Sam the polydactyl torby

This morning, I went though my usual routine: Make coffee. Open freezer. Grab ice cube tray. Remove one tuna cube and place in bowl. Microwave for 20 seconds. Add cold canned mystery chicken parts mix from refrigerator. Microwave for 10 seconds. Grab container of lactulose, measure 2cc into a syringe, and release over tuna-chicken mixture.

Give to wide-eyed feline. Did I mention wide-eyed, radioactive, occasionally-exploding feline?

This is what life is like when you live with a geriatric cat. Much like many people my age never planned for caring for their aging parents, I certainly never planned to care for my aging pet.

Sam the exploding Geiger cat is, in actuality, Samantha the 18-year-old polydactyl torby. Polydactyl, in that she has a “thumb.” And torby, as her vet tells us, because her fur pattern is both tortoise shell and tabby. (I thought “furby” would be more accurate considering her hairy body and the odd noises she makes, but the vet didn’t find that amusing.)

Sam has carried on for nearly two decades with nary a medical hitch (except for an hereditary gum disease that has left her with a single tooth) until this year, when we noticed one evening that she seemed to be, well, a lot thinner. And that takes doing, as Sam is a 14+ pound cat.

A visit to the vet confirmed our concerns. Sam had dropped to roughly nine pounds in a matter of weeks.

Then came the good news and bad news. The bad news: Sam had a thyroid condition that would cause her to waste away. The good news: It was treatable with a single injection of a radioactive isotope — and one of the few clinics that did the treatment was located in the Seattle area.

Oh, and did I mention the injection cost $800?

That led to a Great Debate. Samantha, at 18 years old, probably has only a few more years in her at best. And I’m not one of those “animals are our children” advocates who will go to great lengths to prolong the life of, well, a pet (nor will I take them to psychotherapy or dress them up in cute outfits). I feel we owe our pets love, comfort, food and basic medical care.

Yet the vet said Sam was a “perfect candidate” for this treatment, despite her age. Everything else about her medically was great (except for a condition called a “megacolon” that occasionally led her to do disgusting things on opposite ends every few weeks, thus earning her the nickname of “exploding cat” — this was to be treated by twice-daily feeding of something called a Tuna Tab, but I wondered if we simply couldn’t give her Metameowcil).

Now came the weight of the most pervasive and perverse factor. Emotion. It wasn’t just that Sam was an Old Cat in Good Health. It was, in the eyes of my charming and otherwise logical wife Dee Dee, that Sam was an Old Cat in Good Health who Reminded Her of the Cat Mittens with Whom She Grew Up.

Logic flees screaming at the mention of this kind of argument.

Though I was sad and had very mixed feelings, I have a habit of tabling my emotions when a difficult decision has to be made. I want information first so I can understand the options and pros and cons of each before I factor in emotion. Eight hundred dollars is a lot of money and a cat, though a constant companion and loving source of loud midnight meows for longer than my teenage son has been alive, is a cat. Right?

So, Sam had the injection and became a Glocat. For two weeks, her clumping cat litter was carefully removed and put in sealed five gallon buckets where it will while away its half-life for 90 days before it can be thrown out with the trash and not trigger garbage collection radiation detectors. Sam put on weight, her behavior returned to normal (except, thanks to the Tuna Tabs, the exploding cat trick) and nearly three months after the procedure she seems fine.

Yet this instance of dealing with a life-or-death decision for a geriatric cat is merely a microcosm of the decisions facing those of us with aging or chronically-ill parents. It makes me wonder how anyone overcome with intense emotion can face up to the tough decisions, and weigh all the factors, and be certain they’ve made the “right” decision.

I suspect we never know for sure, but always hope.

(This essay originally appeared on Frank Catalano’s Random Bytes blog and is the only Random Bytes post archived to this site. The blog ended in January 2004.)