Taking Back The Cat


Boston can be a cruel city, and not just because of the weather, although it is forty degrees, windy and raining right now.  It is an expensive place to live and eat, the drivers are daunting, and everyone always seems to be in a hurry.  A year ago I spend three anxious days here with my daughter, a newly minted MD, desperately trying to find a place that was reasonably close to the hospital she is training in, affordable, and cat friendly.  As they say, “two out of three ain’t bad.”  We found a boxy one bedroom in a high rise a short distance from the Longwood area, and for a mere two hundred dollars extra deposit, she was allowed to bring her cat.  But affordable, this place is not.


Medical school can be a difficult and alienating experience, and if you’ve lived your whole life with warm fuzzy creatures all around, as my daughter had, there is only a brief period of excitement about a new city and a new endeavor before you begin to miss the cat curled on your lap when you study, the dog whining for attention and giving you an excuse to give up your books and go for a walk.  Despite the uncertainty of her future, my daughter found herself at the Houston Humane Society, staring into the cage of a ten month old kitten too old to be particularly cute and too plain to attract the attention of the numerous seekers dotting the rows of cages filled with sadness and longing.  A few hours later, she brought the malnourished and worm ridden little gray-brown tabby home, and christened him “Bitty Kitty.”  Several vet visits later, the worms were gone, but the effects of early starvation were not, and he has remained, as an adult, a very tiny cat.


A year later, with every month just a little bit more money going out than coming in, my daughter realized that if she stays where she is, her life savings will be completely gone before she finishes her residency.  She looked long and hard, in every spare hour she had, for a less expensive place, still close to the hospital, where she could still keep her cat.  Again, she achieved two out of three goals.  She found the perfect place, much less expensive than where she is living now, within walking distance.   But the cat is verboten.  No cat, no way, not even a tiny one that doesn’t cause any trouble.  She called me weeping, for advice.  I said, “I’ll take the cat.”


History has a way of repeating itself.  Thirty-five years ago I was accepted into a residency program at the same teaching hospital she is training at now.   I had a dog, the very first dog I bought, raised and trained all by myself.  Shandy was a collie in the old tradition of Lassie, and he was beautiful, and intelligent and my constant companion.   When I heard on Match Day that I was going to Boston, my only thought was to find a place where I could keep my dog—a large dog at that.  I came and I looked and looked and trust me, there was NO apartment within 20 miles of the city that would let me keep a large dog, or any dog, locked behind closed doors all day, and sometimes all night, because interns keep terrible hours.  I came to my senses when I realized that I knew no one in the city, and that it would be unfair to my dog to keep him.  Heartbroken, I did my best to find him a good home, with a surgeon who later moved to Ohio.  He did not keep in touch.


It’s been awhile since we lost old Timmy Tom at nearly eighteen years of age.  Although I have missed having a cat, I have not missed cleaning up kitty litter.  Still, I felt myself weakening recently when I spied a large male orange tabby being offered by a local cat rescue group. He stared at me and purred. But something made me hesitate, and now I know why.  On Wednesday I will depart Boston for San Diego with Bitty Kitty in hand.  He may be small, but he is mighty.  Those deerhounds better watch out.  The cat is back.

A Brief News Update From the Animal House

If you’ve been reading this blog for a while, you know that I have quite a little menagerie here.  In my animal loving prime, when I had a lot more energy than I do now, we had 5 Scottish deerhounds, one Brussels Griffon, two cats, two guinea pigs and eight horses, at least one of which I kept a secret from my husband who I feared would think that perhaps things were getting a little bit out of hand.  One day at the barn, he spotted a horse that he just KNEW I would love, and he inquired of the trainer whether the horse was for sale.  She didn’t quite know how to tell him that I already owned that particular animal.

