She had every possible ailment piled on top of her and she was a scrap of a specimen.
Unfortunately, she was being delivered to me from a dear friend with a very fragile spirit. Every fiber of my scientific being told me to speak up, be honest, and count this kitten as another sad statistic to a society that doesn’t take responsibility for a barn cat.
I held that kitten, felt her weightlessness, and looked at my friend tell me for the second time now, to hear the tail end of her story of “how she just couldn’t leave her there by the side of the busy 4 lane highway. She seemed to pop up into thin air, and if she hadn’t I would have missed her. Do you think she will be alright?”
I had to take a long pause before I could answer. The simple efficient answer was “No.” The answer I could live with and the crushing blow I was trying to dart was, “I will do whatever I can to save her.”
I stuck with answer number two. My friend said she would take her as soon as she was well enough to go to her house for foster care.
Kittens are about the most resilient creatures created. I thought she would likely be dead in a day or in foster care in three.
She didn’t weigh a half a pound when she was found. She was a carpet of fleas, and so weak she lay in my hand unable to respond to her natural fear of being with a stranger in a vet hospital.
The next two hours were spent combing off fleas, and killing each life sucking ecto-parasite from her emaciated bony pathetic body. This is a common ailment for a sick kitten. I have seen many many kittens come to me with fleas, but there seems to be some delicate ethereal balance between the host and the parasite. Most healthy outdoor kittens have a few straggling fleas swimming under their coats. But the weakened sickly kittens seem to have a plethora. It appears that the fleas can detect the easy targets and they gang up to deliver their coordinated fatal blow.
If you have a kitten, or find a kitten, please make sure that you de-flea them. A comb, some water, and patience are the safest tools to eradicate them. If you have a severe burden we sometimes use a very tiny amount of a commercially available anti-flea product. (Ask your veterinarian, or call your local rescue for advice with which ones are safe to use). Please, please don’t use anything from an old remedy. I have had clients bring in kittens treated with deadly toxic things, too awful to mention, (stay tuned for future blogs, where I divulge them). But, one last thing, if you get a kitten wet you need to be very very careful to not let them get cold. The big kitten killers are cold, parasites, and lack of nourishment.
The secret to flea removal in kittens is to comb them out with a metal flea comb. The flea comb will separate every hair shaft and remove every flea from the pets’ coat. After the flea is caught in the coat it is wiped on an alcohol soaked paper towel to kill it. The objective is to gently comb the fleas out without getting the kitten wet.
Kittens die from two things first, cold and lack of sustenance, (anemia from being sucked free of your red blood cells by a militia of tiny vampires comes in a close third).
I give a ton of kitten advice every spring: Keep them warm, clean and eating. And remember that peeing and pooping is assisted by their mom, so if you are their foster mom you have to be prepared to stimulate, (if you don’t know what I am talking about ask your vet or rescue). And as always get advice early and often.
Every community has an underground congregation of women (and a few compassionate men, I know this sounds sexist, but check me, I’m spot on), who provide emergency and primary care to throws of abandoned kittens every year. Know them, use them, and help them by keeping your kitten in your home until it is 8 weeks old and ready for its forever home. Also check a fecal, see your vet and always, always be kind to a pet.
Back to my poor pathetic near dead kitten.
She was the worst case I had seen in I think about ever.
Her first day in captivity included de-fleaing, warming, feeding and assessing. She was about 1 month old, but about half the weight she should have been. The fleas were eradicated and she was warmed like a preemie in the NICU ward. All swaddled and bundled and appearing to be a happy patient.
My skepticism in her ability to meet her medical challenges was addressed again by the FeLV/FIV test. She was barely pink, and I was demanding three drops of her short supply blood.
We vets are a hard-line bunch. We tend to try to lighten our load at the starting line by looking for the reasons to give up on our patients. We make our mental list of possible pit-fall problems and proceed through the diagnostic tree to try to reach our conclusive diagnosis. For cats the death sentence is usually wielded by the blue dot determining a felid as either feline leukemia (FeLV) or feline immunodificiency virus (FIV). Those dots mean almost certain death for a feral cat.
We justify the sentence as a way of eradicating the disease from the population. Medicine in its truest form is statistics and prognostic indicators for favorable outcomes, but it is usually determined on the idea that we serve the populations better good, not on the heart-strings of the meekest long shot at survival. We are trained to serve the health of the population even though we are called to medicine by the yearning to serve those with the poorest odds.
