Facing the end with our cat Nona

I’m pretty sure Nona came to live with us in 1995, the first time we moved back to Ypsi. (We’ve tried unsuccessfully to leave twice now.) We’d been living in Atlanta, and decided to move back to Michigan so that Linette could attend grad school. We already had one cat – Eartha – the cat that Linette had adopted as an undergrad. She was an elegant kind of cat, with long grey hair, and a hell of an attitude. In retrospect, I’m not sure why we felt as though she needed a sibling, but, when the opportunity to bring an adorable little white puffball of a kitten home, we took it. That was over 18 years ago, now, and it would seem that our time with that lovely, sweet little cat is rapidly coming to an end. A few weeks ago, when she started losing weight, and we took her in to see the vet. And she was diagnosed with kidney failure and cancer. We began a regimen of subcutaneous fluids, and various medications intended to help her keep her appetite up, and food moving through her system. It’s all horribly sad, but we just aren’t ready to let go, and we don’t get the sense that she is, either. Once we started pumping liquids into her, she perked up considerably, and we’ve been trying to make her remaining days as happy as possible.

Here she is, spending a sunny afternoon in the yard with us a few days ago, as butterflies fluttered overhead, and birds chirped in the trees…

nona2013

Whereas Eartha was always extremely confident and assertive, Nona’s always been anxious. I can’t remember when we made the decision that she’d be an indoor cat, but she didn’t mind. Eartha, who was used to dragging in rodent and bird carcasses by the bushel, took a little more convincing. But, with Nona, we just got the sense that she wanted to be around the house, where there were fewer dangers to consider. Maybe it’s just projection on my part, but she always seemed to be too sensitive to make it in the big, bad word. And I suspect that’s why I’ve always had a soft spot for the little, stubby-tailed ball of anxiety.

With Eartha, we waited too long. The warning signs were there, but we kept putting off the inevitable. We were’t under any delusion that she was going to get better, but, I guess, we thought that her decline might be slow and gentle, ending in a peaceful death. Unfortunately, that’s not what happened. We were awakened early one morning, a year or so ago, to find her at the foot of our bed, her tongue hanging from the side of her mouth, gasping for air, her legs jerking violently in seizure. While Linette got on the phone and made arrangements, I wrapped up her in a towel and took her out, into the yard, to look at birds. I, of course, have no way of knowing, but I felt as though she was able to achieve some degree of peace in that moment.

And, with Nona, I don’t want to put that off until the end. So, if you see me carrying a little cow-colored cat around the neighborhood, talking sweetly to her, and pointing out robins, that’s what’s going on.

As for the decision to raise Eartha and Nona as indoor cats, I don’t regret it. I’m certainly conflicted on the subject, but I think we gave them good lives inside our home. It’s an interesting question, though. Is it better to have a nice, sunny perch next to a window, where you can experience the world in relative safety, or to actually be out in it, experiencing all of the joy and danger that this universe of ours has to offer? At the time, the answer was pretty clear to me. I’d look around the neighborhood, at the rag tag army of feral cats, some without ears and eyes, nursing weeping wounds, and I’d think about the childhood pets that I’d had over the years who met their ends violently, beneath screeching car tires, and I thought that keeping them inside was the most responsible thing. Now that I’m older, though, I wonder. Is 5 good years outside, living by your wits, better than 20 inside, living in relative comfort? Objectively speaking, with the benefit of hindsight, I think our decision was right for Nona and wrong for Eartha. I think Eartha had several good years of killing left in her when we brought her inside. Hopefully she knew that we were doing the best that we could… And, as for Nona, I hope we can make these last several days, weeks or months, as happy as possible, and demonstrate to her how much we appreciate having her in our lives.

[Nona, if it’s not obvious, was named in honor of Nona F. Mecklenberg, our favorite character on The Adventures of Pete & Pete.]

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36 Comments

  1. Posted July 7, 2013 at 10:00 pm | Permalink

    Linette tells me that people will beat up on me for confessing publicly that we chose to raise Eartha and Nona as indoor cats. I know people feel strongly about the subject, and I look forward to a rousing debate. But, with that said, I’ll be super sad if you make me feel like that guy in Cleveland who kept all the young women locked in his basement.

  2. EOS
    Posted July 8, 2013 at 5:49 am | Permalink

    I’m sorry to hear of your cat’s illness. After 18 years, I’m sure Nona is loved and will be greatly missed.

