The Cat Who Survived In Spite of the Vet

The story below was written by Starr, an online friend of mine.  She titled the article "Training Guide for Brain-Damaged Kitties."  You will find that it is much more than a training guide:  it is a wonderful, factually written tale of a veterinary "accident" and how the cat and his people refused to accept the hand fate dealt them.  This article was updated in early March 2001.

Max with Jen, 10 years agoAbout ten years ago, I adopted a feral kitten that was born under my house. Not from choice, mind you, but because when I tried to find a home for him, he had a cold and no one wanted a sick cat.

Predictably, my daughter fell in love with him, and he was a sweet, lovable little fellow. He adapted to being a house cat with remarkable ease, and it only took three baths in cranberry juice to get all the grease (from sleeping under warm cars) off his fur.

When he reached the appropriate size, about six months old as near as we could tell, we took him to get neutered. However, during the process, the vet overdosed him with anesthetic, and .. well... I'm sure you can guess. He "died" on the operating table for about 40 seconds, was resuscitated, and then put back in the recovery cage. The vet wanted to keep him for a couple days to make sure he was OK. We went to visit him that night, and he got excited to see us and hear our voices. The vet, in his infinite "wisdom," decided that he was getting too excited and sedated him.

Well, when we went back the next day to visit him, he was totally immobile, couldn't see, and the vet said he'd been brain damaged by the first overdose (which I disputed, since he was so happy to see us the day before). I was, and still am, convinced that that second sedation is what caused the damage.

I wanted to take him home, but the vet said they were hydrating him by using a drip setup, and that until I could get him to eat or drink on his own, he didn't feel Max should be released. I was pretty unhappy with this vet at this point, so I told him to give me my **** cat, and then sat in the vet's big office chair, with Max on my lap and two dishes, one with water and one with food. I tried to get him to drink off my fingertips, but he didn't get it, and in my frustration, I pushed his nose into the water dish. He made a few bubbles, but then started to drink!! I tried the same method with the food, pushing his nose into it, and he ate like he'd been starving (he hadn't had solid food since the "accident."). I called the vet to come in and see, and insisted that I be allowed to take Max home. The vet said he'd pretty much made up his mind to put Max down, and at that point, I just stood up with Max in my arms, and walked out, with the vet yelling after me.

When I got home, I called the animal behaviorist at the local humane society to see if she could offer any advice about retraining Max. She didn't have much to offer, but said if I developed any concrete way to train him, to please let her know.

Well, I did. It was a lot of work, especially since he needed almost constant care and handling the first two weeks he was home, and also, all those things you think are "instinctive" in cats, like meowing, washing, etc., are absolutely NOT!

Max todayWell, the upshot was that after we'd worked at retraining Max, teaching him to walk, wash, drink, eat, use paper for his potty business (he would never use a box after that, but hits the paper *most* of the time), I contacted the animal behaviorist again. She was pretty excited, and asked me to do a write-up of what I'd done to train him. To my knowledge, she's still handing out this write-up to people who's cats are brain damaged in car accidents, or, like Max, in medical accidents.

This is an ongoing report of that training and the follow-up over the last ten years.

Spring, 1989, first week

We brought Max home from the vet who had damaged him, and took him the next day to a new vet. He examined Max, and said that he was in good health other than the brain damage, and rehabilitation was possible, but warned us that we should try to teach him all we could within the first six weeks. He said that what we were dealing with was a half-grown cat that had the mental ability of a newborn kitten, and most things are learned (by a kitten) within the first six weeks, taught them by their mama-cat.

Max was unable to move much, and obviously visually impaired. He couldn't meow, wash himself, walk, use the box, or any of the other things that I'd assumed were instinctive in cats. At this point, Max was 6 months old, and weighed approximately 9 pounds.

