You mean she’s … bipolar?’ I asked, fully expecting her to laugh her arse off.

The vet nodded, casually. ‘It happens in some animals. And you’re going to have to keep an eye on her, because the crash will come.’

And I thought a cat being allergic to fleas was ridiculous.

Windows of the soul: Missy, like many tabbies, has the most compelling green eyes. When she’s happy, they sparkle – that’s my sketch of her eyes, above (drawn during one of her 'ups'). When she’s unhappy, they don’t – that’s my friend Oliver’s sketch of her eyes, below. (Over Christmas, while Missy was still on her ‘down’, Oliver was visiting, and he said to me, ‘I don’t know what I’ve done wrong, but one of your cats is just sitting there, glaring at me as if she really, really hates me.’ It was Missy, of course, and Oliver was so freaked out by her that he felt moved to draw her hostile expression.)





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1 comment:

Ruan said...

Cool post Tracey. I'm still pulling Missy's hair of my laptop bag. Glad to hear she's recovering.