The zoo has been winding down a bit here, mainly because the kids are gone and I am less prone to temptation without their little voices clamoring for that kitten for sale in the parking lot at the grocery store.  The cat with nine lives, eighteen year old Timmy Tom, was put to sleep in August when we could not control his thyroid disease, weight loss and vomiting.  Many of the horses have moved on to greener pastures elsewhere, where new children could learn to ride from the safety of their well-trained backs, and some of the best have passed on to that great green pasture in the sky.  Stormin’ Norman, the little Lipizzaner who carried my daughter through many a dressage test, left in late June to be leased by a beginning dressage rider.  In August she called to say she wanted to extend the lease to six months.

So I was surprised yesterday to get a call from the trainer to say that they would like to send twenty four year old Norman home.  She said that no matter how much she fed him, she couldn’t keep weight on him, and besides, an old stifle problem was recurring.  Fearing the worst, I went over to the boarding/training facility last night to have a look at him.  Now, mind you, this is a horse who has lived in my back yard for the better part of twelve or thirteen years.  Always a personable animal, with a beautiful expressive face and eyes, he knew me as well as any horse can know a person.  So I was surprised last night when I approached him with a bag of carrots and I heard no welcoming whinny.  His head shot up, and if horses can glare, this one positively glared at me.  His expression, plain as day, said, “Where the heck have YOU been, and when are you getting me OUT OF HERE?!”  And then he munched on his carrots.  He looked a little thin, but otherwise fine.

Norman’s coming home to join twenty eight old Dash on Wednesday, and I must say I’m glad.  The two old souls deserve a nice retirement, despite the fact that they really don’t like each other. And Labor Day weekend I visited a friend in Albuquerque who had a litter of eight week old deerhound puppies– it was hard to leave without one but they were all spoken for.  One day soon, I might be hearing the pitter patter of new little feet around these parts. After all, what’s a new carpet for?

An Exercise in Futility

I am working at home today.  And no, that’s not the exercise in futility, although it could be.  I have paperwork to complete, treatment summaries to write– odds and ends that don’t involve patient care. I am working at home because today, the carpet layers are putting in my brand new wall to wall carpet.  A month ago, when the painters were putting in my brand new wall to wall paint, I found myself relieved of a camera, an iPad, a Nook reader, my grandmother’s diamond necklace and $200 cash hidden, obviously, in an underwear drawer.  “Fool me once, shame on you.  Fool me twice—you can’t get fooled again” as George Bush famously said.  My new plastic bathroom is being installed today too.

The exercise in futility, as my fellow pet lovers will readily attest to, is the new carpet.  When we moved into this house fifteen years ago, the carpet was already worn and stained by the treasured and precious (aren’t they all?) beasts of the former owners.  No amount of cleaning or convincing could persuade the current inhabitants that my living room was not to be used as a toilet.  Especially the little dog, Jack.  There is most definitely an inverse correlation between dog size and ego, with ego proportionate to the compulsion to mark territory.  I was in luck, however.  The prior owners had considered the possibility that accidents do happen, and their choice of color was the sadly dated, but tremendously camouflaging “Harvest Gold”.  Circa 1970.  Yes, you read that right.

When I went to choose new carpet, I had only two absolute criteria:  That the color have not a HINT of yellow or gold, and that it be treated with Stainmaster to the max.  Actually I chose a wonderful distressed walnut hardwood, just the right amount of roughing up to disguise the toenail marks of the deerhounds as they chase each other around the house.  But my pocketbook chose otherwise.  So today I watch, as the carpet guys install a beautiful pale taupe ultra Stainmaster synthetic, with a subtle criss cross pattern, ever so tasteful and elegant.  And as I watch, I wonder, who will be the first to despoil my unbesmirched and freshly non-fragrant footing.

I leave for Colorado on Friday morning to transport my father’s art work to San Diego.  My husband is in charge of the animals. If I come home to a urine stain on my new carpet, or the contents of the unfortunate cat’s stomach, I swear, there will be a bloodbath.  And I’m not sure who—the guardian or the ward—will go first.  I’ll let you know what happens.

