Sunday evenings in the Peepers household follow a peaceful pattern. Mr. Peepers goes down the street to spend time with friends, and I recharge for the week ahead, a process usually involving TV, knitting, and the internet. The cats, Mrs. Pickles and Mr. Blue, take this opportunity to nap and cuddle (with me and each other), creating a nice, quiet, domestic scene. On one such Sunday evening, I was reading an email when Mr. Blue woke from his nap on Mr. Peeper’s desk chair, jumped to the floor, and slid into the laundry basket. Startled by the crash, I turned in time to see him wobble off like a drunken sailor on a tilting ship.
Animals and small children have a special ability to frighten their caretakers because they cannot articulate what is wrong or even sometimes that anything is wrong at all. Asking a baby to point to where it hurts or a cat to tell you why his legs suddenly don’t work is futile. So when Mr. Blue mistimed his jump from the desk chair, I did the only thing I could think to do – I had him walk to me. Mr. Blue’s paws slid across the floor as he made his slow way toward me. It was as though he couldn’t feel his feet or that his joints were giving out or that the floor was covered in Crisco and he couldn’t gain traction. He seemed unsettled by the lack of limb control but crossed the distance between us with a concentrated expression particular to Russian Blues.
I have inherited from my mother the ability to pinpoint the absolute worst possible scenario within moments of a crisis, so of course I assumed that Mr. Blue was having a stroke. I started to imagine how I would manage without him, how I could handle not coming home to him every day, how I could explain to Mrs. Pickles without the benefit of language what happened to her friend. I encouraged his walk in the steadiest voice I could muster, trying to avoid scaring him and Mrs. Pickles, who by now knew something was wrong and was standing by. I realize that the cats don’t understand my words, but I do know that they can pick up on emotions; if you’ve ever had a pet sit by you for the entirety of a sick day the way Nurse Pickles does, you’ll know what I mean.
By now I’d calmed down a bit and realized that while I couldn’t identify a stroke without the benefit of vet school, I could feel Mr. Blue’s limbs for breaks and painful spots. Nothing. So I frantically called Mr. Peepers, more certain of a horrible outcome. Mr. Peepers was in the Navy years ago and learned there to be composed in the face of adversity; quite reasonably, he suggested something I didn’t think of in my panic – call the emergency vet. After a short time, the three of us were in the car, driving through the rain to find out whether our pet would live through the night.
Most pet owners will tell you that a trip to the emergency vet is just as harrowing as a trip to the human ER. Most non-pet owners will tell you that’s crazy. I will limit my declarations to the fact that the worst part of both emergency rooms is the waiting. Mr. Blue was carried off for tests as soon as we walked in, so Mr. Peepers and I settled into the waiting room, trying to distract ourselves with old copies of Cat Fancier. I sobbed harder every time a photo of a Russian Blue graced the pages. Mr. Peepers tried to occupy me with his iPhone. I stopped crying. We asked the receptionist for an update. She had nothing. Finally, though, after two hours, maybe three, we talked to a vet.
The first thing I need to say here is that emergency vets are amazing people. They work horrible hours for probably low pay and keep our pets alive after car accidents, midnight illnesses, and fights with other animals. They stand in for our regular vets in the small hours of the morning when everything seems at its worst. This vet, though, did not inspire confidence in me when he told me that our cat was walking just fine. Had I not been so tired, I may have physically attacked him. Had I not spent at least two hours sobbing, I would have burst into tears. As it was, I just said, “Put him on the floor.” The vet did this and Mr. Blue’s little legs buckled. He stood up and staggered a bit, and although I had to admit that his gait was steadier than it had been earlier in the evening – well, by now it was the night before – he was by no means certain on his feet. I could not believe that the vet could not see this and wondered what else he’d missed. The main question was, though, would he make it to 8am, at which point we could take him to our preferred vet? The emergency vet assured us that this was possible. We were tired and I had to work the next day, so on the way home, we stopped for a couple of Red Bulls for Mr. Peepers, who had decided to stay up all night with our ailing cat. I barely slept and had to go through a morning of work anxiously waiting for the phone to ring with the verdict.
The end of this story is a bit anti-climactic. Mr. Blue has something called hip dysplasia, a condition fairly common in dogs but very rare in cats. It causes the hip to come out of the joint a bit so that the leg cannot hold the cat’s weight. The injury was probably triggered by a wrestling match with Mrs. Pickles and improved as Mr. Blue walked the joint back together. The non-surgical solution is a joint medication sprinkled on his food, which, to our delight, is working so far. But Mr. Blue has more trials ahead of him; at just one year old, he has a greater risk for early-onset arthritis than other cats. He’s fine for now, though – a day after this episode, he was running around as though nothing had ever happened.
Epilogue: Later on the day after Mr. Blue’s hip went out, when we were waiting to pay our regular vet, a sobbing woman brought a carrier into the office. She handed a tiny kitten to the nurse, telling the little guy that he was in good hands and that the vet’s staff would take good care of him. She had difficulty letting go of the carrier and eventually fled in tears. I started tearing up myself; after the events of the previous thirty-six hours, I could only imagine what had happened to that sweet creature whose big eyes shone through the carrier’s door. The way his owner was acting, it was clear to me that he was going to be put down, possibly for some incurable illness like feline immunodeficiency virus (the cat version of HIV) or some kind of cancer, and I wondered what had happened to the rest of his litter. Maybe he was the sole survivor of a dog attack or some other traumatic event. But when Mr. Peepers asked the receptionist if the kitten would be ok, she said, “Oh yeah, he just had a reaction to a vaccine. She’s a new pet-owner.” The kitten had, in a word, a rash. My cat would be limping on and off for life and this woman had me in tears over a rash. New pet owner or not, I have to admit that three months later, I’m still a bit upset about that.