February 3, 2024

⚠️ CW: animal death ⚠️

I haven’t talked much about Beloved Indoor Cat–Gaia–on this website because I already have pictures of her on my primary website and have already talked about her there. I’ve also been planning to make a shrine page about her, and I thought that talking about her would link my accounts together. It’s not that I want it to be a big secret what my main site is, I just didn’t want it to be easy for public passersby to connect the two.

But I have to talk about her, because the past two days have been some of the worst days of my life. I was going to write about it in my physical diary, but there’s too much to relay, and I have to get it out now before I explode. I hope writing it all down will help me make sense of all of it, and maybe then I can finally get some sleep.

Gaia was 17 years old. I’ve had her since I was a little girl. Our story together was pretty complicated, and it had a lot of twists and turns, but I think that’s a post for another day. Suffice to say, she’s always been deeply important to me. Family and friends would tease me for how attached at the hip we were–“you treat her like she’s your baby” was a common utterance, likely because I was so prone to carrying her around and spoonfeeding her. She would sleep under the covers with me, curled up in a little ball. So I suppose it’s true. She was my baby; she’ll always be my baby.

It wasn’t a secret to anyone that she was getting older and slowing down. For this reason, I was initially against moving overseas and offered to stay with her in the mainland, but things don’t always work out how you expect, I guess. I took her to the vet beforehand to make sure she was fit for the move. The vet told me she seemed healthy and it wouldn’t surprise her if she lived another 5 years. I felt a lot better about things. Gaia didn’t adjust well to the move, but she’s always hated change. I keep looking back at things, wondering if I missed signs.

Anyways, on Thursday, two days ago, I noticed she wasn’t using her hind legs properly. She kept stretching them out behind her, the way you might if your legs fell asleep. She wobbled as she walked, sometimes appearing to almost drag them behind her. The vets here work on a first come, first served basis, with a visitor cap, so there are usually lines outside at least an hour before they open. By the time we all knew something was wrong, it was too late to take her in. We’d take her first thing in the morning, we decided.

That day, Gaia didn’t seem to be in too much pain, and she still demanded food every half hour. She also kept trying to jump all over the place, much to my chagrin. I couldn’t leave her alone for a minute. I frantically Googled symptoms. Saddle thrombus? Herniated disc? Spinal tumor? Renal failure? I didn’t know. I was terrified, but tried to stay optimistic. The vet would surely run tests and explain everything, like they had back where we used to live.

I woke up at 5AM to my cat howling. She’d wet herself and was in the hallway right outside my room. Forget her hind legs, she could barely lift her head. She frantically tried to get back on her feet, but she seemed to have no control over any of her limbs. In retrospect, I wonder if she came to find me because she wanted me to help her. I’d always been quick to pick her up and carry her around, after all.

But when I picked her up, it was clear to me it hurt her to be held. I carried her to my bed and laid her down next to me, and she cried for the next ten minutes as I pet her. I was scared she’d die then and there. I called my parents. No answer. I thought of sending my brother to go get them. But I didn’t want to leave Gaia even for a moment. I kept calling until they picked up, about half an hour into my trying to comfort her. She couldn’t move at all by that point. My parents came down and there was a great debate as to what we should do. Let her pass naturally, in bed, surrounded by loved ones? Force her into a carrier and subject her to a long line around barking dogs and honking trucks? By the time we landed on a decision, the vet closest to us was already full. The next closest one wouldn’t open until the afternoon. The compromise, then, was that we would keep her as comfortable as possible until we could take her there. Surprisingly–or maybe not so surprisingly, knowing her–she was amenable to being fed, so my mother and I took turns feeding her spoonfuls of her wet food.

We loaded her up in this silly plantain bed I bought for her from Aliexpress that she loves (but sleeps on incorrectly), but she protested the whole time. It was obvious to me she was in a lot of pain and was not “comfortable” by any stretch of the imagination. We took her to this vet and waited outside for our turn. The guy in front of us let us use his fold-up chair. He was there to get his dog’s nails trimmed. Since there is no triage system to gauge the severity of the pets’ status, he did get to go first.

