Thursday, December 18, 2008

Ode To the Many-Toed

I don't know if you're heard of the Founder Effect, but we have a bit of that here in Alaska, for obvious reasons. The founder effect is when a small population of animals that contains a particular genetic array is the source - the founders - of the entire future population. When the first handful of cats came to AK I'm betting there was at least one polydactyl tomcat, because polydactyl cats are pretty common up here; way over-represented in terms of numbers than any place else I've ever worked. It's an autosomal dominant trait, so once it arrives, it persists.

Many years ago, I was given a polydactyl kitten by a friend. He looked like a tiny alien, with a small triangular face and large triangular ears, a long skinny tail and longer skinnier legs, ending in a absolute plethora of toes. His front feet looked like catcher's mitts. He was the seventh of seven kittens born, and had seven fully functional toes on each front foot. Bet you can't guess what I named him.

Seven had five toes on each hind, of which four were normal functioning toes and one of which was a little vestigial toelet hanging from his leg by a flap of skin and a thin string of tendon, but not otherwise articulated with his leg. After twice seeing him get that toe hung up whilst jumping in or out of boxes (a favorite pastime for him), I decided that when I neutered him I'd have to take those dangly little mini-toes off too, or else deal with later injuries. The front toes, however, all worked in synchrony, completely normal toes but for their number, and they never seemed to cause him problems. Quite the contrary: he seemed more dexterous than any other cat I've ever had.

Upon reaching adolescence, he did what most pubescent male kittens do and turned into a cheerful thug. He spent an inordinate amount of time ambushing my old female, leaping on her with eyes and mouth stretched wide in a gleeful rictus of menace, enormous forepaws spread-toed and claw-out. She hissed, she growled, she used her Siamese Voice and spanked him, she bit him in the face and claw-slapped him for these offenses, all of which he took in good case, seeming to feel that that was a fair punishment - but never seeming to consider it sufficient deterrent. Ultimately, in defense of poor old Sojo, I did what I'd thought I would never do, and declawed him.

I was a bit worried when he learned how to escape the house by running out the door under the belly of a Border collie and then streaking madly for the trees where he could hide from me. After all, a cat's first line of defense is its claws, and here we have owls, eagles, foxes, coyotes, wolves, bears and numerous stray dogs, all of whom are capable of taking down an 8-pound cat even WITH claws, let alone without. I fretted a bit - I'd intended Seven to be a strictly indoor cat, and would never have declawed him otherwise. But evidently he had other plans for his life and was not only determined to escape the house, but showed a marked facility for it. I needn't have worried, though. Perhaps because of his polydactyly, Seven was a talented tree climber. He still had his back claws - those weren't harming Sojo any, so I left them alone - and evidently his multiple opposable thumbs allowed him unusually good grip, because even after the declaw he could skin up a tree like nobody's biz.

I don't know if Seven was handsy because of his polydactyly, or if that was just his personality, but he used to drive my BFs dog Pepper absolutely nuts by patting her on the head. Seven would be rolling around luxuriously on the seat of one of my slat-backed chairs, purring madly. Pepper would be staring at him, as is her stock dog wont, willing him to be still. Too well-bred to bite him, still she could not completely suppress the menacing lift of her lips if he should prove too wiggly, a move that works well on sheep, but was completely lost on Seven. Evidently he thought she was smiling at him, because he would reach out between the bars of the chair back and pat her gently on the head. This is NOT how these things are intended to go, in Pepper's opinion, and she would up the ante by putting on her Scary Stock Dog Face, which is comprised of a hot, steely glare, accompanied by a deep and menacing - but unnervingly silent -snarl with fully-retracted lips, exposing all her pink gums and the serrated rows of her incisors, between which her tongue is protruding. I don't know why having her tongue stick out like that made it scarier, but trust me, it did. She looked like she was both demented and rabid, and absolutely sincere in her intentions to wreak bloody mayhem upon the first creature so foolish as to move without her say-so.