  3. Hen
    Posted July 8, 2013 at 6:38 am | Permalink

    There are worse cat owners.

    http://imgur.com/Gs3eBpl

  4. b
    Posted July 8, 2013 at 7:37 am | Permalink

    she is so cute… reminds me of jack-o …. similar markings. she still looks fit… i say continue with the treatments…

  5. Erika Nelson
    Posted July 8, 2013 at 7:39 am | Permalink

    Mark, I am surprised that you think that people will judge you for keeping the cats indoors. I personally think that keeping cats indoors is almost always better for the cat, for the ecosystem, for neighbors, etc. Billions of songbirds are killed by domesticated cats each year, countless pet cats are killed by other animals or cars, and frankly neighborhood cats are irritating to neighbors when they yawl, pee, poop, hunt etc in yards and gardens. Cats that go outdoors can be exposed to, and thus must be vaccinated against several terrible diseases – not to mention the worms and other parasites that they can bring home to leave around the house.

    I mean I get the whole freedom thing, I’ve had cats and I know that they like being outdoors, but if you have a cat from kittenhood, then he/she won’t really know what they are missing. Feral country cats are one thing, but by giving the cats food and attention at home, you are encouraging them to be domesticated and to live closer to roads, dogs, etc than they would naturally live.

  6. Erika Nelson
    Posted July 8, 2013 at 7:44 am | Permalink

    By the way, my favorite book from childhood was given to me when my childhood cat died. I recommend it for your children (and yourself – I still love this book and we actually read it at all deaths, not just cats, in our family).

    The Tenth Good Thing About Barney, by Judith Viorst.
    http://www.amazon.com/Tenth-Good-Thing-About-Barney/dp/0689712030

  7. blueeyedpupil
    Posted July 8, 2013 at 7:44 am | Permalink

    I think that keeping cats inside is a safer and loving decision.

    Im sorry Nona is at the end of her happy life. I hope she goes easy and you all give each other strength to endure this loss.

  8. Christine
    Posted July 8, 2013 at 7:55 am | Permalink

    I am so sorry- this breaks my heart. I currently have 2 friends who are beside themselves because their cats haven’t returned home. Another friend’s cat came home paralyzed from the waist down. I think indoor is the responsible choice. However, my main reason for commenting is because I always thought I’d name my daughter after Nona Mekwlbwrg. Pete & Pete brings me such joy and peace, so I’m always so delighted to recognize other people’s connections to it.
    Good luck to your family in this hard time.

  9. JPhillips
    Posted July 8, 2013 at 8:06 am | Permalink

    I agree with blueeyedpupil. It’s not like we live out in the wilderness. Outdoor animals have to contend with broken glass, cars, predators, critters with rabies, etc. It’s really rather abusive in my opinion to let them out into all that even if cats are meant to be outdoor creatures. As long as you feed them well, gave them lots of attention, played with ’em, and gave them some sunshine I think it is the responsible thing to keep your cats indoors.

  10. Posted July 8, 2013 at 8:07 am | Permalink

    Roscoe, our family cat, could best be described as a Garfield breed. He came to us via our 13 year old son, who brought him home from a neighbors and gave it to his little brother for his 3rd birthday…

    An outdoor cat, we would often find a “gift” at the front door. The lovely elderly woman across the street, who was a bird watcher, was not fond him as you might guess!

    One day our 10 yr. old brought a rabbit from the front steps , it still was breathing, barely, son ran and grabbed a shoe box and filled it with grass and rabbit. Before he ran off to school, we had the talk about how fragile rabbit hearts were. When he arrived home, he raced up the stairs to his room. Bringing the box downstairs, he asked if the rabbit was stiff did that mean it was dead?
    We had the approriate rabbit burial in the back yard and then went to soccer practice.
    Life goes on …

    We called Roscoe our $5,000 cat. He was a scrapper! He would disappear for a few days and swagger back into the baack yard. Of course he was neutered, however, I believe he thought of himself as a ladies man. He brought an entire new meaning to prowling.

    He would show up on our door steep, scratched, bleeding, festered…

    He once was hit by a car and came dragging home, his belly skin split wide open with
    a full view of his innards and not a drop of blood. $1,500 later he was good to go again.
    He was 13.

    Shortly after, we had our last child, Roscoe came home after an all nighter, took one look at the wiggly squigly in my arms and made a wide path to the door, looking back over his shoulder with a not another one of those looks!

