Dear Most Esteemed and Knowledgeable Kitties:
I had the shock of my life today.
My cat, Zoe, was only 5 years old and she was the most beautiful cat I ever laid eyes on. She was a large cat, not fat at all, but large and quite heavy. Yesterday, I picked her up and noticed that she looked the same but felt lighter in weight. She was fine, ate with no problems at all. Slept a lot. This morning I saw her sitting in the laundry room where her littler box is. She did not act right, I picked her up and she was making a type of gagging noise. Not like choking noises, but just noises. Her pupils were dilated and her gums were white. I rushed her to my vet where he said her lungs were badly filled with fluid. She was going downhill quickly. He said she might have severe pneumonia, cancer or congestive heart failure. He did not feel that cancer treatment would help; if it did she would not last long at all. He also said if they hospital thought it was severe pneumonia, she would be in an oxygen tent, perhaps for days. Zoe was in a lot of trouble and her breathing was extremely labored. I noticed there were droplets on blood/phlegm on the exam table where her mouth had been. I decided it would be more humane to put her out of agony and she was was put down right away.
When she died, a lot blood and fluid expelled from her mouth. My vet said then he thought she had heart failure or heart congestion when he saw that. I am still in shock. Zoe was fine until this morning. I can’t figure out what could have happened. She was an indoor cat. She never had any problems and was never sick. I do recall once hearing her vomit last week, or the week before. It is killing me that I might have done the wrong thing by not trying some kind of treatment — but she was failing so quickly, right before my eyes. She was my baby and I love her so much.
I can’t believe that something like this happened so quickly. I had no time to prepare. Can a cat get so sick without any notice? She was fine! Could cancer do this? Zoe was here one day and gone so fast. And why???
Siouxsie: Barbara, we’re so sorry for your loss. Mama cried when she read your letter, because she knows the pain of suddenly losing a beloved cat friend.
Thomas: There’s no way you could have known what was about to happen to Zoe. You’d been taking her to the vet regularly, she was an indoor-only cat, and you clearly were very aware of and cared deeply about her health and happiness.
Dahlia: From your description of her white gums, it sounds like Zoe had lost a lot of blood. But because she was bleeding internally, you couldn’t have known that until she became really sick.
Siouxsie: Although it’s possible that Zoe had cancer, we think it’s pretty unlikely, considering that she was so young. Cancer is a disease that usually occurs in senior cats (age 7 and older). That’s not to say that young cats never get cancer, but it is very rare.
Thomas: If Zoe had had severe pneumonia, you would have known it. She would have been coughing and uncomfortable for several days. She probably would have had wheezy breathing, too. If your cat had a respiratory infection that bad, you would have known it days before. And because you’re a good and vigilant caretaker, you would have taken her to the vet long before it reached the fatal stage.
Dahlia: Zoe could have had congestive heart failure. But again, this condition is pretty rare in cats as young as Zoe was. The only cat with acute congestive heart failure we’ve ever known was our kitty grammie Shaughnessy, who was 17 when she was afflicted.
Siouxsie: Typically, congestive heart failure (CHF) occurs as a result of some other disease — a severe bacterial infection such as a dental abscess, that affects the heart, or chronic heart disease. Since you said Zoe was healthy and didn’t suffer from any other diseases, and because an abscessed tooth would cause symptoms such as lethargy, pain on chewing or avoidance of hard food, and fever, we think you would have noticed that too.
Thomas: Zoe’s death could have been caused by a ruptured aneurysm. An aneurysm is a weak spot in the wall of an artery or vein that can rip open and cause an animal (or human) to bleed to death very quickly. There’s no way you or your vet could have known that Zoe had such a condition. Aneurysms are pretty rare, but they’re not unheard of in animals.
Dahlia: There are a lot of reasons that Zoe could have gotten so sick so quickly, none of which are your or your vet’s fault. Sometimes awful things just happen for no reason we mortal beings can know.
Siouxsie: Please try not to beat yourself up with guilt over the circumstances of Zoe’s death. You made the right decision when you chose to end her suffering. If you had pursued more treatments, it sounds to us like she probably would have died anyway — and she would have had to endure a lot more pain and terror in the process.
Thomas: You mentioned that you’d heard Zoe vomit recently. Trust us, vomiting is generally not a sign of impending death or severe illness. Why, just last week I horked up the biggest hairball Mama had ever seen! I’m quite impressed with myself. (I didn’t care too much for the Laxatone she fed me afterwards, though.)
Dahlia: One of the greatest gifts you humans can give us is the gift of a humane death. We cats view it as the ultimate act of love and courage when you choose to let us go rather than allowing us to linger in suffering and pain. We have it on good authority that dogs and horses feel the same way.
Siouxsie: We wish we could answer the question of why your beloved Zoe was taken away from you so suddenly. But unfortunately, we don’t know any more than you do why the Creator chooses to give each animal a different lifespan.
Thomas: We do know that grief is a process, and the best thing you can do for yourself is to allow yourself to grieve. We hope you have people around you who will understand that Zoe’s death is a major loss for you and who will have compassion for just how heartbreaking it is to lose an animal companion so suddenly.
Dahlia: Humans seem to be getting better at understanding that pet loss is a valid reason to grieve. There are resources on the Internet that can help you get through your grief process. The Animal Love and Loss Network offers free online chat rooms and support groups. They also have extensive directories of resources, including counselors who will help people grieving the loss of a pet; animal tribute pages; and much more. Petloss.com provides a venue to write a memorial to your pet, and it has message boards where you can get support from other animal caretakers. Many other animal-related websites such as Catster and the about.com cats forum also have information and support for grieving pet caretakers.
Siouxsie: A number of veterinary schools in the US offer grief hotlines for bereaved pet caretakers. These include Tufts University in Massachusetts, Cornell University in New York, University of Pennsylvania (Philadelphia), University of Californa-Davis, University of Florida (Gainesville), Colorado State, Iowa State, and University of Illinois (Urbana). You should be able to find information about these resources at the universities’ websites, but if you can’t, Mama said she’ll give you the information she has if you want to e-mail us.
Thomas: Over time, you’ll find that the sharp pain of your grief and broken heart dulls and you’ll be able to remember the happy times you shared with Zoe. Rest assured that she’s looking down at you and purring as she recalls all the love, care and kindness you gave her over the five short years she shared with you.
Dahlia: You never forget about a cat you love, but eventually your memories will bring smile and a tear instead of a deep aching in your soul. Our condolences and purrs are with you, Barbara.