And yet, Seven was never impressed by this move and did as he liked with impunity. Pepper would not bite him - would in fact only grip a sheep if it was seriously trying her, and even then it would be a quick correction and release, usually sufficient to allow the recalcitrant ewe to see The Error Of Her Ways. Often a grip was unnecessary, as she has the ability to clash her jaws together with a sharp, unmistakable report that carries across a small pasture. No sheep mistakes what that means, and most will turn and obey when they hear The Alligator Jaws Of Death clacking together like castanets. But even that didn't work on Seven, who just carried on blithely rolling around on his back and patting things inappropriately. Silly cat.

For a while, I thought Seven had developed some sort of bizarre mange hertofore undiscovered by veterinary science. He would be randomly covered with strange oval patches of alopecia. The underlying skin was normal, and there would be patches in various stages of hair re-growth, from complete baldness to nearly-complete recovery. These patches would appear at random intervals, new ones appearing sometimes days after the last, sometimes weeks or months between occurrences. I was stumped until one day I saw Seven, sitting on the futon, purring madly. Finn was watching him from a distance of one inch, his chin on the futon and his eyes glued to Seven. As usual, Seven was not inclined to sit still, kneading the futon with his big catcher's mitt feet, drifting out a dreamy paw as if to pat Finn on the head.

His Border collie Eye and presence not being enough to keep Seven still, Finn went for the grip. Finn also being too well-bred to bite, he would instead grip Seven's fur carefully in his incisors. Seven was offended by this move - what cat wouldn't be? - and he would pull away from Finn in a fit of pique, leaving a tuft of orange tabby fur between Finn's clenched incisors.

Ah. It is the Mange of Border Collie Frustration. I get it now. How foolish of me not to have recognized it at once.

One Sunday night about two years ago, Seven started to wail. This was not his usual "I'm bored and my evil mommy won't let me out into the snow" caterwaul; it was something entirely different, sharp with distress and with a deep moaning undertone of pain to it. I went searching for him at once, guided by his cries, and found him dragging his back end down the hallway toward me.

Oh, Christ. This is bad. It looks like a saddle thrombus, because very little else will abruptly paralyse the hind end of a cat in the absence of trauma, as well as causing the rapid, open-mouth panting indicative of marked pain. To be sure, I picked Seven up and felt his feet. The rear ones were cold compared to the front, and he had no femoral pulse on either side. His gastrocnemius muscles were clenched in a hard charley-horse cramp, and every few breaths he would draw deeper and let out another cry. I suppose I could have done an ultrasound to confirm my diagnosis, but there was no point: I was sure.

A saddle thrombus, for those who have not heard of it, is a blood clot that lodges at the back end of the aorta. There the aorta branches into the two main arteries that feed the hind legs, and a saddle thrombus sits atop that fork the way a saddle sits atop the back of a horse. If you're lucky, the thrombus will be small and won't completely block the blood flow, or will only block the flow to one leg. But Seven wasn't lucky. Both hind were completely blocked.

I gathered him up and went out to the truck, driving in to the clinic. Treatment for saddle thrombus is somewhat controversial, there being different schools of thought for how best to manage it. That was academic in Seven's case, though, as I had only the medications on hand in the hospital to work with. I did what I could for him that night and left him resting, as comfortable as I could make him, in a cage. I debated taking him home with me, but I didn't think he really needed the stress of a second car ride, not to mention a cluster of nosy Border collies all peering at him. Further not to mention having to withstand Kenzie's tender ministrations, as she is inclined to throw her stubby little arms around the necks of cats and lick them enthusiastically on the head. Maybe not the most restful convalescence I could devise for him.

Saddle thrombus carries a poor prognosis. Of those who respond to treatment, 90% will be dead in three to four months from recurrences. Not all will respond to treatment, so the number who make it past 4 months is small indeed. Moreover, the condition is caused by an underlying cardiac abnormality, in Seven's case something called hypertrophic cardiomyopathy. This is a condition in which the heart muscle is markedly and irreversibly thickened compared to normal, narrowing the chambers of the heart to tiny reservoirs which can only fill with and pump out a small amount of blood with each beat. This means that the thickened heart must pump faster to get an adequate amount of volume to circulate through the vessels. Unfortunately, the extreme thickness of the heart muscle means that it can't adequately perfuse itself with blood, so you have a poorly-supplied heart working harder than normal just to try to do the job. It's a bad situation. There are no physical exam findings for this disease, and chest films will be normal, although an ultrasound of the heart is diagnostic. It is a condition which kills a small number of healthy young human athletes every year, because the first presenting sign is sometimes death. But Seven rallied, gradually regaining full use of his left hind, and nearly full use of the right, although he suffered some muscle damage and had a dropped hock on that side. He seemed perfectly content with this arrangement, still running up stairs and jumping onto high shelves and sassing the dogs. Four months passed, then eight, then twelve, until I more or less stopped counting. I had promised myself that if he had a recurrence, knowing the grim prognosis and the painful nature of the recovery, not to mention the recurrence rate, I would not put him through a second round of treatment. I noted this in his chart at work, in case he should throw another clot whilst I was away, so that the pet sitter would not be faced with the decision. But eventually I forgot about it, that sword of Damocles hanging over Seven's little tabby head. Forgot about it for almost two years, until this last Sunday night, when the thread parted and the sword fell.

