When a caregiver brought an ill and severely matted cat to our practice, our veterinary team began a journey that demonstrated the bonds of love and compassion that can blossom among pets, their people, and a veterinary team.
As I sat at the reception desk on an average Wednesday morning in January, I was completely unaware of what was about to come through the door. A woman we'll call "Kathy" pulled up to the clinic and walked in with a cat carrier in hand. Strange, I thought, as I wasn't expecting a cat and didn't recognize the woman. Kathy approached me cautiously and asked for my help. She explained to me that she thought something may have been wrong with the cat, Winky. It belonged to the elderly, homebound woman for whom she was a caregiver. She explained this woman, we'll call her "Millie," had owned the cat for years and no one had ever seen it before because it always hid from anyone but Millie. When Kathy arrived at Millie's house that morning and went into the bedroom, the cat was lying on the bed next to Millie and didn't scurry out of sight when Kathy entered. Kathy also noticed that Winky's food had gone untouched. Obviously something wasn't quite right with Winky.
I told Kathy she could leave the cat with us for the day and that we would try and do everything we could to figure out what was wrong with her. After she left I carried Winky's carrier to the back room and placed it on the table. At first glance through the bars at the front of her cage I was startled. Winky's back end was facing toward me and I couldn't exactly make sense of what I could see. It looked as though she had a long twisted spine, and I knew I didn't want to reach in and grab her for fear of causing injury. I carefully disassembled her cage, afraid of what I might find once I opened it. I'm not sure if it was worse than I had imagined, but what I saw made my jaw drop. Winky had a large and solidified clump of fur down the length of her back that raised up so high above her spine it looked as if she were attached to a second cat. None of us had ever seen anything quite like it. This cat was so badly matted I didn't even want to touch her. It looked like any sort of movement would cause her great pain. But despite this, Winky looked up at me and purred. I gently placed her into one of our cages and went to find our veterinarian.
Generally when an animal appears to be severely neglected our natural reaction is to get angry. I asked myself how a person could ever let a pet end up in this condition. What imbecile didn't take one look at Winky and rush her to a veterinarian, or at the very least, a groomer? I had to remind myself that Winky's owner, Millie, was suffering from dementia, and that Kathy had mentioned that in the past 10 years Millie's own son had never even seen this cat because she always hid. Millie was the only one for Winky, and what could she ever do for her beloved feline when she didn't even have her wits about her, or even the use of her own hands? Thus began the torrid love affair between our team members and Winky, the severely matted cat.
Once we became more acquainted with Millie and Kathy, we came to know them as wonderful people who were doing their best for Winky. As Winky's care commenced and we began to shave away the fur hunks (they weighed 2 pounds!), we started to notice more concerning ailments, including a tumor beneath her jaw. It seemed to cause some labored breathing and needed to be removed. Millie wanted us to do whatever we could for Winky, despite her age and regardless of the cost. She just wanted us to make her better as fast as we could. We often let Winky stay behind the reception desk to get her up and around and out of the cage, but she didn't have much interest in moving. Remarkably, however, on three occasions she mustered up the strength and walked over to me to get some attention. Here was an animal that hadn't had any interest in people other than Millie, purring at me and begging for love ... this cat had my heart in no time.
The day for the surgery finally came, and just as abruptly as Winky was dropped in our laps, our excitement turned to dismay. Once our veterinarian had her on the table and under the lights it became clear that Winky's tumor was inoperable. It appeared to have grown very deep into the jugular, and removing it was impossible. After much debate and a torturous phone call to Millie, Winky was euthanized while under anesthesia. Everyone was devastated. We hadn't realized how attached we were to Winky until she was gone. What's more, we'd even grown attached to her owner, a woman we hadn't even met. In an instant, a week-long battle that had encompassed our clinic was over, and we were forced to part ways with Millie ... or so we thought.
Kathy kept us updated on Millie's condition, and we were saddened by the news she shared. Millie was so depressed without Winky she didn't want to get out of bed in the morning. Her family was trying to force her to get a new cat and she wasn't ready. Kathy knew it wasn't the right time and didn't know what to do. Everyone was frustrated and heartbroken for Millie, but we knew we would have to let go and give it time—which is precisely what we did.
Sidebar: Full circle: What I learned
Exactly one month later we got a call from a woman who worked the night shift at a local gas station. Someone had driven by and thrown a cat out the window, and she rescued it from the parking lot. She brought her in for an exam to make sure there were no injuries. She told us someone who knew the original owner told her the cat's name was Sweet Pea, and its owner suffered from a mental disorder. He didn't want the cat anymore, and this was his way of dealing with it. This woman didn't have the means to care for a stray animal, but her aunt volunteered to take it in until we could find it a home.
"Do you know anyone who's looking for a cat?" she asked. Generally the answer to this question is always no, but we all looked at each other and thought of Millie. We knew she would eventually want another cat, but we were afraid it was still too soon. We sent Sweet Pea home and said we would call if we heard anything.
That very same day, as if some sort of cosmic plan were in play, we received another call—this time from Kathy. She thought it was time to look for a new cat for Millie and wondered if we knew of any cats needing homes. Astounded, we explained the current situation with Sweet Pea—how good natured she was, how she fell into our laps only that morning, how convenient it was that she was a short-haired cat. We agreed we should try to make this work, and we arranged for Millie to come in and meet Sweet Pea. I couldn't believe how excited I was to meet someone I didn't even know. But it thrilled me that Millie was actually going to leave the house to visit our clinic.
The day arrived, and as I looked out the window and saw Millie getting out of her car I took note that she was far more adorable than I had imagined. With her steadying walker, she slowly made her way inside the clinic and introduced herself to us. Funnily enough, she and our technician, Rivka, realized they had met years before at a restaurant that Millie owned and Rivka frequented.
The meeting went off without a hitch and Sweet Pea, being the naturally loving cat she was, seemed immediately fond of Millie. They decided to take her home, and the feeling proved to be mutual. Millie's caregiver called to let us know everything was going beautifully with Sweet Pea and they were ready to bring her in for her spay and vaccinations. Millie was once again content to get out of bed in the morning, her spirits were lifted, and the cat was happy.
Thinking back, I'm not sure if this story could have ended any better, and I am still in awe of the turn of events. We often have moments that remind us of how we are all connected: the way Millie and Rivka ended up knowing each other, for example, or the way you can live in a city of millions yet still run into the same stranger on the bus in different parts of town. These connections span the globe, and random incidents raise the question of whether they're actually coincidental. Perhaps animals are also involved in this web of mystery. Could it be that the human-animal bond is so strong that it surpasses death? Is it possible that Winky was still looking after Millie until she knew that everything had been made right? There's no way to know for sure. Call it what you want—fate, karma, or coincidence—this story came full circle for everyone. And no matter what the cause, it proved to be a small miracle.
Cori Weber is a receptionist at Martin City Animal Hospital in Kansas City, Mo. Share your thoughts on this article at dvm360.com/community.