Anyways, the vet. I didn’t like the clinic as soon as I stepped in. Small, dimly lit, shortstaffed. I thought I was being snobbish, but I’m used to that sterile white light and a real life receptionist desk. I set aside my concerns and we relayed my cat’s status. The vet barely looked at her. He said she’s old, two years over the average age, as if this was a satisfactory explanation for why my cat that was trying to jump a fence 5 days ago suddenly couldn’t make it to her litter box. I asked pointedly, “What’s wrong with her?”, to which he coyly replied, “She’s 17. Everything.” My head was spinning at this point. He hadn’t taken her weight, hadn’t taken her heartbeat, hadn’t so much as tried to remove her from her plantain bed, hadn’t palpated her, hadn’t asked in-depth questions about her health history of symptomolgy, and here he was, confidentally telling me she would never recover and we should take her home to die.

“Make her as comfortable as she can be,” he said. He didn’t offer us any prescriptions for palliative care, and the suggestion of taking her back home to mewl in agony and wet herself made me genuinely angry. How can you recommend something like this if you don’t want to give us any morphine to at least ease her pain? I didn’t understand what he meant by that. He hadn’t even give us a diagnosis, just “she’s old.” Then, he offered a steroid shot, saying that the inflammation would temporarily go down (What inflammation? How did he know she had any? Where was this inflammation and why was it happening?), but I pointed out that even if this worked, she’d soon be right back where she started. He agreed.

Then he said he could put her down. I can’t emphasize enough how rushed this decision felt. Everyone was asking me what I thought, reminding me there’s a line of people waiting, and before anyone had answered, the vet was already hovering around her with a needle. He told us that we could take her home after he injected her. He said she’d get drowsy and fall asleep, then never wake up. This process was supposed to allow her to die at home, peacefully, all within an hour. We agreed.

Tearfully, we went home and put her back on my bed. My mother thought she might want some more food until she fell asleep. She had been feeding her the liquid from her wet food with her fingers, which I thought was a good idea because I didn’t like how the metal spoon clacked against her (remaining two) teeth. I scooped the liquid from 3 different cans into her mouth, and she lapped it all up. She bit each of my fingers until they bled, and when that happened, I’d move onto the next finger. Now, all four fingers on my right hand have puncture wounds. I have a lot of scars and injuries from Gaia over the years, but it’s never bothered me. Whenever people would say things like, “Why are you so fond of her? Don’t you know she’d eat your dead body?” I’d just say, “If she’s hungry, I hope she does.”

She finally fell asleep and we waited for her heart to stop. An hour passed. And then it was two hours. And then three. And four. The vet was closed now. Five hours.

My mother and I had started calling other vets around the area and looking up what the fuck was going on. I kicked myself for not asking that vet what he’d injected in my cat. The only 24 hour vet hospital is in the metro area, hours away from where we live. The vet who worked there was aghast when we relayed the story. “What he did is illegal,” she told us. “They have to confirm death.” She suggested we bring Gaia there to finish putting her down, but the drive isn’t an easy one.

We called our old vet. The nice technician on the phone was even more disturbed by the situation, and started guessing solutions the injection could have been. He recommended taking her to a clinic, any other clinic, as soon as they were open so they could put her down before she woke up from the medication. He warned us this was a possibility, because she had likely been given a high dose of anesthetic, which could wear off eventually. He told us we could call back if we had any more questions.

So we did twice more for various things. Always apologetically, even offering to pay for the consultations, but we were assured there was no need. We had been their clients for years, and they wouldn’t take our money when so much was already being taken from us. Eventually, the head vet of the clinic started taking our calls. She helped diagnose my cat over the phone and asked the questions I’d been expecting from the vet.