The Ninth Life

They say that cats have nine lives.  If ever that saying was true, it applies to our Timmy Tom who started his ninth today.  Thomas will be eighteen years old in September, and a week ago I thought he was a goner. In truth, when I look back, his eighth life started about a year and a half ago, when he began to make peculiar noises, particularly at night.  My daughter was housesitting with her boyfriend while we were in Africa, and she emailed me to say, “What’s with Timmy Tom?  He walks around yowling all night.  I think he is possessed.  My boyfriend calls him Devil Cat.  Should we call an exorcist?”  Indeed, his cries at night were enough to wake the dead.  But he was eating and drinking well, and producing copious amounts of excrement as befitting a 20 pound yellow tabby, deposited in the proper place—his litter box.  After careful inspection and palpation of various body parts finding no particular tender areas, we gave it no more thought.

In August of last year we were visited by two friends who happen to be veterinarians, here in San Diego for the big veterinary society meetings.  They too were treated to the loud vocalizations emanating from our cat, at which point Margaret said, “He must be hyperthyroid.  It’s one of the symptoms of hyperthyroidism in elderly cats—they make a lot of noise.”  She examined him and listened to his heart and pronounced it normal, without the loud galloping rhythm associated with an overactive thyroid. He was sleek and fit (and maybe just a little bit fat!)  We got used to the noise—after all, in a house full of animals a few extra vocalizations at night were nothing to lose sleep over.  It wasn’t until this spring that the cat began to lose weight—just a little at first, nothing too alarming.  But the weight loss combined with an obsession with the dogs’ enormous water bowl (not to mention my toilet) led me to conclude that perhaps he was diabetic.  I took him to the vet, who drew blood and pronounced that he was not diabetic, however his thyroid level was sky high.  Never mind—there’s medication for that, as long as you can catch your cat to administer it.  Cats are smarter than dogs—there’s no such thing as concealing a pill in a chunk of cheddar cheese.  Thank goodness for methamizole cream, administered on a gloved finger inside the ear.

Ten days ago I thought the jig was up.  Each morning I was presented with a gift—I won’t bore you with the details but suffice it to say that my bathmat will never be the same.  The emergency vet last Saturday concluded that the intra-aural administration of medication was unreliable and that Tom’s thyroid needed better regulation.  He got fluids and we switched to the pills.  He did not get better.  On Wednesday, I took him to his regular vet, who examined him and found an abscessed tooth.  She drew blood work too, but it was too late in the day to send it off for analysis, and I had to wait until after the July 4 holiday to get the results.  The covering vet called me yesterday to say that his white count was 20,000.  Twenty thousand?  Yikes!  My own white count wasn’t that high when I was hospitalized with MRSA.  My husband and I swung into action.  We gave the cat antibiotics.  Which antibiotics?  The ones leftover from the little dog who passed in December.  We are nothing if not economical.  Antibiotics in this household are never wasted.

Timmy Tom woke up today a new cat.  He sauntered into the kitchen and demanded his chicken breast for breakfast.  He got that and more—some grilled ahi tuna left over from our holiday barbecue.  He drank deeply from the dogs’ giant water bowl and from the toilet.  And my bleached and laundered bath mat remained unbesmirched.  Cue a distant chorus of “Memory” from the musical CATS—“Daylight, I must wait for the sunrise, I must think of a new life. And I musn’t give in. When the dawn comes–Tonight will be a memory too.  And a new day will begin.”  For Timmy Tom, the ninth life has started.

All Creatures Great and Small


“He prayeth best who loveth best, all things great and small.

For the dear God who loveth us, He made and loveth all.”   Samuel Taylor Coleridge


A guest blog, tonight, from my friend Jackie Widen.


I find I really don’t like people who don’t love animals.  There, I said it.


I find it very odd and strange that the bonds we share with animals; whether they be furry or feathered, do not far out-weigh all the inconveniences (and yes, destruction) that our pets bring to our lives.


