Signs your cat has cancer: Kelly’s story (part one)


Our cat, Kelly, is sick. Just before Thanksgiving she fell walking across the kitchen, lost control of her body and started flopping around on the floor. It lasted for maybe a minute, but it’s hard to say for sure. I saw only the tail end of it, right before she stood back up on wobbly legs and walked off, regaining her balance within a few steps.

“What was that? A seizure?” my husband asked. None of us had ever witnessed one before. It was an alarming sight and we were scared for Kelly, who has been part of our  family for more than 10 years.

The next morning I knew for sure. Another seizure struck her while napping on a chair in my office. I was working at my desk when the sound of her convulsing body hitting the chair over and over caught my attention. The sight of it was even more terrifying. I had no idea what to do and felt as helpless as she looked.

All I could do was sit beside her, make sure she didn’t fall off the chair, and wait for the violent shaking to stop. When it did, I placed what I hoped was a comforting hand on her body as she lay still for what seemed like a long time, certainly longer than the seizure itself. It was almost like she had left her body and needed to find her way back. I took some comfort in that and hoped she didn’t feel much pain.

Kelly eventually did come back and while she seemed tired, she recovered herself. At that point, I was more shaken than she. I called our vet and told her I needed an appointment right away. She fit us in that afternoon and we went over Kelly’s history as the cat circled the office.

“Does she always walk in circles like that?” the vet asked.

“I’m not sure. Sometimes, maybe.”

I learned later that walking in circles is a sign of a brain tumor. So is staring at walls and the pressing of the head. Kelly had been pressing her head into our arms for months as she snuggled with us on the couch. She also stared at walls.

One sign of a brain tumor is when cats press their head into things or people.

Our cat had been acting unusual for months. Most of it we attributed to aging and we’d wondered if she had some dementia.

More than once she couldn’t find her way home from the next door neighbor’s house, which she has frequented for years. She cuddled with us more than usual and when she wasn’t, we would almost always find her on top of the TV cabinet, her new perch where she spent the better part of each day.

She’d occasionally walk with a drunken gait.

And for several months last summer she meowed at the top of her lungs in the hallway. I thought I was the one losing my mind on those nights.

The vet ordered a blood test to rule out other causes, but a tumor looked likely. When the results came back they showed nothing. I agreed to a full body x-ray next. If the cancer had spread, she said, it would show up.

The x-ray showed nothing. And it meant nothing. All signs still pointed to a brain tumor.

Our vet told us an MRI might have solidified the diagnosis, but we declined for two reasons. One, we had already spent more than $500 on tests. And two, the vet said a definitive result would do nothing to change the course of treatment. There were no vets in our area who would remove a tumor surgically. If we wanted to go that route, we’d need to travel to the other side of the state to a vet college.

Our cat is 13 years old. I wouldn’t want to put her through the ordeal.

The vet gave our cat six months to live.

We chose two meds: a liquid medicine (Levetiracetam) given by syringe every eight hours for three days to stop the current string of seizures, and a long-term pill (Phenobarbital) given daily. Both worked well. Our cat continued to get head twitches and the meds made her sleepier than usual, but the violent, full-blown seizures ceased for nearly four months.

Then one day, Kelly decided she’d have enough. After months of her taking her meds in a chicken-flavored pill pocket with no problems at all, she refused. I tried different pill pockets, a paste, peanut butter, cheese. Nothing worked.

Then she stopped eating.

Maybe she knew it was time. Maybe she was telling me it was time.

Several weeks ago, the seizures started up again and I started giving her the more powerful liquid meds. I forced it into her when she needed it and it did it’s job until another dose was needed. I experimented with different foods and had some success with Fancy Feast for Gravy Lovers. She lapped up the gravy at least.

She has bad days. But just when I think it’s time to think about putting her down, she has a good day — or a string of good days — and I think no, it’s not time yet.

Through it all, she has never stopped enjoying our company. She follows me around the house and she comes to join me if I sit down. She’s quick to purr. She purrs loudly.

When my daughter gets home from school, she joins her for homework time, as she always has. In the evenings, she’s on my husband’s chest as he watches TV. At bedtime, she snuggles up next to my daughter, where she has slept since we adopted her 10 years ago.

So here we are, with an increasingly skinny, increasingly ill, but still loving cat. What do we do?

“You’ll know when it’s time,” my neighbor said.

“But what if I don’t?”

“You’ll know.”

kelly 2Really? Because right now, I’m about three-quarters of the way to knowing it’s time, but I just can’t close the gap.

Have I been doing the right thing for her in keeping her alive? Or have I been doing it for me? Am I letting my own feelings and attachments muddle the humane course of action? I never thought it would be this hard.

During a recent class I took, I remember one of my fellow students called in “sick cat.”

“Oh come on, a sick cat?” I thought. “What kind of excuse is that?”

But I get it now. I’m sorry for thinking that, my fellow classmate.

Kelly is part of our family. She has been part of our everyday life for the majority of my kids growing up years. Saying goodbye, and determining the right time to say goodbye, is a heavy decision.

When is the right time to euthanize a pet?

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