    When he was about 15, he jumped up onto the sideboard, where the phone was, to take a nap. The phone was ringing loadly and as I approached to answer, I realized Roscoe was still sleeping… he was deaf.

    Over the next several months, he rapidly declined, we still let him out, knowing it may be the last time we saw him. We talked about putting him to sleep, he wasn’t in pain just a very old, crotchity cat.

    His demise was not pleasant. My former husband came through the front door with tears running down his face with our beloved old tom cat in his arms and said, “I just killed the cat!” He had crawled under the hood of Larry’s truck, need I say more…

    We decided that was just the way he would want to make his exit! He was nearly 16 years old.

    Thank you for the opportunity to tell his story.

  11. Kevin Kubarych
    Posted July 8, 2013 at 8:22 am | Permalink

    It’s probably time for you and the others with romantic views about keeping cats outside to start reading the massive literature about how devastating cats are for songbirds. Forget DDT, it’s the cats. Get started here:

    http://www.nytimes.com/2009/09/29/science/29angi.html?_r=0

    Annecdotally, ever since our next door neighbors’ cat (whom we adore) went missing or was adopted by someone else, we have have had an explosion of birds in our backyard.

  12. Kevin Kubarych
    Posted July 8, 2013 at 8:24 am | Permalink

    Oh, and I’m really sorry about Nona! I know that feeling, and it is crushingly bad. Plus, cats seem to have a sense of poetry in designing their exits.

  13. XXX
    Posted July 8, 2013 at 8:26 am | Permalink

    The smaller the cage, the more tender the meat.

  14. Jennifer
    Posted July 8, 2013 at 8:52 am | Permalink

    So sorry to hear about Nona, but I am sure that she understands that you and Linette were loving cat parents and that she’s had a happy life.

    Re: the indoor/outdoor lifestyle I think it largely depends on the location that you live in. We keep our cats indoors 100% of the time because we live right in town and I couldn’t bear the thought of one of them getting caught under the wheels of a car. Also, I’m pretty sure that one of them isn’t smart enough to survive beyond the confines of his super-plush indoor existence… and I think he’s cool with that, he’s all about the plush.

    My parents however live out in a nice quiet rural/suburban neighborhood where there are seldom cars and their property is bordered by a corn field. Their cats are allowed indoor/outdoor privileges (although the two older ones have a curfew) and very happily enjoy their days sunning themselves on the patio and hunting voles out of the garden. If I could give our cats that kind of environment then I would have no problem letting them out.

    But enough about my cats… many condolences ahead of time for Nona, I hope you enjoy the last precious days you have with her and do spend the afternoons spotting robins together.

  15. Kristin
    Posted July 8, 2013 at 9:14 am | Permalink

    You know I heart kitties, but people are mean about them being outside. http://www.sciencenews.org/view/generic/id/347928/description/Cats_kill_more_than_one_billion_birds_each_year

  16. Patty
    Posted July 8, 2013 at 9:15 am | Permalink

    Very sorry to hear about Nona.
    I know in my city at least some places require you sign a contract when you adopt a cat promising you’ll keep the cat indoors.

  17. Jean Henry
    Posted July 8, 2013 at 9:54 am | Permalink

    Sorry you have to say goodbye. She has had a great life. An unhappy cat doesn’t make it to 18 years old. Domestic animals are amazingly adaptive. We project a lot of knowing and certainty onto animals, but we don’t know much for sure. Still, I’m pretty sure the songbird population thanks you for keeping Nona indoors, and I bet Nona does too.

  18. Posted July 8, 2013 at 10:13 am | Permalink

    Oh I’m so, so sorry. My dog is almost 15 and my stepcats are 16 so I feel your pain very acutely.

    Whenever I question why pets must live shorter lives, I remember something I read on the internet a long time ago (it must be true, right?). It said that God/Science/Nature/the little man who lives in my pants made pets’ lifespans shorter so that we could have the opportunity to love a lot of them throughout our longer lives.

    I will spare you the Rainbow Bridge poem until some time has passed….

  19. Julie
    Posted July 8, 2013 at 11:31 am | Permalink

    I know it was 1995 because Pigeon is Nona’s litter mate. I’ve often wondered if we brought them together if they would have any memory of each other.

