I’m writing this on Mother’s Day. My adult son, who lives two-thirds of the way across the country, sent me a gift I loved. He’ll probably call later. It will be wonderful to hear the sound of his voice, since we mainly communicate via the Internet.
But here at home, I’m playing mom to two four-legged “children,” my big, black cats, Sunny and Millard. For Millard, my younger cat, it has been a devastating week. On Wednesday, our veterinarian amputated his leg.
In February, we took Millard to his regular vet because he’d been limping off and on for several weeks. Watching his gait, we thought the problem was in his left leg or hip. At nine years old, it seemed likely that he’d developed arthritis. I was expecting the vet to put him on an anti-inflammatory drug. Instead, she found a lump in the joint of his right rear leg.
Next we visited a veterinary oncologist. “Tumors in the hock, like this one, tend to be particularly aggressive,” the specialist told me. “The diagnosis is lymphoma, so theoretically it’s throughout his lymphatic system and taking off the leg may not solve Millard’s problem. We’ll try chemo first.”
We tried first one chemo drug, then another. At first the tumor shrank slowly; then it began to grow. Where the vet had shaved Millard’s leg, the lump looked faintly blue. Millard did not want me to touch it. His limp grew worse, and although he was now on anti-inflammatories, occasionally he would sink to the floor in pain. At our latest visit the oncologist said, “This leg has to come off. Now.”
I have volunteered for more than twenty years at a no-kill animal shelter, and I’ve seen a number of three-legged cats. Most do extremely well. Wilbur, who’s missing the same hind leg as Millard, jumps easily onto the furniture in his room. But Wilbur has an advantage over Millard. He was born with the umbilical cord wrapped around his leg, cutting off his circulation. Managing on three legs is all he has ever known. Mr. Red, an older cat who came to us with a shattered foreleg, is also doing well. He sat in his cage for two months after the amputation, afraid to venture out. But finally he did, and now he plays with toys and gallops up and down the halls of the shelter.
Beyond the physical questions, there was Millard’s personality to consider. This cat has not had an easy life. His original owners abandoned him when they moved. He joined a managed colony of feral cats, but the other cats beat him up and pushed him away from the food. When a volunteer brought him to our shelter, he was skinny, and his long hair was matted. He hissed and swatted in fear, so at first we thought he was feral. When he settled down and moved into one of our cat rooms, a couple of bullies found him and made him a target.
After my husband and I adopted Millard five and half years ago, he showed his gratitude every day. He trotted around our house with his fluffy tail in the air. He jumped up ontoour bed at night, leaned against us and purred. He affectionately nuzzled Sunny, whose personality is as benign as his name. But even now he is still wary of new people and new experiences. We call him Sir Millard the Meek, Sir Millard the Mild, Brave Sir Millard who (if you know your Monty Python) ran away.
A friend, not illogically, questioned my decision to go ahead with surgery. “When he is in pain, I will simply have him put down,” she wrote of her elderly dog. “I don’t want to spend the money or watch him disintegrate.” She pointed out that people sometimes choose to keep a pet around for their own sake, not the sake of the animal, and that she would not want to linger, once her quality of life is gone.
I countered by saying that Millard was not nearly as old as her dog, that he was still eating well and interacting normally with us and with Sunny. My decision finally came down to simple terms: He is in pain. We can no longer prevent the pain. But his overall health is good enough that it would be premature to euthanize him now. And fortunately, we can afford the vet bills.
The night before surgery, I could hardly sleep. Millard was in and out of the bed—probably wondering why we hadn’t fed him, since he had to fast before the procedure. How can I do this, I thought to myself. How can I take this beautiful, trusting creature and let someone cut off his leg? It was the hardest thing I’ve ever had to do.
I know what you’re probably thinking right now. Well, she’s lucky. What if she’d had to make this decision for her child? If this is the worst thing that’s ever happened to her, she’s had an easy life. But you know, if this had happened to a child of ours, a child old enough to understand language, we could have explained it somewhat. We could have told the youngster why it had to be done and what to expect. With Millard, there was no way to explain.
I brought Millard home from the hospital Thursday night. I was about to lift him gently out of his carrier when he pulled himself out and landed awkwardly on the floor. He got up and hobbled on three legs over to his food dish, where he immediately began to eat. When I stroked his long hair, I heard his familiar, deep, rumbly purr.
Later, I watched in awe as Millard tripoded over to his litter box, considered a couple of different positions and finally ended up balancing himself by hooking a front paw over the side of the box. I will never call this courageous and resourceful animal “fluffy-brained nutball” again.
Millard still has a long recovery period and more chemo ahead of him. I don’t know how long we can keep the cancer at bay. I hope we’ll know when it’s the right time to make that other decision. In the meantime, we’re taking things a day at a time, and loving our “fur-child” more than ever.