With a favorable disease free FeLV/FIV test behind her we took another step down the triage tree. Mental checklist went as follows; warm, check. FeLV/FIV free, check. Flea free, check. That left only the anemia to resolve.
OK, here’s where I get obstinate If you aren’t going to a vet that places femoral catheters you are losing kittens. It is a scary thing to do the first time and a breeze of life saving breathe every time there after. I place them in seconds and I place them with EVERY SINGLE KITTEN that I think is sick.
It has single-handily saved more kittens then I can remember counting. It is the easiest, quickest, and most effective way to provide life support. Whether that be via delivery of itra-osseous fluids or blood. In most kittens cases it ends up being blood, but in all cases it is life-saving emergency fluids.
Within an hour you can transform a lifeless on the verge if death kitten into a playing, purring, animated spark. It will melt your heart, and make you feel like a god.
I was certain she wouldn’t make it through her first day. She had anemia, pneumonia, and was emaciated. I didn’t give her a name, and I didn’t call my friend to commiserate about my premonition.
I had told her that the first 24 to 48 hours were critical, and that if she made it to hour 49 she was probably out of the woods. It was a commonly used medical adage, but I was wrong about that too.
It took one day for me to see even a tinge of color in her gums, but she remained a weak, motionless mass for days.
Her coat went from flea dirt peppered to wet greasy and sickly. Her eyes swelled shut and her head was eternally cocked back nose to the sky to allow her heavy dense lungs to attempt to pull air through her crusted cloaked nostrils. She never lay down, but instead remained sitting up, head back clinging to life by a tiny thread.
I carried her with me everywhere I went. Closed in a tiny cat carrier, a postcard sized litter box, thimble sized food bowl and tea cup bed enclosed in a plastic box with a handle for portability.
I spoke to my friend every day, usually three or four times a day, always saying the same thing. “She is very, very sick, I keep expecting her to get better, but she instead trades one disease or affliction for another. I still don’t think she is going to make it.”
And everyday she would say the same thing, ‘’Well as soon as you think she is well enough I will take care of her, but I’m so thankful that you have her now.”
Every night I carried her little carrier up to the bedside table so I could hear her breathe, and monitor her cage. I woke up every hour or two to listen to her strained struggling wheezing. I cleaned her face and nose at every wake up and at every visit. She became my portable defibrillator, my oxygen tank, my blood pressure monitor, and my pacemaker. I was never away from her. She knew me by my touch, and would flop into my hand as soon as I opened her cage door. She couldn’t see me, or smell me, but I was her lifeline and her care taker and she was fully imprinted on me.
For a few days she ate, but after the profuse green snot erupted from her nose, and eyes she gave up on eating.
A cat is strongly motivated to eat by their sense of smell. If they can’t smell food they are usually not going to eat. Figuring out how to motivate a stuffed up, congested, snot-ridden kitten how to smell, let alone be interested in the food you put in front of her is quite a feat. I always recommend offering a small assortment of anything that smells appetizing if you are a kitten. I suggest trying lots of varieties of canned foods, baby food (meat), and ask your vet about the prescription high-calorie food. For kittens under 2 pounds, (kittens weigh one pound per month of age up to about 6 months old), offer some kitten formula, or mix kitten formula with some canned kitten food.
That little tiny speck of feline spent 4 months tempting her own mortality. For every shuffle forward she shuffled another back. I know without a shadow of doubt that if she had landed in anyone else’s hands, or not jumped at the exact second that she did that she would not be here with me today.
I willed her to live as much as she fiercely fought to grow. There were months of nights that I awoke to peer into her cage to see if her tiny chest still heaved under the brute force of her pneumonia. She needed two surgeries to un-glue her scarred eyes, and to this day, two years later I have to supplement her almost monthly for short periods with an antibiotic. There are still days where her stuffed up nose requires a tissue, and I never let her out of my sight.
For all of the time it took to get her to the point of adolescence and adulthood she is my shadow. She needed me and now I need her. When I come home each day I call her name and she runs to me. The time it took to nurse her back to health bonded us and that bond reminds me every day that love can sometimes cure all.
If you ever find yourself in a position to adopt a kitten, and if you see a tearing, snotty, feeble little thing I have to warn you there is some chance that they may stay a little runny for the foreseeable future, but then again you just might get a soul that reminds you how precious and miraculous life is.
I named her Wren, because I was so afraid my little bird might never sing.
I named her Wren, because I was so afraid my little bird might never sing.