Losing a Pet: Divine Intervention or Sheer Bad Luck?

Last week, you heard about JP’s esophageal foreign body extravaganza. Well, the following morning, I took JP to the clinic with me so I could keep a close eye on him. After work, JP and I decided to take a nap — after all, we were both pretty exhausted and traumatized from the previous evening’s excitement. While napping in bed, Echo, my 7-year-old, male, neutered, black, domesticated-shorthair cat, ran over to "make muffins" on me.

Anytime I’m in my bed, Echo runs over to knead me with his front paws. This is likely Echo’s sign of affection to me. After all, this trait stems from kittens kneading their mother’s mammary glands to stimulate milk release from their mother. Personally, I love when Echo does this, and simply roll over and let him massage my worries away.   

About ten minutes later, I heard a blood-curdling cat howl from the living room. I sprinted out of bed to investigate, worried that JP had done something to the cats in his post-anesthesia state. What I found instead was Echo trapped between the TV and the flower pot — dying!

First, a little background about Echo: I met him in 2005 when I was performing routine veterinary exams on a few animals from a local shelter. I instantly diagnosed him with a severe heart defect the minute I picked him up to examine him. Echo’s heart murmur was so loud that it was vibrating through his chest wall, and I could feel it when I scooped him up out of his cage.

We veterinarians grade heart murmurs on a scale of 1-6, and Echo’s was a 6/6, meaning he had the worst of the worst. Echo was born with a rare heart defect, and I was shocked that he had survived a previous anesthesia for declawing and neutering prior to his arrival here at the shelter. The shelter only wanted a veterinarian to adopt him, as they knew Echo would have a shortened lifespan and basically, die a horrible death of congestive heart failure, a saddle thrombus, or severe arrhythmias.

Knowing that he’d have a shortened lifespan, I ended up adopting Echo that day. I wanted to give him the best quality of life — regardless of how short it was — without any medical heroics being performed.

Secretly, I also adopted him for a more morbid, warped reason: I knew Echo was going to die in a few years, and I wanted to be able to mentally prepare myself for it. After all, I had never experienced a pet's death (as an adult), and wanted to make sure I was prepared for the grief associated with pet loss before it was my beloved JP.

So that’s how Echo came into my life. I took him home that day and fondly named him after a geeky veterinary term: echocardiogram. You see, Echo is short for echocardiogram, the technical name for a heart ultrasound (I foresaw a lot of these expensive procedures in his near but short future). Despite my estimate that he’d only live a year or two (which is why veterinarians hate answering, "How long is he gonna live, Doc?"), Echo lived for six long years, until this ill-fated day.

Now, this wasn’t Echo's first syncopal (i.e., fainting) episode. During the previous two years, Echo had a few near-death experiences where his heart rate had dropped too low (what we term "bradycardia"). During these previous episodes, I was able to rescue Echo with a few quick puffs of an asthma inhaler (e.g., albuterol), which helped quickly increase his heart rate and snap him out of his "attack."

Unfortunately with this last episode, Echo had the opposite problem; he was having a heart attack from too rapid of a heart rate. Despite doing CPR (more on this next week) on him for a few minutes, Echo died quickly, despite me wailing, screaming, and crying in the process.

Were the pet gods torturing me? Two major pet emergencies within a 12-hour window.

Words can’t express how deep the loss was … particularly right after the emergency with JP 12 hours earlier. To lose one pet while the other has end-stage cancer was more veterinary emergency than I could personally prepare for … and that’s coming from an emergency veterinary specialist.

A few days later, while sitting on the sofa with JP, I took out Echo’s clay paw. Instead of wallowing in my despair as I had for the previous few days, I realized it was Echo’s angelic way of preparing me for JP. Echo left me before JP, as I had initially "intended." So, no … the pet gods weren’t @%* with me. It was likely my cat’s way of gracefully preparing me for the near inevitable.

What did I learn from this? Not only do cats have nine lives (Yes, I witnessed Echo using five to six of them!), but they have an innate sense of love that even this veterinarian can’t comprehend.

You are missed, Echo…

Dr. Justine Lee

Pic of the day: Mischievous Mikey by Susan E Adams

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