Monday, March 03, 2008
Goodbye to Spooky the Barn Cat
My farrier was about to get started on Phoenix’s hooves when she paused for a visit with the Barn Cat. He was up on the windowsill, one of his usual haunts. I was closing the stall door and had my back turned.
“Heidi! What’s wrong with your cat?” She sounded alarmed.
When I turned around, I could see from where I was that his right cheek was hairless and infected. Oh no.
“Last time I was, here two weeks ago, he had a little lump in his cheek. I told Dad about it but then Spooky didn’t show up much...”
Barn cats do that. They kind of have their own agenda and if they’re not hungry, they might not come home for a bowl full of kibble. This little guy was pretty faithful. He might take off for a few days but he always came home again. And now he was home and very badly damaged.
I held him, paws in my hands, and Mary opened his mouth. It was bad. That side of his mouth was nothing but oozing infection. My heart dropped. “We have to do something about this.”
We got busy with Phoenix’s trim, which luckily went very well. I was very worried about a crack in his hind hoof. It was bad enough that my Dad called Mary two weeks early to come look at it. The crack is only on the outer surface of the hoof wall, and will likely grow out. But the good news about the hoof was shadowed by the very strong possibility that our cat had a fatal injury.
My daughter came out to see what was going on in the barn and of course, had to stop to pet Spooky. It’s barn rules. I heard her over at the other stall, petting the little mare and then noticing something wrong with the cat. “We’re going to have to call the vet, sweetie.” She’s old enough to know what that meant.
He’d have to be put down. There was no other solution. Whenever I make this final decision I feel like I have to defend it. I love my animals, and I want them to have good lives, but sometimes that means knowing when to end it. Put him out of his misery. You can’t look a critter in the eye and say, “We’re going to take you to the doctor and it will hurt, then it will hurt more, and we’ll have to poke you and needle you for a few months, but eventually you’ll feel better.” All they know is the immediate.
Things get tougher when it’s a barn cat. Because of their independent nature, they might not be there when it’s time to give him his dose of medicine. A house cat can’t hide as easily.
Worse, a cat will slink off to be alone. They do that. I can’t count how many times, when I was a kid, one of our favourite cats would disappear. Our parents would warn us that it happens, and we might not ever see her again. They sneak away and die alone. A few times, the cat would show up later, good as new. Other times, we’d find a cold little body in the hay mow. Life is cruel. Death is final.
I thought about my beloved house cat while I waited for the vet to call back. Nigel is (approximately) eighteen years old. We’ve almost lost him a few times. I have spent money on this cat. I questioned it every time. He’s a cat and the practical farm girl that I am, wondered if this was the best way to spend my money when I had groceries to buy and a mortgage to pay... but I owed him that. I knew he needed help, and he was there for me to help him.
But Spooky was in such bad shape I couldn’t imagine making him suffer longer. I didn’t even want to make him wait for the clinic to reopen on Monday. My mother and I had a few tears and sobs and told each other that we had to do it this way. I made arrangements and went back out to the barn. For a half hour, I cleaned the barn and kept checking on the sweet black cat, who sat curled up in the shavings. I’d call his name and he’d answer with a weak, scratchy meow. He didn’t run off. Did he know? Was he ready?
When Dad was farming, euthanizing a cat was impractical. It had to be done at home. I won’t discuss it but I will say that my Dad looked relieved when my husband and I offered to take Spooky in. He said a quiet goodbye. This was my Dad’s favourite cat.
The vet was very understanding. She had been the assistant when my horse died. I told her to come out sometime for a routine check in the spring and get to see some healthy horses. She's really cool and it would be nice to see her when we're not ending an animal's life.
Euthanasia is a wonderful thing. The concept of paying that fee and ending up with no animal seems hurtful and ridiculous, but that’s the price of peace. It’s worth it. Spooky gave one last purr as he slumped in my arms. I could be convinced that it was just his last breath exiting but I’d like to think he trusted me. There was no violence or struggle.
This is the part of pet ownership that nobody wants to think about. Every critter you love will get old or sick or hurt, one or the other. If we want to tame them, and live with them, we’ve made them dependent on us, and we face the possibility of having to make this hard decision. I know I did the right thing, and I’ve held two cats and one much loved horse as they died, I have seen and felt the life force leave them, and known that they didn’t have to suffer anymore...but it’s never easy.
Dad’s concerned about finding another great cat like Spooky. He’d been a failed housecat who spent the first year in the barn hiding, which is how he got his name. Once he decided that we had food and food is good, he became the tamest friendliest guy. He was a neutered male, with claws, so he didn’t have that Tomcat need to prowl around the neighbourhood looking for girlfriends, rarely got in fights with visiting Toms- in fact, those guys just kind of avoided him- and was an excellent mouser. In the winter, he made himself a little nest in the loose hay in front of Copper’s stall and curled up. He shared her water bucket. In the summer, we’d see him every morning at about 7:30, crossing the corral in the same diagonal line, from the field to the barn, with little paws and a tail hanging out of his mouth. Later in the day, he’d set his front paws on the water trough for a little drink. If it was too hot to sleep in the house, we’d camp out on the deck, and the kids were thrilled that they still had a black cat to cuddle. How can you sleep without a black cat?
He had a wide face and green eyes and one white whisker. He had a scratchy meow and a frantic loud purr. He’d walk along the edge of the troughs in the barn while we fed the horses, demanding a pat. When Dad picked him up, the cat would smush the top of his head under Dad’s chin, stretching one paw out and flexing his claws in happiness. In almost ten years he never had a serious health problem. He got the goopy eyes and sniffles once, and just when I was about to call the vet, he cleared up. The darn cat even knew how to look both ways before crossing the road, which he didn’t do often. He stuck pretty close to home. When my sister came to the farm to visit, he came trotting out to say hi. He greeted my mom when she came home from work. My kids loved having a black cat at home and another at Grandma’s farm.
Every now and then other cats would pass by. There was a sweet little thing a few months ago. On Saturday night when I headed out to the barn, I saw a black and white cat zip around the corner of the barn wall. Dad brought a scoop of kibble out to the barn with him, just in case.
If the visitor is a fickle female or a traveling Tom, I think we’ll go looking for another neutered male with claws who can settle in and live a nice comfy life. No feline roommates, steady supply of kibble and mice, lots of pats and cuddles at chore time. Free to come and go as desired. It’s a good life. And that's what matters.