On April Fool’s Day, a Monday, I took my cat Gabriel to the vet. In 48 hours, he’d had two bouts of incontinence, each time leaving a wet urine spot in my bed when he’d gotten up. An internet search on feline incontinence had been reassuring, so I was hopeful that a round of antibiotics would bring him back to normal.
But the doctor who could see him that day, a striking, stylish older woman who liked to be called “Dr. T,” a partner of Dr. Putter, the vet who’d handled Gabriel since he was a kitten, felt a mass which X-rays showed to be on or in his bladder.
On Wednesday, a sonogram showed the mass was so large that it left almost no room in Gabriel’s bladder for urine and was almost certainly bladder cancer. It’s rare in cats, and as typically happens in cats and dogs, by the time it was found, it was too extensive to be operated on.
Even though bladder cancers are slow-growing, their usual course is to block or so severely restrict the flow of urine that the pet dies either of kidney failure or a ruptured bladder, both of which are painful and take days rather than minutes or hours to kill. Gabriel’s incontinence was a sign that there was hardly any room left in his bladder.
Dr. Putter called the Animal Medical Center to see about non-surgical procedure that could help keep Gabriel’s bladder from backing up into his kidneys, since his bloodwork was showing renal failure. There were two options, both of which would cost over $10,000 and not buy much time. Dr. Putter had the good grace to shake his head over these ideas.
I’d never had to put down a pet before, yet this was pretty sure to be how Gabriel’s movie would end. My cat Blake, who died in 2016 of pulmonary cancer, had wasted away to under eight pounds before he declined rapidly in his last week. He went quickly on a Sunday morning, with a few minutes of panting followed by two piercing cries, which I assume was a heart attack.
I recoiled from the idea of ending Gabriel’s life without him being able to consent.
Gabriel exemplified what one little book on Abyssinians said about the breed: “They just want to be loved.” That was his charm. He so badly wanted to be petted, and regularly sought attention and affection, that in asking you to pretty please be nice to him, he was conveying that you were a good person for being kind to him. It didn’t come off as manipulative, in contrast to cartoons showing cat strategies for waking up their humans to get breakfast. He just wanted to be appreciated. And there are so few things in life today where you can do something simple, have it work, and feel gratified about what you did. Gabriel took it for granted that humans were considerate and wanted to be generous, even for something so minor as the needs of a little cat who was clear about what would make him happy.
I’d found Gabriel on the internet, from a breeder on the Canadian border. He was the only kitten in his litter, raised underfoot, and originally called Pogo for his tendency to stand up on his hind legs. His human parents drove him seven hours to New York City. Contrary to the advice for kittens, to let them settle in in a quiet spot with something soft to sleep on, I immediately opened the box in which he’d arrived in my living room. He bounded out, crying in confusion but also curious. He explored rather than hid. He was a tiny kitten; Dr Putter asked if I had gotten a miniature Abyssinian. He grew to be normal size, with a thick Canuk coat of fur, but retained his habit of getting up on his hind legs when he wanted a good look.
Blake was seven years older than Gabriel. I’d reluctantly given Blake away when I went to Australia in 2002, concluding it would be too hard on him to go though Australian immigration procedures. I got Blake back unexpectedly mere months after Gabriel arrived due to Blake’s owner getting engaged to a woman who wasn’t keen about cats.
Despite Blake being older and having lived in the apartment before, Gabriel was the alpha by virtue of being on premises. In their first encounter, the diminutive kitten Gabriel launched himself at a vastly bigger, very strong adult. Yet Blake turning tail apparently because he was supposed to under cat etiquette (Blake was no coward; he’d chased off adult men and in his old age took to terrorizing cleaning women).
The cats developed a complex arrangement of mini-territories, with some incursion tolerated. The big feature was Gabriel owned my desk area, while Blake had first dibs on the bed. The boys sometimes looked like a happy family, sitting or napping close to each other. But they also had dustups.
Gabriel liked petted above all else, even eating. Unlike most cats, he wouldn’t make a ruckus about mealtime, at most making a very polite plea if I wandered into the kitchen hours past when he should have been fed. He’d ask for cat treats in a similar understated manner, by going to the spot in the kitchen where I usually gave them to him and sitting there expectantly. And he was similarly polite about asking to be stroked. He’d often stare hopefully and start to purr, and pat the human with his left paw, claws retracted. He’d eagerly seek opportunities for being petting. For instance, after I took a bad fall, I’d do some stretches on the floor upon rising. Gabriel quickly worked out that this would be a great time to get attention. Not only would he tap me with his paw, he’d even nip my nose when I was supine.
