Dealing with the diagnosis
‘We’ve had Maisie for 15 years now: she’s a lovely long-haired domestic and we rehomed her from Cats Protection when she was only a year old. She’d had a tough start, and was found in a field with three kittens when she was still not much more than a kitten herself,’ explains Tim.
‘In summer 2016, I noticed that Maisie’s breathing was very laboured. I took her to the vet who knew straight away that there was a problem with her lungs.’ In fact, the cavity around Maisie’s lungs had filled up with fluid, leaving her unable to take a deep breath. And that wasn’t the only issue.
‘The vet did various tests and scans and discovered that Maisie’s heart wasn’t pumping properly because there was a mass around it,’ says Tim. ‘But an operation was out of the question because it could damage her heart.
‘It was such a serious diagnosis that I had to ask how much time she had left to live. The vet said it could be two weeks, two months or even two years but, in her professional opinion, it was likely to be weeks.’
Making Maisie comfortable
Tim’s immediate priority was Maisie’s wellbeing. After draining the fluid from the lung cavities, the vet prescribed diuretic tablets to stop the build-up of fluid. However, Maisie’s water tablets then created a potassium deficiency. ‘So, now, she has medication twice a day, morning and evening, to manage her fluids and her potassium,’ says Tim. ‘It’s quite a fine balance but, as it’s now being managed effectively, Maisie’s in great shape.’
Tim and his partner Alan also came up with a clever way of giving Maisie her medication. ‘She’s the kind of cat who eats half a bowl of food then wanders off. So, rather than add the medicine to her meals, we decided to mix it with a treat paste. I crush half a tablet, add the potassium liquid, then mix it all up. As soon as she hears the packaging rustling, she comes scuttling over! And she always licks the plate clean.
‘I think if we had to force her mouth open twice a day, it would be very traumatic,’ says Tim. ‘But this is a really easy way of keeping Maisie well. We also have friends who know the routine, and they help out if we have to go away.’
Ask the right questions
Maisie’s breathing was an obvious symptom of her illness, and there was a danger that her lungs might keep filling up. ‘But it was the mass around her heart that worried me most,’ remembers Tim.
‘I dealt with the diagnosis by asking our vet very direct questions. If you ask the question – “If it was your cat, what would you do?” – most vets will give you an honest answer. I didn’t want to be left dangling, not knowing how ill she was or how long she had to live. Our vet told us to take Maisie home and enjoy her company, which is exactly what we did.’
Enjoying extra time together
Initially, though, Tim was upset. ‘I remember thinking, “She’s never going to see another summer; she won’t experience another Christmas.” I know cats are not aware of these things like we are, but the finality of it all made me feel sad.’
But, as it turned out, two years on, Maisie’s still fit and healthy. ‘It has been amazing to have so much extra time with her, and we feel very grateful,’ says Tim.
And Maisie is making the most of her life, too. ‘She has a little cat friend called Banksy who lives in the house that backs onto ours. They’re inseparable, which is very unusual for a cat. Every day, they lie in the garden together and it’s so lovely to see. Maisie is completely devoted to him.’
Now, Tim, Alan and Maisie are taking each day as it comes. ‘When we thought we only had a few weeks together, she was getting more treats than normal and I have to confess that hasn’t really changed,’ laughs Tim. ‘She probably can’t believe how great life is now – she can basically do no wrong!’
The experts’ view
Shona McLean from All Ears Pet Bereavement Counselling often provides support for people whose pets have a life-threatening illness. She recommends staying informed: ‘Get as much detail as possible about what your pet is experiencing. Talk to your vet about what to expect, and share your feelings with the people you love. That way, anxiety about the diagnosis won’t spoil the time you have left together with your pet.’
Pet bereavement counsellor Kate Brown agrees. ‘Pet-owners can feel a bit embarrassed about getting too emotional about an animal, but you should never feel as if you have to minimise your feelings.’
Small keepsakes can help, too. Diane James from the Blue Cross Pet Bereavement Support Service suggests creating a picture collage or a scrapbook. ‘Start a special box to remember your pet, just as you would a friend or family member,’ suggests Kate. She also recommends making an edited video of your cat doing her favourite things. ‘It’s something you can watch later and can be really valuable source of memories.’ And Shona recommends ‘writing a letter of what you would like to say to your pet. Putting your feelings down on paper can be very powerful and therapeutic.’
Finally, don’t be hard on yourself, says Diane: ‘Make sure you look after yourself. It’s a difficult situation so do take time out when you need it.’