When I moved to Northern California in 2001 my fiancée was flabbergasted that I was spending $2,300 to ship my 12 year old mutt Lady, our 8 year old orange tabby cat Leo, and a calico-stray-who-adopted-us kitty we named Amigo until we found out that Amigo was really an Amiga, but Amigo still stuck.  The thrifty accountant such as he was proclaimed that we could have bought “all new” pets for that price.  I looked at him in amazement:  you have never truly loved a pet have you?  He admitted that despite owning many pets he had never loved one of them.  Well, I said, that is going to change.


The animals were picked up by a courier at my home in Houston in their brand new carriers, flown at night to San Francisco (this was summertime and it was deemed too hot to fly during the day) and then transported by a hired driver from the Cargo area at SFO to our home 60 miles North.  I admit, the last part involving a hired driver was a bit excessive – but for $100 it sounded cheap compared to the other costs of my move; and besides, the 4+ hour drive round trip to San Francisco was not appealing.


So the trio arrived safe and sound and settled in.  The dog and orange tabby immediately claimed the new couch.  Amigo claimed my soon-to-be husband.  He was a goner as soon as the routine was established every night when he arrived home from work.  Amigo would meet him in the kitchen, and lead him to his chair where he would sit down and she would curl up in his lap.  He was enchanted.  And he “thought” he didn’t like cats.  I explained that the only people who didn’t like cats were those who hadn’t fallen in love with one yet.


Once we had some dinner guests; the wife was preoccupied during the evening playing with our two kitties.  Oh I love cats, she declared.  Really? I said, do you have any?  Oh no, she said, I couldn’t own one.  Why not? I was puzzled.  Because, she explained, if I owned one and it died I would not be able to handle the grief, so I have never wanted to have one of my own.   That conversation has bothered me and comforted me over the years since because there were certain truths behind it – logical reasoning – but the variable in that conclusion is that the love you feel for that animal sustains you after they are gone.


These three pets eventually came to the end of their days.  To that Rainbow Bridge as some call it.   For Lady, she had a series of old age maladies — she was 17 - and she struggled to do ordinary things.   I felt hollow as I sat there in the vet’s office when they gave her that final “pink” shot.  But what a good life she’d had; what fun times we enjoyed and what milestones she marked while my 4 children grew up.  More hound than Lab which the Pound had described, she was nevertheless a part of our family until the end.


Amigo would love and love until the cancer she fought was just too much to bear.   My husband was the most torn apart by her decline as her need to curl up on his lap was more to keep warm as she had lost most of her weight fighting the disease and it must have felt nice to be snuggled every evening.  When I called him from the Vet to let him know the “pink” shot  had been our only alternative he wept on the phone.   As devastated as I felt there was a piece of joy within because he finally understood the bond of a beloved animal.


Leo had the best cat life, ever.  In 2008 he rode in our car back to Texas.   What an experience!  After living 8 years in Sonoma County, roaming in our vineyard and laying in the vines, he was back to where he started.  He did have a couple of good years.  But then he too reached the end of his rich life and became very sick.  I took him into our Vet who was a very nice young woman, fresh out of Vet School.  She babbled on and on about maybe doing exploratory ultra-sounds to examine the mass in his abdomen that had prompted his weight loss and lack of activity.  Maybe we could do this, or maybe we could have a consult with a Cancer specialist.  I looked at this woman with tears in my eyes and asked “This cat is 16 years old, he has cancer, and he is sick.  If this cat was your cat, what would YOU do?”  She paused and answered “I would put him down”.  I told her that honestly that is the answer most pet owners want to hear – the truth – because making that decision is so hard, and it would be nice to hear the Truth.  She agreed.


Later the next year when I brought in some foster kittens that we had found, I talked to her again.  She admitted that she remembered our conversation quite well and it helped her to counsel her pet-owners better.  False hope is useless – and expensive.