She confirmed with me that she was very suspicious it was a saddle thrombus, especially given that one of Gaia’s hind paws had been cold to the touch. (Later, research showed me that steroids actually INCREASE the risk of clotting. So, if we had taken up the vet on his offer to give her a steroid injection for “inflammation” he never bothered to verify, it very well could have caused her to throw even more clots, which could have resulted in seizures or kidney failure! I am cursing him with spells as soon as this post is out btw.)

If there is any small comfort to be gleaned, it’s that putting her down was ultimately the right thing to do. It was likely she had heart failure and we didn’t have the money or resources to have her stay inpatient at a hospital for a miniscule chance that she’d live. And even if she did, the clots would be recurrent, and would mostly likely kill her within a year. Even if they didn’t, it was fully possible she’d never walk again, even with PT. This was the sort of information I wanted to have. I wanted to make an informed decision based on a diagnosis, not be pressured to make a choice on the spot based on a vibe-based diagnosis of “old.”

She told us to keep Gaia warm and keep in mind she could wake up. If she did, she said we should expect her symptoms to remain the same, but said we could feed her if she wanted food. Then, she said she’d call us the next day to check in, and even put it in her calendar. I will always remember this gesture of kindness and care.

My mother and I swaddled Gaia up and set her next to the wall so she couldn’t roll off the bed if she did wake up. I couldn’t stop thinking that I couldn’t believe this was the last time Gaia would sleep with me. I fell asleep petting her, curled around her body in the hopes I could transfer her some of my body heat. It was a fitful sleep; I woke up every few hours and checked on her. When today’s sunrise came, she was still very much alive and very much sound asleep. She had wet herself again. We cleaned her up, and my mother kept commenting on how much Gaia would hate this. Gaia was always meticuously clean.

After much more debate as to where to take her, we went to the nearby clinic half an hour before opening. We were 14th in line. After 45 minutes of waiting, we were ultimately turned away. We were told it wasn’t legal for them to put Gaia down because they weren’t sure what the other vet had given her. They told us it was his responsibility to follow through. The technician relayed all this to us, not the vet, and there wasn’t much empathy or apology for having us wait so long just to tell us to go back to the guy who did this to her to begin with.

But we did. We went back. He opens earlier on weekends. He was shocked to see us again, clearly uncomfortable. He made a lot of excuses for himself, saying he had given her enough for a 15 pound cat, and saying it’s never happened to him before in 30 years. He said our cat must just be very unique. It is not his fault our cat wasn’t euthanized, you see, but hers. He also relayed some random story about how he actually resuscitated a dog the previous day, and how it’d been an altogether strange day at the office. He finally removed Gaia from her plantain bed, reminding us she couldn’t feel anything. I wanted to do horrible things to him in that moment–the previous day, when she had been very much in pain, he’d yanked her from the plantain so roughly I instinctively tried to take Gaia from him.

My mother told me I tooked disgusted at him the entire time we were there, which I hadn’t realized at the time, especially because I was actively trying to mask how much I wanted to stab him. I wonder if perhaps my near-palpable hatred for him was making him nervous. I hope so. I hope he felt burning shame, but I think at best, he just felt embarrassed at having fucked up. I wish he knew how horrible this is.

He explained to us that he would give her enough for a 20 pound animal. I was annoyed his solution was to literally repeat exactly what he did yesterday. I asked him what he was giving her. He didn’t answer until I asked him rather insistently another two times. He stuttered out the name of the barbituate but couldn’t appear to remember the whole word, so I asked if he meant phenobarbital. He agreed, then said pentobarbital. Note these are not interchangeable things. This inconsistency did nothing to soothe my nerves. I’m inclined to believe it was phenobarbital, which is a mixture of phenytoin and pentobarbital. Based on the description of the color (purple), the technician from our old vet clinic had supposed it was Euthsaol, a generic version of Beuthanasia-D Special phenobarbital. But still, this drug is meant to induce death within seconds or minutes, not hours. So who the fuck knows, really?

