When a pet dies: A tribute to Ms. White

Ms White paws the door
After moving to the Aurora apartment in February, 2013, Ms. White moved one of her strangest habits — pawing furiously at something smooth — from computer monitors to the storm door. August 5, 2013. (Daniel J. Schneider)

Sometime back in 2005 or 2006 my friend Mark took in two cats from another friend of ours, initially temporarily. White and Orange became permanent residents and Mark got more attached than I think he expected.

Mark took in Orange, but felt bad about him being left alone during the days for so long. It happened that Orange’s mom, White, was also interested in a new home. So she came to live with Mark, originally to keep Orange company.

Ms White on desk
Ms. White on the desk at the apartment in south Denver in October, 2012. She’s down from her peak weight of about 15 lbs., but she’s still a big kitty. (Daniel J. Schneider)

I’ve never been a big cat person, myself. In fact, at the age of 8 I discovered I’d inherited my dad’s horrible cat allergy (swollen eyes and nose, everything inside my head liquefying, Rudolph-esque reddening, etc.). Strangely, spending the night at a friend’s house around the age of 22, it seemed my allergy had gone away. It hasn’t reappeared since.

So I started getting to know these two kitties as I hung out with Mark, and took care of them a couple times when he was out of town. For several years Orange was pretty aloof with strangers, but friendly with Mark. It didn’t take long, though, before it became clear that Mark was absolutely tops in White’s eyes.

Ms White on the cat tree
Preparing for a move in January of 2013. Ms. White probably weighs about 10 lbs. here, and is more energetic than I’d ever seen her. (Daniel J. Schneider)

A little about the names: It’s true that White was white, and that almost certainly played a part in her name. Similarly, Orange is orange. But I believe their names had as much to do with their first owner having loved the movie Reservoir Dogs as their actual fur colors. I could be completely wrong.

But it’s really pretty immaterial. Shakespeare’s doomed lover Juliet said (as we almost certainly all know):

What’s in a name? That which we call a rose
By any other name would smell as sweet.

And while cats don’t always smell that sweet (or, let’s say, they seem to have a certain olfactory impact on their environment), sweet was the most apt word to describe Ms. White.

Ms White in May, 2013
In May, 2013, Ms. White’s weight loss has become far more obvious. This is around the time she went to the vet and was first diagnosed as hyperthyroid. (Daniel J. Schneider)

Every afternoon when Mark came home from work, Ms. White (she was sweet enough to deserve an honorific) would be waiting there on the counter. When he moved from room to room, she stood patiently watching for his return, or just followed him.

White was a big kitty. At her peak, I think she weighed over 15 lbs., though she was built to be probably 10 or 11 lbs. She often seemed a bit tentative about jumping up and down on things, preferring an intermediate step to get to counters, desks, table tops… She didn’t let it stop her, but she took her time and considered her moves before making them.

In early 2012, Mark bumped into a fuzzy, black kitten in need of a good home and he couldn’t let her go anywhere else. Minerva is sweet and high-spirited. It took a few weeks of segregation, supervision and occasional hissing for the three to get used to each other. The fuzzball made a lot of attempts to play with Orange and White, and not all were met kindly. Even now, she playfully chases Orange fairly often.

Ms White on the arm
Ms. White was never happy without Mark in sight. She climbed over and around him most of the time, not caring if he was paying attention or not. Nov. 30, 2013. (Daniel J. Schneider)

While Ms. White was always close to Mark, she started spending more time curled up in his lap than ever to escape Minerva’s energetic play. She didn’t escape it all, though, and quickly started losing weight. Mark and I both chalked it up to how much more exercise she was getting with the kitten around.

By the end of the year, White was down around 10 lbs. and almost as spry as the kitten. She took to jumping further and more often than I remember ever seeing her jump. She moved more gracefully than I’d seen before. She seemed even happier than before, if that were possible.

By this time Orange, who for years would suck on White’s ear during their mutual grooming sessions, which, for some reason, left her ear soaked and reeking like something from a neglected corner of a landfill, started to become more aloof with Mark, too, spending more time on his own and avoiding the bouncing kitten, too.

Orange grooms White
Beloved son Orange grooms Ms. White. This ritual seemed less frequent as she got older and thinner, but never stopped completely. The effect of her death on Orange was palpable: he howled at the door for several days when it sunk in. Nov. 30, 2013. (Daniel J. Schneider)

In early 2013, Mark moved from a place in south Denver where he’d lived for 6 or 7 years to a new apartment in Aurora, Colo. He hadn’t had the cats in to the vet for a long time, but after the move, it became clear that Ms. White had gone past healthy and was still losing weight. Not much later it came up in conversation and Mark decided to take the cats to get checked out.