About a year after Leo passed away I was ready for a new animal.  It was time.  On a cold Sunday in December, my birthday actually, I dragged my husband to an Adoption Event.  I had decided I wanted a Lab.  What God picked for me, instead, was a black Belgian Shepherd who was christened Zoey.  She is the love of our lives.  It is a remarkable thing,  this loving animals.  The colors of life seem richer.


So for all of those folks who have avoided the expense, the inconvenience, the mess, the destruction, the fur on the baseboards and poop and puk on the carpets, for all of those awful things that come along with the joy of owning a beloved animal, I say too bad for you.  I’ll take the chaos anytime.  How lucky for us.

Get A Cat

I have to admit it—I never liked cats.  Actually, to be more accurate, they never liked me.  Where dogs would always drool and fawn, the cats I knew as a child were reserved and aloof, and heaven forbid you should touch them in the wrong place.  The reward could be bite marks and a row of painful scratches down the back of your hand.  When I was thirteen, I found an abandoned kitten.  She was tiny and jet black and I smuggled her into our house inside my coat, thinking that I had found the answer to the mystery of cats—one of my own, who could teach me how to be a proper cat owner.  She snuggled against me as we fell asleep that night.  Sometime later, I was awakened in the dark by a tiny monster gnawing at my earlobe. My screams of terror woke my parents, and likely the dead too, and by morning my little secret had been deposited at the local animal shelter.

When I was pregnant with my daughter, our old dog passed away, and we were amazingly without pets for three years. While I realized that with a toddler and a full time job, a large breed puppy would likely be the proverbial “straw” to break my back, I was still longing for a dog.  My best friend in Boston said, “Why don’t you get a kitten? They are SO much easier than dogs.”  I said, “I don’t like cats.”  She said, “That’s because you’ve never owned one.”  Couldn’t argue with that!  The next weekend we were at the Animal Rescue League, picking out a six month old plain gray tabby who approached us through the bars of his cage.  That boy must have known he needed to behave like a dog to win my heart, and so he did.  He came when he was called, enjoyed having his belly scratched, begged for food, and greeted me at the door every night.  His name was Max, and he taught me to love cats.  He also taught me that a cat that goes outdoors when you live next to a hundred acre nature preserve is a short lived cat.

Fast forward to 1995.  I met a woman who was a breeder of Bengal cats.  She had a litter of three kittens and she invited me over to see them.  The dam of the litter was stunning, a golden yellow with beautiful rosettes decorating her entire body.  She had three kittens, all yellow and striped.  I said, “Where are their spots?” She said, “Oh, they get them when they get older.”  Four hundred dollars later, I took home my Bengal kitten and christened him Timmy Tom.  When I took him to the vet for his shots, the receptionist took my information, the cat’s name and birthday, and wrote down “Domestic Shorthair” under breed.  I said, “Excuse me, he is a Bengal.”  Twenty minutes later, the vet pronounced my kitten healthy.  I said, “Do you know when the spots come out?”  He looked at me, smiled, and said, “How much did you pay for your yellow tabby?”  When I told him, I am sure that his guffaw could be heard at the front desk.  The receptionist giggled as I left.

Timmy Tom is a huge cat, now seventeen years old.  In his prime he was a hefty twenty one pounds, an apt illustration of hybrid vigor.  His coat has lost a bit of its shine, and he may have dropped a pound or two, but he has his eyesight, his hearing and all of his teeth.  He is the undisputed king of the household, and the giant hounds shrink back if he bares his teeth and hisses at them.  He screams at me if I am slow to slice the chicken breast he eats for breakfast every morning, and he likes his shrimp without cocktail sauce.  He never learned to cover his business in the litter box, and he does not care one iota if my bathroom smells because of it.  I exist to please him and not vice versa.  After all, he is a cat.  I am still waiting for his spots to come out.

A year ago my daughter the medical student cried and said she was lonely and missed her dogs.  I nodded sagely and gave her my best advice:  “Get a cat.  They’re easier than dogs.”  And so she did.