He offered to watch her and verify death and said we could come get her in an hour. We obviously weren’t comfortable with that and opted to take her home, saying we’d come if she still wasn’t dead. In our entire visit, he only apologized once, at the very end, in a very “sorry ‘bout that” casual cadence that I found disrespectful given I’d spent nearly 24 hours agonizing over what the hell he did to my cat. I still can’t fathom it.

Her heartbeat slowed. We brought her back home. Cried fresh tears. Talked about what to do next. We all agreed we’d like to have her cremated–that’s what we did with her brother, a dog named Levi. He died of heart cancer in the fall of 2020. Back then, where we lived, it was very easy to find a vet to come out and euthanize him after a 2 month fight to give him a decent quality of life. It had taken just a few minutes, and it had been peaceful and beautiful in our backyard. We had him cremated, so we thought it would be nice to do the same for Gaia. Her (actual) sister, Juno, was put down 14 years ago at 3 years old after she was hit by a car. It was horrible. We buried her. We moved away. I often think about how she’s still there. I think cremating pets is much, much better. You can keep them with you always. Just to make doubly sure I’d always have a piece of Gaia, no matter what, I cut a lock of her fur and put it in a plastic bag. I’m not sure what to do with it yet.

We were all in agreement, but the problem is none of the nearby clinics here offer cremation, so we decided to take her to a vet hospital about 35 minutes away that does. We called ahead and they confirmed we could bring her on over. I wrapped her up in my bedsheets and held her in my arms on a final drive. I cried the whole way there, but the drive was beautiful. It was overcast and mountainous. After we got there, we had to waint in line again. The technician who greeted us was astonished by the story and he took her to confirm her death. He ushered us into a (very nice) room to wait, room 5.

They came back to tell us she was still alive. Barely, but her heartbeat was faint. I think livid doesn’t even begin to describe how I felt. They told us rigor mortis only takes 15 minutes to set in, which I didn’t know. I think it would have been great if the vet who botched her euthanasia twice could have mentioned this at some point.

The vet (non-technician) who spoke with us had a grim expression. I think he was very disturbed by the incident, and said he had no idea how this could happen. He said he’d use the “international standard” procedure and do it the “right way” with a pretty biting tone, which confirms to me this original vet had fucked up in ways incomprehensible to many other vets. I think the techs were gossiping about it, because one mentioned that “no one could believe it” with wide eyes. Perhaps our story will become, “Remember when those people came in with the cat who some vet failed to euthanize? Twice?”

The experiences were truly like night and day, though. It reminded me a lot more of how it was back where I used to live. They gave us consent forms to sign, printed out certificates, verified how Gaia’s name was spelled, showed us the solution they’d be using to euthanize her (Euthasol), detailed what injection site they were going to use (cardiac) and why (low circulation), how they’d confirm her death (push test), and double-checked to make sure we wanted her cremated. They even gave us a paw-print keepsake. We have one for Levi, too.

I was so enormously relieved by all of this. They came back in a few minutes to confirm Gaia was gone. I didn’t cry. I think I was just so relieved this was all over that it didn’t hit me until later. The keepsake paw-print also made me really happy, and I know I’ll see Gaia again in a week or two, when we go to pick up her ashes.

On the way home, the vet from our old town called my mother to check in. This on top of the incredibly competent treatment we got at the vet hospital was so immensely gratifying, I don’t think I have words for it. I didn’t hear the whole conversation, but my mother said the vet was furious about the fact the euthanasia had failed again. What was especially incomprehensible to her was that he did the exact same thing (“Here, let me inject your cat with the same drug, in the same place, and send her home without verifying her death, it’ll def work this time, I swear.”) She emphasized that it isn’t our responsibility because we’d already done so much for Gaia, but said that someone, perhaps the hospital, should notify the vet that his euthanasia had failed twice. She said this is the sort of thing that will get your license revoked, and called it a “clusterfuck.” I think she genuinely wants him fired. I agree.