    I’m sad Nona is not doing well. Pigeon has had some health problems but with a change in diet and the occasional steroid shot to help with allergies he is going strong.

    Our vet said only about 15% of cats live past age 15 so I guess we are lucky, it must be at least partly genetic if they have both made it to 18.

  20. Eel
    Posted July 8, 2013 at 1:12 pm | Permalink

    This is two cat posts in a row. It’s starting to feel like Marc Maron’s show.

  21. Stupid Hick
    Posted July 8, 2013 at 1:22 pm | Permalink

    So sorry to hear about Nona, it’s hard to lose a loved one. I think you made the right choice, and you’re both lucky to have each other for so long. A long time in cat years.

  22. karen
    Posted July 8, 2013 at 1:43 pm | Permalink

    first foxy and now nona. if i had to guess, i’d say your pets are getting cancer from the lead paint in your house.

  23. lorie thom
    Posted July 8, 2013 at 4:11 pm | Permalink

    first – Mark, I am sorry to read this. Our pets become part of our families. I’m sorry for the sadness that has arrived.

    second – if one is asking about strictly inside -v- outside cats then I would say that virtually every study out there points to inside cats being healthier, happier and much longer lived than either hybrid or outside cats.

    one reason you have had Nona this long is that she was/is an inside cat.

  24. Posted July 8, 2013 at 6:40 pm | Permalink

    Karen, I’m not sure how your comment was intended, but I’ll assume that it was motivated by genuine concern.

    As for lead, we had our house checked just before Clementine was born. We found that our levels were a little high. The people doing the testing attributed it to our windows, many of which dated back to the 1850’s. So, we had them replaced. Subsequent tests have shown our levels to be lower.

    For those of you who don’t know, Foxy was a dog I inherited after a close relative of mine took his own life. I loved her dearly, but she was elderly, and didn’t live long after coming to Michigan from the Carolinas. As Karen notes, she died of cancer. Given the timing, I think it’s likely that she had it before coming to live with us.

    And, Julie, I’d completely forgotten about Pigeon. I’m glad to hear that she’s still fighting the good fight… Were there other siblings in the litter?

    And thank you all for your comments and stories.

  25. Julie
    Posted July 8, 2013 at 7:08 pm | Permalink

    There was one other kitten in the litter. She had long hair and a tail and was adopted by my manager at the time.

  26. Robert Davis
    Posted July 8, 2013 at 8:16 pm | Permalink

    Sorry to hear about your cat.

  27. Jennifer
    Posted July 8, 2013 at 9:17 pm | Permalink

    So sorry to hear about your cat, Mark.

    I don’t need to tell the whole story but my 18-year old Maine coon cat died 3 years ago. It’s a strange position, and responsibility, to help a much-beloved pet to die (the word “shepherd” comes to mind), and I think I waited a little too long, but like you we had a wonderful hour or so before the very end.

    My 16 year old cat is trucking along amazingly well these days but like the other one has failing kidneys, which as I understand it is pretty much the definition of feline old age.

    Both cats were indoor/outdoor most of their lives. There are no easy answers here; obviously my geriatric cats (spayed & neutered as kittens) were not having grand adventures in other people’s yards, and it’s been much more than a decade since they caught anything, bird or mouse. I live on one of Ypsi city’s busiest streets, but I let them only out the back door into the fenced back yard where they were pretty much content to stay.

    The lives of domestic animals are full of tradeoffs, and it’s absolutely clear to me that both of my very-long lived cats were much happier for having been able to go outside. They were lucky, I suppose, not to run into troubles along the lines that people have mentioned. But Mark’s line about some cats being content to be indoor only, and some not, seems right to me. It strikes me as wrong and paternalist (but perhaps that’s the very definition of having a pet) to think that ALL cats are HAPPIER being indoor only. It’s less problematic to say that indoor cats as a whole are statistically HEALTHIER because they have fewer chances to run into trouble. (I also wonder whether indoor-only correlates with better vet care, better diets, etc.)

    But I want to acknowledge that the argument about songbirds is a powerful one; the contradiction is that happier cats can mean fewer birds. Putting a bell on my more agile cat’s collar did a lot to keep her from hunting successfully.

  28. dragon
    Posted July 8, 2013 at 11:59 pm | Permalink

    She walked up to me and she asked me to scratch
    I asked her her name and in a moist pink voice she said Nona
    En-oh-en-aye Nona na-na-na-na Nona

  29. Murph
    Posted July 9, 2013 at 7:26 am | Permalink

    18 years is a pretty good run, and in the photo she looks pretty good for that age. I grew up with barn cats, some of whom made it to that age, but never without missing tails, teeth, ears, part-blind.

