Putting a Neighborhood Cat to Sleep, Part 1

Last Friday morning I took a neighborhood cat to the vet and had it put to sleep. I still don’t know if she has a name, but I put “Smoky” on the form at the vet because it seemed like a sin to put a neighborhood cat to sleep and not even have a name for her.

The image below is NOT the cat in question, but looks about how this cat would have if she had been the healthy housecat she was supposed to be.

dilute pastel calico female cat

What this cat would have looked like in healthier times

THURSDAY

Smoky showed up in the duplex driveway. The neighbors put her in the back yard with a cardboard box and soft towel and water and wet food. One Duplex Neighbor texted me to let me know:

“Heya neighbor. This afternoon a cat struggled its way up our driveway, and just sort of collapsed in front of us and some friends while we were chatting. We’re not sure what to do with it, but for the time being it’s sleeping in the backyard with some food and water.

Doesn’t look like it was super hurt, but does look mangy, super malnourished, and very much an alley cat. We both have to head out for a few hours, but in case you get home before us, wanted you to know what’s up. We’re a bit at a loss for how best to help. Any thoughts?”

I failed to check my messages before I came back from a lunchtime Costco run and put Jake in the back while I unloaded, clearly without giving the yard a look. I heard him barking and barking, and I found him frustration-barking at the can of tasty wet food in the scary cardboard box.

Slowly it dawned on me We Were Not Alone. I turned and saw a fluffy gray cat curled up under a lawn chair about six feet away. It was fast asleep and gave not one single crap a barking dog, a strange person, any of it.

I decided to let it sleep.

I went back to work, finally checked my messages and responded:

Me: “Is it friendly? Do you think it would tolerate a trip to the vet?”

Duplex Neighbor: “That’s the one. I picked it up and had no problem moving it around. I would think so. Seems like a poor bag of bones.”

Me: “If he’s still there in the morning I’d say a trip to the vet is in order. I have a carrier. I’m happy to take it if y’all are tied up tomorrow.”

Duplex Neighbor: “Yeah, that sounds about right. I think if it’s still around, that would be good. Worried about how much a vet is gonna cost, but not sure what else to do.”

Time to show the hard-nosed country logic that is the privilege of not having an attachment.

Me: “At the risk of sounding hardhearted, I feel like, if the cat can be set right for $200, then that’s worth doing. If not, it’s a kindness to end his suffering.
I’ll call my vet and set an appointment for tomorrow morning. I can take him, if that all sounds good to you.”

The duplex neighbor agreed.

That night I came home, put on a couple of pairs of nitrile gloves (my experience with Romero Cat has made me very cautious) and went to investigate the cat.

blue nitrile gloves

Safety first

She had fluffy fur in a calico pattern, but pastel gray overall. Her fur was sparse and so dirty that petting her left soot on the gloves. She was so thin her spine and pelvis stuck out like handles. She had dribble on her chin, a swollen forehead and a line of mucus in one eye. She moved in an uncoordinated way, never more than a few inches at a time, but she leaned into my petting and purred.

This was a sick, sick cat.

I called my vet and made the first appointment they had available — 7:15 AM the next day — and kicked myself for not getting home earlier to have a chance to take the cat in tonight. It meant she had another night of distress ahead of her. I asked if there were any precautions I should take about contagion, and the front desk said, “Just wash your hands really well.”

I went inside and found Jake the Dog and Gus the Cat, all sleek and shiny and clean and well-fed and coordinated and bright-eyed like animals are supposed to be. I washed my hands and petted them both a lot.

Something (God, IMHO) told me to call Amy, Gus’s foster mom and, along with her husband Jason, a dedicated cat rescuer. Amy took time out from a family vacation two time zones away to pick up the phone and blow my mind (paraphrased below):

Amy: “Is it a fluffy cat?”

Me: (Pause) “Yes…”

Amy: “Calico?”

Me: (Pause) “Yes. But, like, a calico pattern but more pastel-colored overall?”

Amy: “Yes. That’s called a dilute calico. I’ve seen that cat. You know the fountain in front of the house a few doors down from yours? Jason and I saw that cat drinking out of it, just drinking and drinking and drinking, and I said, ‘That cat has kidney failure.'”

Now would be a good time to mention that Amy lives many many miles away and is only in my neighborhood when she visits. Also I have lived in my neighborhood a YEAR and never seen this cat.

Me: “Whuuauuaaaaa?”

Amy: “We pay attention to cats.”

So Amy told me a story about the time she gave a cat with kidney failure daily subcutaneous injections and by so doing bought it another six months of life, her point being that this level of sick is not something that a cat is likely to bounce back from.

She also recommended I wash my hands.

So I grabbed a couple of business cards and went knocking toward the Fountain Neighbors, in case it was someone else’s cat altogether. It would be rude to put someone else’s cat to sleep without telling them.

At the first house I annoyed a new mother. It is OK. People don’t mind random door-knocking too much as long as you go away quickly and seem properly ashamed of yourself.

“Are you missing a cat?”
“No.”
“Ah, sorry to bother you.”

I think there was a second house but I sincerely don’t remember the outcome there. Maybe they didn’t answer. Maybe the exchange was too awkward for my memory to tolerate.

In any event, the third house was Fountain Neighbors, and I gave them a knock. A very nice older lady came to the door.

Me: “Are you missing a cat?”

Fountain Neighbor: “Oh.”

And then she stepped onto the porch to talk.

Turns out she had been feeding that cat for ten years. Someone had just turned the cat out in a nearby neighborhood ten-plus years ago.

The cat was female, and not unfriendly, but at the same time “not a sociable cat.” She might follow you a few feet now and then, but that was all.

Fountain Neighbor said she was very willing to take the cat to her vet (there were two fluffy dogs in the house), and that she felt bad that I would have to take her, and we had a sort of gentle debate about who should take the cat. I felt that the cat had come to my duplex to die, and that it was my responsibility to God to help the cat see that through, but what I said was, “It’s no trouble.”

At last Fountain Neighbor’s husband came to the door and said, “If someone else wants that problem, let ’em!” And Fountain Neighbor shushed him.

In any event, I let her know I’d made a vet appointment for the next morning, and I would update her about the outcome.

I went home, put on a fresh pair of blue nitrile gloves, and went back out to pet the cat a while.

She was so thin and so struggling. But she purred.

And I had the hottest, snottiest cry I’d had in years. Someone thoughtless person turned this cat out, and she’d had a hard life, and now Nature was taking ages and ages to let her die.

It was a bunch of bullshit.

So I petted her a good long while. I put her in the cardboard box with the towel, even though it was a little damp. I told her, “Hang in there,” but then I caught myself and said, “Or don’t. Whichever you want.”

You know, you want to believe, in a zombie apocalypse, that you’d take in every survivor you found. You want to believe you’d let them in your house and feed them at your table and let them sleep under your roof. In theory I could have set the cat in the second bedroom. Maybe she would have been a little warmer. A little more dry.

But I didn’t know what kind of sickness she had, really, and it seemed irresponsible to Jake and Gus to let her in.

So in the end I went back inside to my sleek bright-eyed pets and my diet ginger ale and my Internet, and now I have the knowledge that in a zombie apocalypse I would leave suffering humans in my backyard with a towel and a can of wet food.

Naomie Harris and Megan Burns in 28 Days Later

*sucks teeth* Sorry, guys. You’re going to have to sleep in the yard.

Part 2 posts tomorrow.

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