You don't forget the sound of that vocalization, the one that speaks of mortal distress. And the minute I heard it again, I knew what had to be done.

I bundled Seven carefully up in a towel and took him out to the truck. It is a measure of his distress that he did not cry on the trip to the hospital; he had withdrawn into some inner world, already stepping away from this one. At the clinic I gave his the euthanasia solution intra-peritoneally; his rear-leg veins would be useless due to the clot, and he was shocky and vomiting; no vein was likely to hold up to an injection, and I didn't want to put him through the struggle. Euthanasia via the IP injection is slow, but it's very smooth, and I cuddled him on my chest while he began to fall asleep, while his harsh panting slowed, while his clenched and trembling muscles relaxed, while the faint painful grunts left the undertone of his breathing. It was the best I could do for him: He died warm and safe and ultimately pain-free, and the last thing he knew was the hand of a friend.

I'll miss Seven, my little many-toed maniac. The dogs have been nosing around looking for him; as much as he annoyed them, he also entertained them. I knew, if I am honest, that this was a likelihood, and knew it for a long time. It doesn't make it easy, but it is some comfort to know that I gave him as good a run as I could give him, and made his death as easy and gentle as I am capable of making it. I can live with that.

Bye-bye, little cat man. We miss you.


Joe Allen said...

My monitor seems to have gone blurry all of a sudden.

"This is a condition in which the heart muscle is markedly and irreversibly thickened compared to normal"

I could tell just from your stories about him that his heart was "two sizes too big".


Anonymous said...

This is one of the best tribute story I have ever read about a cat. I am all choked up for you! He was very lucky to have found you!

On a medical question. Do you think there is a link between polydactylism and the Saddle thrombus?

AKDD said...

Joe, that's a rather lovely thought. Thank you.

Beth, thank you too - and to the best of my knowledge there's no link between polydactyly and cardiac disease or the resultant saddle thrombi. Seven was the only polydactyl cat I've ever seen with the condition.

Black Jack's Carol said...

Misty eyes here too, but a beautifully written account of a full life, joyfully lived.

Michelle said...

Awww, that's so sad! I'm glad it's quiet at my end of the office so no one is around to see me getting all choked up...

When I was about 11 we had to put down our family cat, Bunny. She was about 15, and she'd been battling diabetes for years. It had gotten to the point where the insulin shots were shutting down her kidneys and she was really struggling, and so it was the best thing. Mom and Dad had raised her from a newborn kitten that someone had left in an alley, and it was the only time I’ve ever seen my dad cry, except at my wedding!

Cats worm their furry way into your heart, and nothing is ever quite the same once they go. I often still miss Bunny like it was only yesterday, instead of 16 or so years ago.

My sympathies!

Barb said...

I'm so sorry! Even when it's not totally unexpected, and even when we know we've done the best that can possibly be done, it's always so terrible to lose a special pet.

And Seven certainly was special!! I love the image of him patting the dogs on the head. What a wonderful cat, and I'm glad you've got so many wonderful memories of him.

But when you said "Bet you can't guess what I named him.", I thought you were going to say Septimus :-))

Anonymous said...

I am sorry for your loss but isn't it special what you were able to do for Seven when he needed you the most.

Holly said...

Ah, the way they work your heart. We have a big yellow multi-fingered tom at our barn out of the best cat in the world, Frosty. Spaz cat is a favorite, friendly, kind, and huge. How lucky Seven was to be so loved, right up to the end.