She left a message on my mother’s phone a few minutes later, saying she wanted to know our new address so they could send us a card. I know I’ve said this already a few times, but this kindness was so insurmountably important to me in these moments. After that, we arrived home.

This is where things really started to sink in for me. I had to clean up–I’ve neglected cleaning since all this started because I’ve refused to leave Gaia’s side except to pee and shower. My bed was a mess of cat pee and spilled wet food. I threw everything into the washer and dryer. I put the lid back on Gaia’s litter box and tried to decide what to do with it. I thought about the last time I cleaned her litter box. I thought about how there were so many “lasts” I hadn’t known were the last. The last time she coughed up a hairball, Monday. The last time she jumped up to her favorite spot, Tuesday. The last time I walked her in the backyard on her harness, Wednesday night. The last time she jumped on my bed to wake me up to feed her, Thursday morning. The last time she ate her food without assistance, Thursday night.

I decided I wanted to keep her harness. I kept Levi’s leash and use it for her, and I want to keep that too. I put them inside the cat carrier, with the plantain bed on top. I want to keep those things forever, for when I get another cat. I still don’t know what I’ll do with her scratching post. I also saw her water bowl, which is still full, but when I went to rinse it out, everything came crashing into me and I couldn’t stop crying. I was amazed I even still had any tears left to give. My eyes have been swollen since Thursday, my nose raw and chafed, my throat horribly sore. Sometimes I’d think I was fine, then I’d start crying again.

I threw in the laundry, then started writing this post. The water bowl is still full on the floor. I can’t bring myself to empty it yet.

I wish I had some wise words, some deep lesson Gaia had taught me about myself, but at best, I think I’ve learned to trust my gut when it comes to things I love. My only regret is I didn’t advocate for her more in the end when I knew something was wrong. I feel different now, but I can’t put a finger on why. I’ve always tried to extract meaning from death, and never have I wished more that I believed in something greater than myself. I want to believe that she’s finally meeting her brother and sister in pet heaven, and they’re asking what took her so long and frolicking around like they always used to. I think I’ll keep imagining it until the pain finally ebbs. I know the intensity of this feeling won’t be forever, but I can’t imagine there will ever come a day when it won’t hurt to remember she’s gone.

She meant so much to me. She was there for my first heartbreak. She was there when I graduated high school, and then college. She was there when I wanted to kill myself. She was there when I got better. She was always there, always my shadow, I really think she loved me. I can’t stop thinking about how I was the one she called out for when she was too hurt. My baby. I wish I could have done more for her. If I could have traded some of my life for hers, I wouldn’t have hesitated. I always said I wanted her to live forever. There were many, many moments where I’d cry petting her because I knew she’d leave me one day. In retrospect, my anxiety about this day has been strong ever since her sister died. I have thousands of photos of her. I did a giant oil painting of her. I didn’t want to miss a second. I was so scared of her dying. But I can’t say that I’m in any way relieved now that my worst fear has come to pass. It’s just as horrible as I thought it’d be. It hurts just as bad as I knew it would.

Just last week, I was telling my mom that I think part of why I’m so eager to keep Butterscotch, Nutmeg, and Licorice is because I don’t think I can take it when Gaia leaves me. I had no idea it’d be so soon. I planned out the next month in my journal, and on my daily habit tracker, it still has 3 tasks related to Gaia up until March, when my birthday is. I don’t know what I’ll do with those lines. Blacking them out feels too sad. Maybe I have some washi tape somewhere. I don’t know. It all hurts.

I think what will be hardest is adjusting to her absence. When I open the side door, I’m vigilant because I know she’s prone to running out. When I open the fridge, I expect to hear her paws against tile as she comes running for food. When I go to bed, I leave room for her to crawl up next to me. My life isn’t just mine. It was our life. This is something I realized with Levi, too, but it’ll hit me even harder this time.

I wish I had something more insightful to say. I’m sorry this is so long. If you’re still reading this, and if you have a pet, hug them a little longer today. Thanks.

Previous Home Next