Terminal Illness, and Loving Your Pet Through It

This is Shadow.

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Shadow is a sweet, talkative, lovable little cat. She is a little hung together — her head is too big and her tail is too short, but that only serves to make her more adorable. I haven’t had her long, but she’s a little heart-stealer.

Shadow has feline leukemia. It is a terminal illness.

My family has always had cats. I don’t know if I can remember a time when there wasn’t at least one cat in the house, and there has usually been more than one. I’ve hand-raised kittens who are only a few days old, I’ve driven along to weekly chemotherapy appointments for one of those same kittens who developed lymphoma at a very early age, and I’ve cried over cats who have died from cancer, heart defects, old age, among others. In between all that, I’ve loved each of those cats and their unique little souls with incredible fullness.

So when I moved out of my parents’ house, I wanted a cat. I already have two dogs who I love to pieces, but at my core, I think I’m still a cat person. I had already tried taking two kittens from a litter my mom found on the farm, but they weren’t a good match for my dogs, so I sent them back to my mom’s house and went cat-less for a while. (As an aside, I don’t support ever acquiring an animal that you don’t intend to keep for the duration of its life…this was a unique situation since my mom had room for them and I certainly know for a fact that my mom takes exceptional care of her animals).

But then my mom found Shadow, and was keeping her in their garage since there wasn’t room for another cat in the house. I wanted an adult cat who was comfortable being alone and who was laid back and loving. It was a perfect fit.

Fast forward two months to yesterday, and I’ve taken Shadow in to be spayed. The vet’s office told me I could call and check on her at 4:30, but at 3:30, they were calling me. I grabbed the phone in a blind panic, because they almost never call unless something is wrong.

Shadow was stable, they assured me. But her feline leukemia test came back positive.

“I don’t know how much you know about feline leukemia,” the vet told me. “Many people decide to euthanize when their pet is diagnosed. I want to discuss your options with you.”

Feline leukemia is never good news. I’ve had cats long enough to know that. It’s a retroviral infection that will steadily weaken the cat’s immune system. The most likely outcomes are severe anemia, lymphoma, or chronic secondary infections. These circumstances compound on one another as the cat weakens, and one of these outcomes will eventually end the cat’s life. The average life expectancy is two years past diagnosis.

Feline leukemia sucks.

Here’s the thing, you guys. Everybody who has ever gotten a pet wants something from that animal. Usually, it’s companionship, but the pet might be purchased for breeding or other purposes. We spend so much time thinking about what we want in our new animal — what size, what breed, what color, what personality traits, etc. We always know exactly what we want.

But most of us don’t think about what that animal wants from us.

It’s true that I wanted a cat to keep me company, because I enjoy their companionship. They amuse me. It’s also true that I didn’t sign up to get attached to a dear, sweet little soul just to have to say goodbye to her in such a short time. That wasn’t what I wanted. Nobody wants that.

But what people can’t seem to grasp is that when you take responsibility for an animal and you bring it into your home, it isn’t about you and what you want anymore.

Shadow has absolutely no symptoms right now. This is how feline leukemia starts. She will be asymptomatic for a time (weeks, months, or, God willing, maybe even years), and I’ll love her through that and enjoy every happy moment I have with her.

And then Shadow will start getting sick. It might be mild at first, just a respiratory infection that will clear with antibiotics. But then it will get worse. And I’ll love her through that too.

And then, finally, the time will come to say goodbye. It will probably be because of the leukemia.  I pray that it is years down the road, and that Shadow is as healthy for as long as she possibly can be. But in time, Shadow will pass on, and I will have to do what I can to make that passing as humane as possible.

And I’ll love her through that, even though it’s going to suck.

I told the vet immediately that we didn’t need to discuss euthanasia, and that it wasn’t even on the table. I told her I was going to bring Shadow home and commit myself to keeping her as comfortable as possible for as long as possible. Because I’m quite sure that Shadow wants to live, for whatever amount of time she has left. And in exchange for her companionship, that’s what I’ll give her.

So many people are so quick to throw away their unwanted animals, pets who are sick or who have bad habits. It makes me sad, and it makes me angry. It makes me sad to know that my vet was aware Shadow was my only cat and that she was currently asymptomatic, and euthanasia was still the first option mentioned. This is why pet overpopulation is such a huge problem. Most people get an animal because it’s a baby and it’s cute, but the moment that animal needs something from them, they check out, and all the sudden that animal is being dropped off at the shelter or posted on CraigsList.

It’s a two way street, owning an animal. They’re there for us, but then we need to turn around and be there for them. It’s a commitment the vast majority of people don’t seem to know how to stick to.

Terminal illness is scary. I get it. I’ve watched a number of animals go through different kinds of terminal diseases already, and now I’m going to have to do it again. But euthanizing Shadow wouldn’t have been for her, especially not now, when she is completely healthy even though I know something terrible is lurking inside her. It would have been selfish. I would have been doing it to spare myself, not to spare her.

It’s true that Shadow is going to die. But so will my dogs. So will I. So will you. We are all, in a sense, terminally ill. We’re all, in a sense, dying. The knowledge that it’s likely coming sooner for an animal than it would have without the disease shouldn’t change the rules of the game.

We have to love them through it.