He was easy to handle and didn’t mind wearing a harness, although the effort to train him to walk on a leash failed (unlike for my very first cat Winston, who did a pretty decent job for a cat) due to getting him too old to acclimate him to street noise. I also tried carrying him to Central Park a few times. Even though he very much enjoyed the visits proper, he got sufficiently worked up while I carried him to and fro as cars whizzed by that I stopped.
Gabriel’s doglike nature made him popular. For instance, most Abyssinians quickly work out that the vet is going to poke them or worse and are very difficult to handle. Gabriel never put up a fuss at the vet, to the astonishment of the staff. Similarly, in April, two workmen were in the apartment and Gabriel decided to check them out. One asked to pick him up, and Gabriel didn’t object to having a stranger get so familiar.
He was a prince, planting himself on a pillow whenever possible. After Blake died, one of Gabriel’s preferred spots was my pillow…when I was sleeping on it, with Gabriel managing to take over most of it. He didn’t like drinking out of bowls. He’d either try to get me to turn on a tap, a trick he’d learned from Blake, or would try to drink out of water glasses.
Gabriel had a rich vocabulary of cries. While not as chatty as a Siamese, he was more vocal than a typical Abyssinian, often making little chirps or plaintive bleats. He had one meow that was a query, a “Where are you?” either to confirm that I was in or tell him where to find me. Another was a excited chirr he used only when engaged in the futile exercise of racing after moths flying around the ceiling.
I was still not happy that Gabriel had successfully reduced Blake to being a second class citizen, for instance, chasing Blake aggressively when Blake would dare to come to my desk, not seeing that Gabriel was lounging atop. Gabriel appeared to understand that Blake was my favorite; he seemed jealous of the attention Blake would get. If so, Gabriel had good grounds for being resentful because Gabriel was also an exceptional cat, sweet, even tempered, extremely agreeable. Needless to say, Gabriel didn’t miss Blake when he died.
But Gabriel finally got the life he was intended to have and one that was better suited to his temperament, that of being the sole cat. He got the run of the apartment, which meant he could ask me to pet him when I was sleeping and usually get some scratching. He got to be good at opening the door of two large armoires, mainly for the hell of it. He’d occasionally sleep in a sock drawer, as Blake had. And he continued his old tricks, like sticking his paw in the hand held shower water if I opened the shower door and held it close enough to a counter near the tub for him to swat it.
But he was also more obedient than Blake had been. I finally got scratching posts high enough for him to get a good stretch, and he never scratched anything else. He didn’t care for darting out in the corridor. And he understood a few commands, like “Not in here!” when barfing up hairballs. But he couldn’t be trained out of trying to drink out of water glasses on my desk unless I told him “No.”
After learning the bad news, I was giving liquid antibiotics to Gabriel to tame a bladder infection and taking him in, first every third day or so, to be hydrated and administered meds to help tamp down his nausea so he could eat. The first go was a great success: Gabriel ate at a nearly normal level for two days. After that, he would perk up and eat more than otherwise…but still way less than normal.
Dr. Putter warned that Gabriel was already in a grey zone as far as euthanizing him was concerned; he was likely to die badly if I let nature run its course, and thought Gabriel had only days to weeks.
Even though Gabriel seemed to be his usual self, except for the not eating enough and leaking urine when he got up after sitting or lying down (he was very good about sitting or lying on towels I’d put out in his preferred spots). He was also seeking out hot places in the apartment, like a spot in the bathroom next to the steam pipes, which I turned into a sick bed by putting towels there, and next to a space hearer, which I turned on regularly.
But it turned out Gabriel had a life or two in reserve.
Barely a week after I’d gotten the bad news, Gabriel had been subdued for two days, and I worried that he was in pain.
I had set for him to be euthanized on April 10, a Wednesday, at home. The visit to the vet’s office the day before had been a train wreck. His time was usually quiet, but that day, a woman and two toddlers were there, with the vets downstairs handling her emergency….a dog that had eaten 75 pieces of gum. Then two Schnauzers came in, barking loudly and one jumped Gabriel’s carrier even though it was on my lap. I got the receptionist to put us in one of the exam rooms. but Gabriel had already been stressed by then.
