in the absence of unicorns

Eight years ago a tiny mess of a kitten entered our lives. Five or six weeks old, sickly and so small my middle finger and thumb easily met around his middle. He was one of the saddest rescue kittens the vet had ever seen; she said we should prepare ourselves, that he might not make it.

For the first few months he hardly ate or even moved, mostly just stared at walls while his nose dripped. Eventually dust motes became interesting and he began to chase them; he got stronger and bigger and ever more eventually he became a healthy young lad with excellent teeth and a good appetite. He had a ton of energy that didn’t lessen as he got older, forever racing up and down stairs, boiiiinging off walls and jumping, cartoon-cat style, a metre straight up into the air, four legs splayed, whenever the mood struck and for no apparent reason. He played fetch and herded his toys. We called him our border collie, our puppy cat.

He was smart, unusually trusting and obedient, more clingy and needy than independent, funny, loving. He has been my yoga buddy, my writing buddy, my constant companion. A good boy.

This morning he died.

More accurately, we had him euthanized.

Our good boy also had a seriously loose chip. Something in his brain was not properly connected, never had been, and it was getting worse. He’d been a danger to our elderly girl cat (we thought he’d be a pal to her after her pal of 17 years had died; but as it turned out, the new lad was no pal and after three years, he and our older cat had to live in separate parts of the house; to her credit, she remained her lovely mellow self and lived to the beautiful age of 20). The boy’s triggers continued and caused him to launch violent attacks—and not the hissing, scratching, meowing, warning kind of attack, but all-out, take no prisoners cat fight in an alley kind. The fight to the death kind. I’ve never seen anything like it and I’ve had cats all my life.

We’ve since been told this can happen to kittens separated from their mothers at too young an age. Not only are they denied the healthy aspects of normal bonding, but they may also be deficient in the nutrients necessary for proper brain development.

Some of the triggers were known to us. The strongest one was if I made that sound you make when you stub a toe or slam a finger in a drawer, a sharp intake of breath… it flipped him out, as if he perceived this as a distress signal and he had to attack whatever threatened me, i.e. whatever or whoever happened to be around. Which usually meant me and my stubbed toe. Logic played no part in things.

I learned to sustain injuries in silence. Once I even poured a pot of scalding water over my leg without uttering a peep because I knew that the smallest sound of surprise or pain would mean teeth and claws in my already forming second degree blisters.

This is what I called ‘managing’. All I had to do was never say ‘ouch’ or make that sharp intake of breath sound… If I could just manage that, forever, there’d be peace in the valley.

But of course I slipped occasionally, and was duly punished with a mauling. Twice he went for my face; once he gave me a black eye.

Sometimes, when it seemed he might be on the verge of an episode from some other, unknown trigger, I’d walk around the house all day with a sheet to throw over him in case he flipped out… buy myself a few seconds to get to another room. Looking back, it strikes me as all but mad, this behaviour. Mine, I mean. Yet I’d come to see it as normal.

We tried meds but they weren’t the answer; he didn’t have an anxiety problem, he had a trigger problem and the meds didn’t change his response. Plus we worried that a lifetime of drugs would create other issues with his heart, his kidneys, etc.

On a Friday morning a few weeks ago, I knocked over a glass in the dark. It surprised me and I uttered a tiny gasp, an intake of breath… Moments earlier, I’d been doing yoga on the bedroom floor with him snuggling up beside my half lotus. Now the glass was tipped over and I knew mid-breath that I was in for it. He was already on his feet and there was no going back. He lunged at my legs, I struggled to get to the bathroom, he fought against the door so that I couldn’t close it and he pushed his way in. It goes on from there. Not a pretty story. My legs were shredded.

He usually ‘comes down’ within an hour or so after these ‘seizures’, but this time he stayed wired for most of the weekend. Amazingly (and despite some lingering buzzing on his part), I was able to pretend all was well; we cuddled on the couch Saturday, he curled up on the bed Sunday morning, almost  as if nothing had happened. Meanwhile I had bandages on my legs. I’d become so used to these attacks, or the threat of them, so used to the tension of constant fear that I might breathe incorrectly and set him off, that I was just so very grateful whenever he was ‘himself’.

Because he was beautiful then.

By Monday I thought he was almost back to normal and by Tuesday morning he seemed perfectly fine. I had a doctor’s appointment, a follow-up to look at my wounds from Friday. While I was out I bought the Bach Rescue Remedy spray; I figured that’s all we needed. Maybe a set of ‘soft paws’ (a brand of click-on nails to soften the blow). I came home from my appointment, said hello to the boy as he slept on his chair in the family room. I went up to my office. A half hour later he was behind me, wanting lunch I thought, but then I saw his face, his body language. Long story short, he attacked, this time without a discernible trigger.

I can’t even describe what happened. He was literally out of his mind.

It’s true that the attacks had become progressively worse over the years, and Friday’s was the worst yet. But this… this attack ‘out of the blue’ was something new. It seemed a switch had flipped and it wasn’t flipping back. I made it to the kitchen, where the attack continued. Blood splattered everywhere, furniture turned over. Finally, I got a door closed between us and called a neighbour who took me to the doctor, who sent me to the hospital for what has amounted to two weeks of IV antibiotics, followed by oral antibiotics. And stitches.

The Health Department got involved and our boy had to be put into quarantine. It was merely a protocol. He was an indoor cat and didn’t have rabies. The options for placement during this 10 day period were grim but, fortunately, we found a beautiful place, a country kennel where cats and dogs spend time being well looked after while their families are on holiday. It gave us time to think.

Euthanasia was discussed. We’d been down this road before with our vet, but in the past we could never go through with it. This time something was different. The attack was different. A line had been crossed and I knew I’d never feel safe with him again. Nor could anyone else.

Whatever was going on with his brain, it was getting worse. Friday’s attack was a lulu. But Tuesday’s was beyond imagination. I’ve come to think it was his way of making it clear to me what had to happen… as if he knew, even though I was still in denial.

And so the talk of euthanasia started again. More earnestly this time. Awful.

It came down to not being able to bear the thought of him hurting someone else (I tell myself that I, of course, can take it; what’s a few antibiotics, a handful of stitches?). We considered giving him away, to a farm, the way you do… or maybe we could find an island where unicorns and sweet but deranged felines live in communal bliss. Turns out there are problems with both scenarios, including how he might meet his end with the next person he attacked. That next person might not be so considerate of his feelings. Especially if he were to hurt a child.

I asked the vet about the island.


And so, in the absence of unicorns… it seemed that euthanasia was the kindest route. I’m still struggling with having made that decision; I keep playing the video over in my head, wanting so very much to be able to edit it.

There are those that will read this and be astonished that I said nothing all these years. Others, who won’t understand, who might think I’m exaggerating. It’s been a wild ride, all of it, an experience that has left me reeling, but also thinking… about denial, about how hard decisions are made, or not, and why. I feel like an ostrich for having put up with it for so long, for having put myself and others at risk. I also feel conflicted, as if I betrayed him by making the ultimate decision…

How’s that for confusion?

I suppose confusion is the least of it. Emotions have been all over the place. Today has been surreal. This has been so different to putting down an aging or ailing pet. A variety of wounds are still healing…

But enough.

I write this for a number of reasons, not the least of which to share with anyone who has been in this position, that I may offer my deepest regret, and to say that I know you did your best, and what you thought was best, and that you did it with all the love a heart can hold.
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