Pet Quest: Aging Pets (and updates for me)

note: written 21/9, I took a while to post it up

I’ve let my blog fall into disrepair. I’ll be honest: 2015 hasn’t been a great year for me in many ways. There have been some excellent highlights (tropical fieldwork, diving holiday, and a few other great moments), but I’ve spent much of the past seven months (at least) in a state of near-panic for various reasons. I’m not at my most creative or reflective in that state of mind, so this all sort of got neglected and shabby.

Things are looking up, so I’m hoping to scrub off the metaphorical cobwebs on blog and brain and see if I can’t salvage something here.

I figure the best way to start is with an update on my pets, as they seem to have a fair few fans.

It starts with a moment, a couple of weeks ago, when I started doing some mental maths. “This December,” I pondered, “Amos will be four years old.”

Four!

I still remember when I brought a nine week old puppy home in a cat carrier, in February 2012. He was just over five kilos then, and fit on a pillow next to my head when I napped on the couch (not to mention that, obviously, he fit in a cat carrier).

Blurry shot of tiny dog.

Blurry shot of tiny dog.

Four is decidedly grown up for a dog. It’s not even young adult, any more; he’s mature. And I’m wondering where the last few years went. It’s made me reflect on the kind of life and love he’s had with us, and mostly I think it stands up pretty well (although there could be more training – Saturday mornings fall by the wayside quite easily at the moment due to some professional dive training I’m doing).

It’s also made me try desperately to avoid doing any other kind of maths, maths that start with the sentence, “Rottweilers used to only live to about ten years but these days we can get them to fourteen…”

See, in my head, he’s still a very young dog (although Abby provides a nice contrast, being only two and a half).

You’d think I’d be used to this.

Lestat, our flat-faced, black-coated, consistently overweight British short hair, is going to be eighteen in October (last year we discovered he was a whole year younger than we thought he was). He’ll be old enough to vote (and as he’s a cat, I have no confidence of which way he would cast his ballot. I can’t imagine he’d bother to number all the boxes below the line). He is riddled with arthritis, and it seems like the anti-inflammatories aren’t helping much any more – but then, that might be down to the truly feral winter we’ve had up here. He hobbles around stiff-legged, and kind of throws himself off the bed in a heap. He used to scamper up walls after the laser pointer, and now he needs to be lifted onto the bed (which we are always happy to do).

He sleeps a lot. Every now and then I check that he’s breathing, because, hell, he is really old. He can still beat the snot out of Jabba when the situation calls for it, because “though much is taken, much yet remains”, and Lestat is boss cat in that “Though much is taken, much abides” sort of way Tennyson was talking about.

And yet, apart from the arthritis, Lestat is incredibly healthy. He’s due for a geriatric blood test, but all the previous ones that have been carried out have come back smack bang in the “normal” ranges. He’s cuddly and affectionate, and if only there were some way to try and get some more traction with the arthritis he would be doing fabulously.

The trickiest pet, at the moment, is Jabba. Jabba will be about thirteen – in November, I think, I’m not entirely sure – and, because of Lestat, I always think of him as the “young cat.” The Nermal to Lestat’s Garfield, if you will.

This obviously came back to bite me back in June. My baseline assumption was that Jabba would always be spry enough to get himself out of trouble, and that turned out to be flawed. He’s still pretty quick, but that now comes with a qualifier: he’s pretty quick for a thirteen year old cat. He’s not the fluffy ball of greased lightning he was when he first came to live with us eight years ago.

He has bounced back from his fractured and dislocated sternum staggeringly well, and doesn’t actually appear to have lost any of the aforementioned spry-ness from that incident. He’s as happy and needy and fluffy and bouncy as ever.

But, unlike Lestat, he’s starting to look old. He’s losing little bits of fur around his ears and over his eyebrows, like an older man starting to go bald. He’s losing weight, and he didn’t have a whole lot to start with. I am starting to think that Lestat might outlive him.

This all came to a head for me yesterday. A few nights ago, Husband noticed that Jabba’s right eye wasn’t opening all the way. The next morning, I spotted it myself – it looked like the eye was rolled up a little bit, and it was mostly closed. Although it opened up a little bit as the morning progressed, it looked smaller, somehow, than the other eye. And wet.