When Ms. White first saw the vet, she weighed in a little under 6 lbs. I had started to feel nervous petting her because she was becoming quite bony, and her fur wasn’t as uniformly fluffy as it had always been before. The vet ran blood tests.

It came back that her thyroid had gone haywire — hyperthyroid. It was overacting and caused her heartbeat and respiration, and her metabolism, to be much too high. She may well have started losing the weight due to the exercise, but it was then coming off because of the imbalance.

Mark had to learn how to get her to take tiny little thyroid pills.

Grumpy Ms White
She’s not actually as grumpy as she appears here. Despite weight loss and old age, Ms. White was always a very happy kitty, even two weeks before her death. Nov. 30, 2013. (Daniel J. Schneider)

After a few weeks, she weighed in right at 5 lbs. Her thyroid was under control; her bloodwork looked clean. The vet told Mark to give her all the wet food she’d eat, suggested different foods, chicken broth, and other ways to get her more nutrients and help her body absorb more to staunch the weight loss or even put some back on.

She wasn’t interested in much, though, except cans of Fancy Feast. What was a shared one-can evening treat became breakfast, too. Then two shared cans in the evening.

Orange didn’t groom her nearly as often anymore. Mark was worried but trying hard not to think about what her age and condition likely meant. Even facing the possibility of having to make a decision to put her down if her quality of life declined too much was hard for him.

By October of 2013, she was down to a little over 3 lbs. Ms. White had started to become very particular about how she was petted, and appeared to have trouble even lowering herself down to a laying position at times. I’m not sure if there was a little arthritis in the mix, or if she was just so thin that the lack of body fat made many positions uncomfortable.

She started going to the bathroom on the floor by the front door of the new apartment. At first I wondered if she did it because she was angry with Mark for going to work and leaving her alone. Since the vet visits, pills, extra food and excessive weight loss began she’d become more attached to Mark than ever. She still seemed perfectly happy, though. She never seemed at all depressed or unhappy. It’s possible she just didn’t have the energy to get into the litter box. She was sleeping more than you’d expect, even for a cat, by then.

In early November I met Mark at his place when he got home from work one day. We went inside and found Ms. White laying in the bathtub, breathing but not very responsive. Worried, we took her to the vet. I waited with Mark while she was given nutrient-packed fluids to combat dehydration. It took all evening because the vet’s office also saw a dog who’d eaten rat poison, several other much sicker cats, and a dog who’d crashed through a mirror while his family was in the middle of moving and slashed his own throat on the broken glass. Ms. White seemed stressed after a whole evening at the vet’s office, but perked up quickly after getting her fluids.

(Note: The last dog mentioned above was in critical condition, but we learned that he was going to make it. I’ll never forget the looks on their faces as the dog’s owner crashed through the door of the vet’s office with the 100-lb. dog limp in his arms, blood spurting rhythmically from his neck and his tongue lolling from his dangling mouth. I’m glad he was okay.)

Going where the hand goes
If the hand didn’t come to the cat, the cat would often come to the hand. Mark obliged her most of the time. Nov. 30, 2013. (Daniel J. Schneider)

On Nov. 30, 2013, for no particular reason, I decided to take a number of pictures of White. I’m glad I did. She still seemed perfectly happy, as friendly and affectionate as ever. But she seemed tired, too.

That very night she jumped to the top of the litter bucket and considered a further jump to the countertop just about 24 inches above her. She contemplated it for a long time before attempting it, but she still didn’t make it. Not enough spring. She clung desperately to a cord or something she’d caught on the counter and pulled things over the edge as she fell back to the floor.

She landed on her feet, as cats are known to do, but that may have been the last time she ever tried to jump to the counter.

On Dec. 14, 2013, ever the sweetheart, Ms. White saved Mark from the decision he’d been dreading. He woke up that morning and for once she didn’t follow him out of the bedroom. Her breathing seemed shallow and labored. She seemed to gasp a few times. He left the room for a short time and when he returned she’d stopped breathing and slipped peacefully away.

White was cremated. It took several days for Orange to be convinced she wasn’t coming back. He knew, but seemed unwilling to admit the truth to himself as he gazed hopefully at the door. When it fully sunk in, he prowled the house or sat in front of the door, howling, for several days. She was a really good kitty, and I’ll miss her.

Ms White on the desk again
I don’t know if it became difficult or painful to groom herself, or if the bones just caused her fur to go every which-way, but it didn’t seem to bother her. Nov. 30, 2013. (Daniel J. Schneider)

All these photos were taken with my iPhone using the Hipstamatic app, except for the first photo (pawing the door), which was taken with the Hueless app.