    If she’d wanted to be an outside cat, she would have let you know — our cat would stalk people at the door and dash between their feet to get outside, nearly getting stepped on or closed in the door a dozen times, and tore out several window screens before we got the message and let him be indoor/outdoor. He was fixed as a kitten, but still a neighborhood terror: shortly after we started letting him out, some neighbors thanked us, because he’d taken ownership of the block and chased away all the feral cats they used to have in their yard. We’d see him chasing the raccoons that live under the kircher house, 4 or 5 times his size, or sunning himself on the porch roof of the foreclosure on the next block. He brought animals into the house–once a chipmunk got loose in the heat ducts for a few days before I managed to lure it out and get it outside, and another time a sparrow was flying laps in the living room before he brought it down again with an impressive leap from the arm of the couch. He loved people–when we got him as a kitten, we lived in a house with 8 others–and would often wander onto neighbors’ porches to hang out.

    He always won his fights, though not without injury, and twice disappeared for weeks at a time before showing up skinny and dirty–probably wandered through an open door and got shut inside someplace. He crossed Hamilton casually, narrowly avoiding death regularly, and wouldn’t back down from neighborhood dogs, no matter the size. We haven’t seen him since September, nor did any neighbors or the HVHS report finding him, so he either wandered off and died somewhere out of sight, or walked in to someone else’s house and took up residence. We’d had him for about 7 years at that point.

    All this to say: the life of the outdoor cat contains every bit of adventure and hijinks you think you may have deprived Nona of, but comes fraught with danger, and most likely a dramatically reduced lifespan. So, like I said. If Nona was satisfied to stay inside–if she wasn’t endangering herself or destroying your house in efforts to get outside–I’m sure you were doing right by her.

    Just as you braced for criticism of your indoor-cat-keeping decisions (which I won’t criticize), I’m gonna batten down the hatches over here, now that I’ve admitted to both harboring a vicious bird-killer and knowingly allowed my cat to endanger himself on a regular basis…

  30. Posted July 9, 2013 at 4:55 pm | Permalink

    Your cat has very pretty green eyes, I’m sorry to hear she’s failing. There seems to be an unusual rise in pets with cancer these days–I’ve had several dogs suffer from tumors. Maybe its a pollution thing?

    I personally agree with the majority of commenters who believe keeping your cat indoors is the best approach. I had a whole nest of robins in my backyard once, and the fledglings were promptly massacred the second they touched the ground. It was heartbreaking to see the mother and father bird watch helplessly as their entire family was wiped out by cats in a matter of seconds.

    However, if you insist on outdoor cats, take the appropriate precautions (neuter/spay, shots, and declaw) and put a bell on it.

  31. Bob Krzewinski
    Posted July 10, 2013 at 7:46 pm | Permalink

    We just lost our big black cat, Drew, Wednesday morning. He was probably the most affectionate cat I have ever met. Even for his size (20 lbs but just big – and not fat) he was scared to death to go outside. We are just glad he passed away peacefully at home as taking him to a vet to put him to sleep would have been extremely traumatic for him. I would not have wanted him being scared being his last thought.

  32. Oliva
    Posted July 12, 2013 at 8:43 am | Permalink

    Your comment/lyrics made me smile, dragon–thank you.

    Here’s to Nona and all the great animals who teach and live love.

  33. dragon
    Posted July 13, 2013 at 11:49 pm | Permalink

    Well, I dig your style too, man.
    __
    6

  34. Posted July 31, 2013 at 7:45 pm | Permalink

    Last night , Nona and I watched an episode of Columbo together. It was like old times. And, today, she passed away. According to Linette and Clementine, who were with her, it was peaceful.

  35. Lynne
    Posted August 1, 2013 at 3:34 pm | Permalink

    I am very sorry for your loss. I think most cats can be happy indoors or out, fwiw. Usually if one isn’t happy being kept indoors, it will find a way to get outside. I suspect by the affection I can sense in this post that both of your cats led pretty happy lives.

  36. Posted August 1, 2013 at 7:11 pm | Permalink

    I’d like to think so, Lynne. Thanks for the kind words. Yesterday was pretty rough around here.

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