When we got home, he ate only a few Greenies, drank some water, got on my bed for a few minutes, but soon repaired to his bathroom spot. He refused more food, didn’t get up to drink wouldn’t drink out of a little glass, and wouldn’t purr when scratched.
But at 4:00 AM, he strolled out to my desk and asked to be petted, used his scratching post, ate a bit, and when I went to bed, demanded more attention. I was crying, thinking Gabriel was allowing me to say goodbye to him. He even ate a bit.
But about 45 minutes before the vet was due to arrive, Gabriel hid in the closet. He never hides in the closet. I called Dr. Putter and told him Gabriel didn’t want to go yet.
I was greatly relieved and amused that whether by accident or design, Gabriel had played me. He’d got hours of attention as I petted him, blubbering about what a good cat he was, how I loved him, how sorry I was that I couldn’t help him and how terribly I’d miss him, and then he got a stay of execution.
After that, most of the time I managed to put out of my mind that Gabriel was dying. I still took him to the vet two or three times a week for meds to get him to eat more. I began wondering if he might last long enough to be at risk of dying of starvation rather than of urinary complications.
But the Saturday evening before last, Gabriel started crying when trying to use his litter box with no success. I called the vet’s emergency service, and after a couple of hours of Gabriel seeming more and more desperate, I brought him in on a Sunday wee AM.
The staff at the Veterinary Emergency Group was superb (and not even expensive). They had me in the exam room with Gabriel as they did a sonogram with him flipped on his back. It turned out he’d lost even more weight than I’d thought, going from about 9 1/2 pounds to just over eight pound in a month. His bladder was normal size but they thought the cancer was blocking the urethra.
I authorized having the doctor insert a needle to drain the bladder (Gabriel lived up to his perfect patient reputation, only twitching his tail), knowing he’d be back where he was in 12 hours, and that I was only buying time to say goodbye and hopefully get him euthanized at home. The doctor gave me the names of vets that had “home visit only” practices and might do a euthanasia on a Sunday.
The Veterinary Emergency Group had also e-mailed Dr. Putter, who called around 10:00 AM. He said he could come by in the early afternoon to put Gabriel to sleep. I again lavished attention on Gabriel, including using a Thumper on him, something he’d figured out to ask me to do by sitting next to me and patting me with his paw.
But I noticed two fresh towels that I had put out just before Gabriel suffered his litter box crisis had fresh urine spots on them. What tipped the decision was that about a half hour before Dr. Putter was to arrive, I went to move Gabriel’s carrier.
Gabriel ran and hid under the daybed, something he rarely does.
I called Dr. Putter and told him Gabriel was urinating again and didn’t want to go yet.
Gabriel went back to his new normal, not eating enough and having bladder control problems but otherwise up to routine cat things, like using his scratching post regularly, playing with dental floss, hopping up on my lap when I was working to get a cat massage, and sunning on the window sill.
I thought he needed special minding while I was set to be away for a bit over 48 hours at the Milwaukee and Minneapolis meetups. Alex, a veterinary nurse from Dr. Putter’s practice who would do home visits and overnights was initially leery, since Gabriel could go into crisis while I was gone. But when she came by for me to show her where things were, she saw his behavior and said she wasn’t very worried, he seemed to be in good shape. And indeed, he was fine while I was away.
But Gabriel’s gums had been bothering him off and on for a while, and that became acute on Tuesday. I suspected he had an infection that the antibiotics for his bladder had tamped down. He would paw at his mouth, sometimes violently, when he tried drinking or eating.
Wednesday morning, Gabriel had another episode of distress about not using his box (which led to panic that I needed to put him down pronto), which abated after a half hour when he managed to leak on towels again. But he wasn’t the same cat. He remained in one of his two sick beds most of the day. He didn’t use his scratching post. And he even had a pained look on his face.
Dr. Putter said he could come by at 6:30 PM. I debated whether to wait until the following early afternoon, and decided that Gabriel didn’t seem like he’d enjoy the additional time.
About an hour before Dr. Putter arrived, Gabriel emerged and sat on my lap. I petted him, scratched him, praised him, and cried, but I could’t get him to purr. He stayed there until I had to move him when the doorman buzzed for Dr. Putter and Alex.
So Gabriel managed to give me what I needed most, his consent. He didn’t try to escape or flinch when Dr. Putter injected the sedative prior to the shot that ended his life.