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Great cat, greater loss: What my cat’s death taught me about life

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By Dr. Ernie Ward, Veterinarian

I hope everyone is lucky enough to experience at least one “once-in-a-lifetime” pet. For me, that was a cat named Pellie. To put it simply, she was the greatest cat I’ve ever known. And by knowing, I mean sharing a few years with a spectacular species that’s hard to fully understand. But that’s not what this column is about. It’s actually about how Pellie left me and how little I understood her loss. Let me explain by taking you back to the beginning.

During my four years of veterinary school I didn’t have pets. I fostered a couple of felines my first quarter but a wicked roommate put an end to that. 

After that fiasco, I decided that pets, roommates and four years of 18-hours-of-vet-school-days weren’t the best combo. I had plenty of friends with dogs and cats who enabled me to get my fur-fix when needed. I resigned myself to wait until graduation before becoming a pet-owning adult. I wouldn’t have to wait long. 

I met Pellie during my first week of practice after graduation. Abandoned at the door of the veterinary clinic where I worked, she was a ball of cotton candy with enormous emerald eyes. To say it was love at first sight is an understatement. It was divine intervention. 

At the time, I was seriously into the films of Ingmar Bergman. As far-fetched as it may sound, on our first night together, I rented a VHS tape (kids, go ask your parents) of Bergman’s “Torment.” In the cult-classic, one of the female characters demands that the leading male, Jan-Erik, promise to return her cat, Pellie, as he confronts anguish, an existential crisis and searches for the meaning of life all in Bergman’ brooding, gloomy gray-and-white. I didn’t know Bergman’s spelling of Pellie, but I knew the promise. And that is how Pellie got her name. 

My life was about to get very, very busy. Within the next eight months, I would marry my long-time girlfriend, move twice and start my first veterinary practice in Calabash. Pellie was truly our first child and unassailable anchor during those early stormy seas. 

Fast-forward seven years. Life is even busier, still no children (Laura and I weren’t ready yet) and Pellie had been joined by another inspirational family member, Willie, the rescued Japanese chin. Life was fabulous but stressful in the young Ward household. To make sure everyone remained in optimal health and was able to withstand the stressors of life, we took as many preventive measures as possible. 

My wife, myself and all our pets have a thorough physical examination at least once a year, including blood and urine tests. At this time, Memorial Day weekend was approaching and I had just completed evaluating Pellie’s annual tests the week before. Every test came back as normal. Pellie’s physical exam was perfect, as it should be for a seven-year-old pampered vet’s cat. That was the last time anything would be perfect for a long time.

I’m an early-to-bed, early-to-rise kind of guy. Each night, Pellie and Willie staked out their spots on our bed with all the diplomacy of Iran and Israel. They both could annihilate each other but somehow, just before blood was shed, they managed a tense détente. 

Pellie was a light sleeper while Willie snored away in oblivion. On that particular Saturday night, a terrible thunderstorm awoke both Pellie and me. As I turned to return to sleep, I noticed Pellie pop off the bed. That was the last time I ever saw her alive.

The next morning at 5:30, I was abruptly awakened by a sound I don’t ever want to hear again. My wife began screaming hysterically from downstairs. I leapt out of bed and flew down the stairs. At the base of our kitchen counter laid Pellie, still and stiff. She was dead.

I checked for a heartbeat and breathing. Nothing. She was slightly warm, so I knew she couldn’t have been dead for more than a few hours. I checked her carefully for signs of trauma, bites, anything. Again, nothing. Oral cavity — clear. Eyes — normal. I ran the list and found absolutely nothing out of the ordinary. My mind frantically searched her recent blood and urine tests for something, anything, that might give me a clue to what caused her inexplicable death. Nothing. 

I took the lifeless body to my clinic and prepared her for necropsy (an animal autopsy to determine the cause of death). I couldn’t bear the thought of performing the necropsy myself, so I made arrangements with the state pathology laboratory on Tuesday. I reviewed every detail of Pellie’s medical history with the head pathologist. The lab promised an answer the following day.

I was in a bad way. Twenty years later these memories still sting. I had a busy practice to run so there was no time to grieve. I put on a brave face and tried to push the painful feelings far back into the dark recesses of my mind. Not an ideal strategy for dealing with loss, but this was real-life.

Many of my friends and family couldn’t understand the depth of my feelings, much less my grief. “Just get another cat” was a common refrain. I didn’t want another cat. Ever. If it wasn’t for my wife’s loving support, I don’t know how I would’ve managed. But I did and I learned to love again. It would be over three years before we got another cat.

The day following Pellie’s necropsy came and went without a word from the state lab. My wife encouraged me to be patient. I didn’t want patience; I wanted answers.

I waited until Friday to call. The pathologist told me the reason no one had contacted me was because they couldn’t find anything. No heart disease, heartworm disease, obstruction, stroke, cancer, trauma, poisoning — nothing. They were running additional tests but doubted anything would turn up. They didn’t. Her official cause of death was listed as “natural causes.” In other words, she just died.

The reason I share my story is because we don’t always understand the “how” of death, much less the “why.” By all accounts she could, and I believe should have lived at least another decade. But she didn’t and I’ve made peace with it. That doesn’t mean it doesn’t hurt; it does. It means I’ve accepted it and no one’s to blame. 

Being a veterinarian is a tough gig, and so is loving a pet. I can’t predict when a patient will die, even under my own care. When that happens, I often get blamed. It hurts losing a patient, even more when I’m wrongly accused of causing it. That’s the job I signed on for, so I get it. I guess what I’m really trying to say is if it ever happens to you, I hope you’ll remember my Pellie. Her life taught me a lot; her death taught me a lot more. She taught me to cherish life and not take it for granted. I miss my Pellie fiercely. I’ll never know how she died. After sharing her story, at least I understand a little more why she died.

 

Dr. Ernie Ward, “America’s Pet Advocate,” is an award-winning veterinarian, author and media personality. He can be reached through DrErnieWard.com.