Visiting Veterinarian : Baby Buck
I hold her in my arms, wrapped in a soft pink blanket. Her eyes are partly open but I do not think she sees me. She is looking inward.
December 3, 1990. My neighbor Doug is hunting in the state forest. It's cold. There's snow on the ground. What's that huddled in the middle of the path? A kitten. A very tiny kitten. "I named her Buckshot," he says an hour later, handing me the bundle of shivering black fur. "Because she looked like a bit of shot in the snow."
Skin and bones, Buckshot weighs a mere 1.3 pounds, has 104.7 fever, and is trembling violently. "Hard to tell at this point what her chances are," I sigh. She is obviously sick, malnourished, and suffering from exposure.
"Do what you can," Doug says. "I wasn't planning on another cat, but I couldn't just leave her alone in the woods."
We warmed Buckshot up, gave fluids, antibiotics, and medication for fever. The next day she was a little better, but wouldn't eat and something was clearly wrong with her central nervous system. She staggered when trying to walk and her head shook uncontrollably. Maybe it's distemper, I mused. Although virtually eliminated in pet cats through vaccination, feline panleukopenia virus, commonly called distemper, persists in feral and unvaccinated cats as well as wildlife.
Often fatal, distemper is characterized by severe vomiting, diarrhea, and dehydration. In kittens, panleukopenia can affect brain development, leading to permanent neurological abnormalities in those that survive. Years ago as a student, I rode with a country veterinarian visiting dairy farms where few farmers vaccinated the hordes of cats that lived alongside the cows. Periodically, a distemper outbreak would ravage a barn. An occasional young survivor would be left with a neurological deficit not unlike Buckshot's. Yup, maybe distemper.
Treatment is mainly supportive care, so that's what we did. We wormed her and gave vitamin injections. When she steadfastly refused food, we tube fed her three times a day with concentrated liquid diet. Beth McCormack was my assistant back then. For those who remember her years on-Island, you know no one on earth is better than Bethie at loving animals. We doted together on this wee black kitten with the sweet round face. "Buckshot?" Beth sputtered. "What kind of name is that? We'll call you Baby Buckshot." Baby Buckshot it was. "Baby baby baby baby Buck," we crooned.
Six days after arriving, Buck began eating on her own. By late December she weighed a whopping two pounds and could walk across the room. Although her head still trembled, especially when eating, she was undeniably ready to go home. Only I couldn't let her go. You may know that feeling. The way one special animal inexplicably steals your heart. That one particular dog or cat that you love beyond reason. A bit sheepishly, I called Doug. "You weren't really looking for a cat..." I started.
Nineteen years later, I have lived with Baby Buck longer than any other creature, including parents, husband, or children. When starting my practice, she graced my desk while I did paperwork late at night, struggling alone to make ends meet. When a pregnant stray cat gave birth here, Buck attended. Later she babysat, letting the kittens pretend nurse on her while the mother cat took a break. Three of the kittens stayed permanently and Buck mothered them for the rest of their lives, outliving them all. When I suffered multiple miscarriages, Baby Buck curled up with me in bed, nose to nose, rubbing her face against my cheek, as though wiping away my tears. And always, I held her in my arms, crooning "babybabybabybabybuck."
Hasty Runner, who has had many cats, knows me well. When one of her cats is sick, Hasty looks serious, then asks "What would you do if it was Baby Buck?" That always gets me. Every caregiver is susceptible to "Compassion Fatigue," but Hasty's query reliably draws me back to where I need to be - remembering how precious each animal is to that owner. I have taken to silently asking myself that same question whenever faced with guiding clients through tough end-of-life decisions. When is the right time to say goodbye? It's complicated. Some people can sit peacefully for days, watching over a beloved companion, keeping the pet as comfortable as possible as it dies naturally. Other folks cannot bear this process. Life circumstances, including finances, family, and logistics, may factor in.
When a pet is obviously suffering, euthanasia is a clearer choice, but "suffering" is not always simple to assess. In general, dogs are easier to read. Cats? Well, they're cats, steeped in inscrutability. Even purring is not foolproof evidence of contentment. Cats in pain or on the brink of death will sometimes purr. Every case is unique and signs can be subtle. "I can't quite explain," I told the family of a cat named Harry last month. Harry had terminal cancer and we were trying to decide what to do. "It's like they stop looking out at the world and start looking inward." I have walked hundreds of people through this process.
Now it is my turn. Baby Buck is dying. At 19, her kidneys have failed. She has stopped eating and is very frail. What would I do if it was Baby Buck? The question is suddenly harder...indescribably harder. For two days I carry her around. She can no longer walk. At night I bring her upstairs and put her beside my pillow, waking every few hours to touch her, hoping she will pass away peacefully on her own. She does not. Today she stops purring. I hold her in my arms, wrapped in a soft pink blanket. Her eyes are partly open, but I do not think she sees me. She is looking inward. She is looking inward. It is time for me to help her on her way. Baby...baby... baby...Buck.