Isn’t it incredible how a near-death experience can give us such a profound appreciation for life? It inspires us to make the most of the time that we are given and reminds us to be grateful for what we have. Sometimes, it can take almost losing someone that we love to really appreciate how lucky we are to have them. Experiences like this can give us a little reminder of just how precious life is. I will never forget what it was like to almost lose my cat, Lou and how it changed my perspective on life as a pet owner and a veterinary student.
Lou would be insulted to hear himself referred to as a “cat.” Lou is a lion, or at least that’s what he thinks and I won’t be the one to tell him otherwise. We found him wandering the streets of our friends’ neighborhood, although I guess he more so found us. We were instantly in awe of his desire to rub all over us and our dog (who was utterly confused and uncomfortable with the situation to say the least), and we knew he must have belonged to someone. We decided we would hold onto him until we could get him back to his family, but after exhausting rescues sites on the internet, flyers, and door-to-door knocking, we had ourselves a new cat. He was around 9 months old then, and now 4 years later, we have ourselves a lion.
Lou is an orange tabby named after King Louie the orangutan from the Jungle Book, which we had just seen in theaters the day that we found him. He is 9 pounds and 11 oz of pure male orange tabby, so he’s got that perfect balance of thinking he’s a dog most of the time but suddenly remembering his true species around meal times when the meowing persists until his bowl is filled. He loves dogs, people, and long walks in the woods, and we could not have found a more perfect fit for our family. About 3 years after he joined our pack, Lou seemed to be settled nicely into his rightful position as king of our pack, spending his days napping in the yard with his dogs and sleeping on my pillow each night. He was a happy, healthy cat...until one day he wasn’t.
We woke up one morning to him being especially lazy and refusing to get out of bed to eat, which should have been an instant red flag for the bottomless pit that he normally is, but I thought maybe he had just eaten too much the night before. I had a wedding shower to go to that morning, so I gave him my best pre-vet student attempt at a physical exam (which was minimal at best) and left him with my husband, Evan, who was keeping a close eye on him. A few hours later, Evan called to tell me it felt like there was a softball in his stomach and that he was rushing him to the emergency vet. It turns out that softball was his bladder, and he was completely blocked. I knew this happened fairly commonly in male cats due to the long, narrow nature of their urethra and their tendency to produce crystals and potentially stones in their urine, but I quickly learned that common does not mean minor. This was a serious emergency. The longer Lou was blocked and unable to get urine (and the toxins that it carries) out of his body, the worse his kidney damage and prognosis would be.
Our vet at the animal hospital where I volunteered instantly got him unblocked and started him on fluid therapy and pain management, but his kidneys had taken quite a beating. They kept him for treatment and monitoring, and three days later he was still quite sick with a high creatinine level of 10 mg/dL, meaning this particular kidney enzyme was much higher than it should be. Needless to say, it wasn’t looking good for Lou. As we battled with the impossible decision of euthanizing our little lion who was completely healthy just 2 days prior, we decided to give him one more day of fluid therapy to see if his kidneys could somehow overcome the damage that had been done, and that is exactly what they did. His creatinine suddenly began to drop slowly, and within two days he was at a creatinine level of 4.5 mg/dL, which was still a bit higher than we would like to see, but certainly manageable. We gratefully accepted the diagnosis of renal disease, which was much better than the alternative, and headed home to consider our options if he were to block again. He seemed to be improving, but the day before his follow-up appointment I got a weird feeling and couldn’t tell if he had peed that morning, so I took him into the hospital and asked them to check him out again as I jokingly apologized to my colleagues for being “one of those overly worried clients.” I decided to drop him off on my way to class, and shortly after I left I got the call that he had blocked again.
My vet had discussed with us what our options would be if this became a reccurring problem, and we decided that a perineal urethrostomy (PU) would be our best choice for having him return to a normal life without having to constantly worry about him re-blocking. So after I got that call, Lou went into surgery to have stones removed and a perineal urethrostomy (PU) done. The PU procedure creates a new, wider urethral opening in the skin between the scrotum and anus (perineum), allowing urine to be excreted without passing through the narrowed portion of the urethra where the original obstruction occurred. The PU, which I had watched my doctor perform a handful of times on other cats, could not have gone better. After a short stay in the hospital Lou was eager to get home, and his dogs were anxiously awaiting his return. He took to being pilled multiple times a day better than most, and a month later the cone-of-shame came off. Aside from his ridiculous haircut, the lion was back. Over a year later, I am happy to report that we have a happy, healthy, and sassy lion that acts like nothing ever happened. His specialized wet food urinary diet seems to be doing the trick. Cats don't drink much on their own, so wet food is often recommended to increase a cat's water intake. Water helps to dilute his urine, which means he pees more often and doesn't develop crystals so easily, decreasing the chance of him forming bladder stones or blocking again. (Even with the PU surgery, there's still a slight chance of him blocking again if he develops a lot of crystals or stones.) Stress was believed to be the cause of Lou’s obstruction, but we never could figure out what it was that bothered him so much.
As I write this I am watching him curled up on the couch next to his dog, snoozing away without a care in the world. Since his surgery, Lou has been driven across the country for vet school, lived in multiple homes, made new dog friends, and interrupted countless Zoom meetings while I am doing online classes for vet school. Lou continues to live like the king that he was named after and acts like he still has all 9 of his lives left to live, although I certainly think he used up a few surviving this ordeal.
We are incredibly grateful to still have Lou here with us, and although I don’t feel that we ever took our time with him for granted, we certainly never will. Oddly enough, my profound appreciation for life that came with Lou’s near-death experience was more related to my own life than that of Lou’s. As I reflected on what this experience taught me, I was reminded of just how fortunate I am; to love and be loved by animals that make the thought of saying goodbye so hard; to work in such an incredible profession where people pour their hearts and souls into their patients; and to have the opportunity to one day become a veterinarian and return the favor to some girl and her lion.
November 6, 2020
VIN News Service commentaries are opinion pieces presenting insights, personal experiences and/or perspectives on topical issues by members of the veterinary community. To submit a commentary for consideration, email firstname.lastname@example.org.