The reality of Living With a pet with a chronic illness
“Cats are so easy to take care of. All you have to do is feed them and clean out their litter box once a day.”
I smiled, quietly walking past two women in the middle of a conversation in the feline section at the local pet store, and grabbed two bottles of Nature’s Miracle carpet cleaner and a 50 count pack of large pee pads before heading to the register. These items are a monthly purchase in our home, if we’re lucky. We have had one cat for the last 13 years. And it’s been anything but easy.
The first time we saw Gizmo, he was curled up on the outer kitchen windowsill of my parent’s home, staring in at my family as we sat around the table eating dinner one evening. It was raining outside, and his big, green eyes sadly beckoned us, silently begging to be acknowledged. He was no bigger than a cucumber, and made up of more fur than anything else. From that moment on, rain pouring down on that little furball, he was ours. He had made his way into our home that very night, and quickly burrowed his way into our hearts.
A few months later, my mom asked my husband and I to keep this feisty little kitten at our apartment for a few weeks while she moved. Weeks turned into months, and before we knew it, we were flying across the country with him to our new home in California. There was no way we could have ever known what the future had in store for Gizmo, but in retrospect, I know he was always meant to be ours. I believe the universe has a way of giving us what we need. And while we didn’t know it then, we needed him in our lives, and everything he brought to the table. And he certainly needed us.
Shortly after we moved to California, right around Gizmo’s 3rd birthday, he developed a life-threatening crystalized urethral blockage. We had no idea what that even meant at the time. We just noticed he had been straining to urinate in his liter box, and decided on a whim to take him to an emergency vet on a Sunday evening, thinking maybe he had a UTI. We were later told, if we hadn’t brought him in, he would have probably died within hours.
One major surgery, a week’s stay at the hospital and $7,000 split between two credit cards, we took Gizmo home with the assurance that most cats live normal, healthy lives after this particular surgery. Wouldn’t you know, Gizmo was not like most cats.
Because of the anatomy-restructuring during the surgery, he was more prone to get recurrent UTIs throughout his life. And just like clockwork, they began a few months post-surgery. For 4 years, he was getting UTIs every 1-4 months. We were working with an exceptional veterinarian who went above and beyond, creating a specialized diet for him, filled with supplements, vitamins and medications, but he still got UTIs. It had been overwhelming at times, and exhausting, and so incredibly frustrating. I was constantly on edge, always waiting for the tell-tell signs of another infection. All of our travel decisions were based on whether or not we could find reliable, round-the-clock care for him while we were away. His diet and medication and monthly vet visits became a huge expense. But we managed, together. He was ours. We had promised to forever care for this living being. And neither one of us took that promise lightly.
A few years ago, we moved back to Pennsylvania, and for some reason, unbeknownst to us, the UTIs began to come less frequently. But within the last year, he’s developed Inflammatory Bowel Disease. When he has a flare up, which happens anywhere from once a week to once a month, he can’t keep any food down for days. And when his bowels settle, he must be fed small amounts of food, round the clock for days. When this first started happening, it was incredibly scary, because cats can develop fatty liver disease if they don’t eat for even short periods of time. We had every in-depth test performed, blood panels drawn and tested and a complete bowel ultrasound by a specialist. The prognosis: he’s a healthy cat, with unfortunate luck.
The hardest part of all of this has always been and still is to this day, explaining why we do it to those who have never had a pet with a chronic illness as well as those who don’t place high value on their pets’ lives. And over the last few years, it’s been challenging with two small children in the house, as well.
Gizmo has been sick all of their lives. I often find myself wondering what life would be like for them if they had a “normal” healthy cat. His life-threatening condition years before they were born triggered my OCD and brought it to a level I still haven’t fully come back from to this day. It drew out fears in me from the depths of my being and changed me. I became a different version of myself.
His health has not only been an endless struggle for his body, but one for my soul. Our children have never known what it’s like to have a healthy pet. “Gizmo’s sick again” is a common phrase in our house that they have learned to mean they must leave him alone and not make loud noises during those days. They have learned to always look for vomit when they walk upstairs and that when he pees on the floor, a trip to the vet will be happening in the near future.
It makes me incredibly sad for them. It makes me resentful for getting a raw deal. And then I immediately feel guilty for feeling resentful.
But then I remember that life is full of lessons.
Our children have learned to be kind and compassionate through this trial. They have learned to be helpful and patient with their Mama. They have learned that health is not always a luxury and that sometimes maintaining it is a lot of hard work. They have learned to pray that God heals those we love. And they have seen the love and compassion and commitment that their Daddy and I have for this cat – this living, breathing being, that is, and always has been, an equally important part of our family.
I know things would be so much easier if we had just thrown in the towel years ago – if we had made the decision to give him up, one way or another. But we wouldn’t be who we are today, if we had. And I believe we’re setting the best example for our children. They have never known a healthy Gizmo. And they never will. But they love him, just as much, if not more, than they would if he was just one of those mythical self-maintaing cats those women spoke of in the pet store today.
I often wonder why life hasn’t been easy for Gizmo. But I know he’s impacted our lives in a powerful way. And I will be forever grateful for him and that he chose us to be his people.
Photo credit: Danielle Kowalski
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