Dragon43 said...

I am a big tough biker and sometimes you write too good, even for me.

MaskedMan said...

Ah, hell. :-(

So sorry, sister-mine.

To love a pet is to love a heartbreak. And yet, we love them none-the-less. Seven was well-loved, and you will have him in your heart forever.

Laurie said...

Seven sounds like a special cat who found a special human. Keep the good memories close.

BCxFour said...

He passed safe in the arms of your love. I am so sorry...

Daisy said...

I am so sorry for the loss of Seven.

AKDD said...

Thanks, everyone. He was a good kitty. Goofy and a bit quirky, but a good kitty. He won't be forgotten.

Anonymous said...

Me, too - though I'm working from home so I don't have to worry that someone at work will see me wiping tears off my face.

FrogDogz said...

I'm so very sorry for your loss. It was a beautifully written tribute, to what was obviously a very special cat.

Carol and the Bullmarket Frenchies

AKDD said...

Thanks, guys. Seven really was one of a kind. I'm glad for the nine years we spent together, and touched that everyone seems as taken with his offbeat charm as I was.

sarinawilson23 said...
This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.
AKDD said...

As an explanation for the removed comment, it was a solicitation to go visit a blog with a commercial content (the blogger wanted people to buy things from her). The comment had absolutely nothing to do with this post in specific, or this blog in general. Setting aside for the moment that I consider it inappropriate to advertise one's wares or otherwise solicit buisness in the comments section of other people's blogs, it is PARTICULARLY inappropriate on THIS POST, given the content. As a consequence, I've altered settings so that I now must moderate every comment. Sorry about that, guys. I have NO objections to people sharing their personal blogs or stories in the comments, but I have no intention of hosting random unsolicited advertisements for commercial enterprises in the comments section. I feel it is disrespectful of my readers to allow that, and besides, I find it both presumptuous and personally annoying, as such comments have nothing to do with the content of this blog.

To anyone who has a comment or story (or question, or recipe, or post on their own blog, etc) to share, regarding this blog or an experience of their own that is in any way related or triggered by the blog content, PLEASE FEEL FREE TO CONTINUE TO DO SO. Those comments, I welcome.

Sorry about the interruption, and now back to your regularly scheduled programming.

Jenn said...

Seven sounds like the kind of kitty who gave as much as he received. He was just as lucky to have you as you were to have him. I am so sorry for your loss.

What wonderful memories you have of a truly special and unique kitty. They sure do worm their furry little selves deep into our hearts, don't they?

MaskedMan said...

The most annoying thing about the offending comment, IMO, was that it was an obvious keyword-hit, and 'pinged' on the key medical issue discussed in this post - A particularly bad example of poor manners.

AKDD said...

Jenn - thank you. It's true they worm their ways deep into our hearts - and it doesn't take them long to do it. It's a sad irony that it was his heart that failed him in the end, being as how he was such a good-hearted kitty. I think maybe Joe Allen had it right: two sizes too big.

MM - You're right. It's crass, vulgar and insensitive to the point of cruelty to solicit money and/or sales in the comments section of a post about greif, loss, pain and death.

I've contacted system administrators about this. I don't know if any action will be taken, and the "report abuse" forms limit the kind of explanation you can give (although I think this may fall under spamming restrictions), but if any such thing happens again, I will contact the blogger directly via their blog and ask them to knock it off. The person in question evidently opened their blog only this month. Apparently the first thing they did was start violating the rules of good behavior, even if not the rules of the Blogger site.

Mutt Gal said...

Our little furry friends leave pawprints on our hearts (some more than others... Seven) and we are never the same.

What sweet memories of his life with you- thank you for sharing them with your readers. I'm very sorry for your loss.

I need orange said...

I am so sorry.

He was clearly a very special guy, and leaves a special and many-toed rent in your lives.

Teri said...

I just found your blog. Having lost kitties to HCM, I read your story of Seven and know that sound. I think you write with the compassion and caring that makes you a special veterinarian and I subscribed to your blog and look forward to lookin through your archives.

Teri and the cats of Furrydance

AKDD said...

Thanks, guys. It's amazing how fast they take up residence in our hearts, isn't it? Bless them.