“Uh-oh,” I thought. “Eye infection. Gotta nip that in the bud.” So we made a vet appointment and yesterday morning I shoved a wriggling ball of upset grey fluff into the cat carrier and drove him down the mountain.

He got his gums and heart checked, and he got weighed (the discovery that he had gone from 4.5kgs to 3.6 in a few short months was alarming – I’d noticed the cat carrier had felt incredibly light). He got the blood vessels in his eye examined, a stain to check for scratches, and a few other things.

Apparently, he probably doesn’t have an infection (although he might have had one, and to be safe I am putting ointment in his eye morning and evening. He is not a fan of this process).

What he has is Horner’s Syndrome.

To sum up, this is damage to the functioning of the sympathetic nerve that leads to the eye. Sympathetic nerves are those controlling involuntary motions – like the beating of your heart, the peristalsis in your intestines, that sort of thing. In the case of Horner’s Syndrome, this affects the eye; ultimately, it means that his eye is sunken back in his socket, that the third eyelid is protruding because it’s not being held taut, his exterior eyelids are drooping, and the pupillary reflex is reduced.

It won’t ever get better – nerve damage tends to run that way – so Jabba will always have this slightly odd, uneven gaze. In practical terms, what it really means for him is that he’ll be a bit more sensitive to light, and that’s probably it. Ultimately, that’s not so bad.

Hard to see in this photo, because it's not usually very severe (it varies day to day) but it's the right eye that is affected.

Hard to see in this photo, because it’s not usually very severe (it varies day to day) but it’s the right eye that is affected.

“Is it degenerative?” I asked.

“It can be,” the vet replied cautiously. “It depends on the cause of the damage.”

This means that I have to keep an eye on him, and watch for other neurological symptoms: tilted head, uneven walking, seizures, basic evidence of damage elsewhere in his body. At that point, that’s when he starts to get a full diagnostic work up – x-rays, MRIs, and to be honest he’s going to need another geriatric blood test before long anyway. The vet leans towards the cause being either an eye infection that’s now gone, or possibly feline herpes (which he might have gotten from his mother. He was a pet shop kitty). This is actually a pretty positive prognosis.

It can also be caused by trauma to the chest, so I panicked and thought it might be caused by the Incident, but apparently symptoms would have shown up much closer to the incident (it’s been three months), so we can’t lay this particular event at Abby’s door.

At this point, it looks like he’ll be fine, and I’m pretty optimistic. “Nerve damage” sounds scary – and it is – but I’m actually more concerned about his weight loss. It’s hard to track the eating and weeing habits of one cat when you have two cats that eat from the same bowls and use the same litter tray, but in old cats, rapid weight loss can indicate kidney problems. My current project is to feed him lots of fatty treats and increase the food intake to see if it steps up.

(Edit over a week later: so far there are no other symptoms, no indications of neurological trouble or discomfort, so I’m feeling much better about his condition. Still keeping an eye on him though)

I’m not sure where all this leaves us. I’m certainly more aware that Jabba’s an old cat, now, and that I got complacent because Lestat’s twilight years have been so incredibly smooth. This is a bit of a surprise, since Lestat is a breeder cat, and Jabba is a pet shop moggy. Traditional wisdom holds that purebreds are more inclined to health difficulties – and yet, with the exception that I have to clean muck out of his eyes every day or so, our flat-faced British is healthier than our moggy. I tend to think that “hybrid vigour” can’t really compete with Jabba’s high levels of anxiety (he’s always been a needy, nervous little guy). We know that stress increases inflammation, and chronic inflammation is one of the nastiest things you can do to a body in a long-term sense.

By contrast, if Lestat were any more laid back, we’d have to peel him off the floor. In fact, we often do have to peel him off the floor.

If I use that logic, Amos and Abby run the same way, but there are too many variables to reach that far into the future.

It’s hard to imagine that there will be a time when there’s no furry black lump weighing down my feet, or wrapped around my head in the morning (I’ll say it again: cat hair is not as good as oxygen); hard to imagine that my mornings and evenings won’t be marked by a “Mrrp!” followed by a fluffy grey shape leaping onto my lap and trying to crawl up my chest to bump me in the face. I’ve gotten so used to them.

But fingers crossed, and a bit of extra love and care, and we’ll have a few more years with them yet.

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