The first two weeks he was home, he needed almost constant attention. This included making sure he was held as much as possible, since he seemed to have retreated to that very young kitten stage, and needed the touching. Luckily, my daughter was on school break that first week, and she carried him around with her everywhere. If she was walking, he was slung over her shoulder. If she was sitting or lying down, he was resting on her lap or belly. While I was at work, she "fed and watered" him on an hourly basis. This was accomplished by holding the food dish directly under his nose, sometimes pushing his face into the bowl. The same technique was used with water. The first few times we pushed his face into the water bowl (we didn't hold his face there, just pushed hard enough to wet his chin and mouth), he let his face sag into the water enough to cover his nose. He blew a few bubbles, then lifted his face to sneeze.

I took over these chores when I got home from work each evening. His schedule became fairly stable in that first week. I introduced whatever medications the (new) vet gave us for him, and because he was so mellow, it was very easy to pill him or give him liquids. I just rolled him over on his back, opened his mouth, and dropped it down his gullet.

Second week

After we had achieved our goal of getting Max to eat out of the bowls, we decided our next goal would be teaching him to walk, use the box, and wash. We had put Max on the floor a few times, but he was unable to raise himself to his feet. After the first week, he could stand, slightly unbalanced, and walk a bit, but only in circles. Walking in circles is something that animals that are hit by cars do, a symptom of brain damage.

We had the good fortune of living, at that time, in an apartment with a long hallway. My daughter would stand at one end of the hallway, I would stand at the other end, and we would put Max at our feet. Then, whoever was at the opposite end would call him. At first, the person holding or helping him would have to kind of push him along. Then, something clicked in his mind, and he began to recognize his name, and would try to move towards the caller. The first time he did this, he kept hitting the wall of the hallway (cause he tried to walk in circles), and he did it for several days once in a while, but eventually he could make it from one end to the other without banging himself.

During that second week, we also started to teach him to wash himself. This was relatively easy. The entire process took about two weeks. We encouraged him to lick himself by spraying whipped cream on him. The first time, we just put some on his front paws, and gradually put whipped cream pretty much everywhere on him. He would lick it off, and continue to lick at the fur around the area we'd covered with cream. After about two weeks, we were able to stop using whipped cream, and he would wash himself every day.

Box training was also started that week. We had three other cats also, at the time, all female. Max was kept in the bathroom while I was at work and my daughter was at school, so he had access to the box at all times. However, he wouldn't use it. We saw him go towards it several times, but after sniffing, he'd back away and have a "Max-ident" in a corner. This was very frustrating for us, and I once again put in a call to the behaviorist. She said she thought that was normal for a male cat living with females. It seems a lot of male cats don't want to share a box with the girls.

We tried putting out a second box to him, but he virtually ignored it. We ended up having to "paper-train" him,  and to this day he uses newspaper spread on the floor.

Third week

We continued with teaching him to wash, eat, walk, and use the appropriate place for his waste disposal (paper training). He began to make odd noises in his throat at about this time, and we thought he was trying to learn to meow as the other cats did. We tried to teach him, meowing at him whenever we were near him. He was
discovering some freedom again, and would follow us around the house like a puppy, making his little "blerts." He did manage to meow a couple of times, but I think they scared him, cause he tried to run away from it.

Running was something Max still didn't do well. He would get going then his legs would become uncoordinated, almost like his back end wasn't talking to his front end. He would often stumble with his back legs, causing his behind to fall over. But he picked himself right up and kept going on.

Fourth week

We decided to have Max's vision and reflexes evaluated again. He still seemed to be having trouble "tracking" us, and we thought maybe he was still doing it by hearing rather than by sight. The vet verified that his range of vision was only about six inches, and said he didn't think it would get much better. He also checked the "normal" reflexes that most cats have, and Max's were all out of whack. For instance, when the vet held him near the examining table with his paws dangling, and touched the front of his paws to the edge of the table, Max didn't respond by putting his paws on the table as most cats would. It was a little discouraging, but the vet was amazed by all the other progress Max had made.

This week was a big week for Max. I think it was then that he first started to really adapt to not being able to see well. One day my daughter called me at work, very excited, because when she came home she had found him lying on the couch. We assumed he jumped up there, but he didn't do it again for a long time.

Fifth week

Max is responding well to his name now, has managed to find his bowls of food and water, no matter where we place them in the house, and uses the newspaper we lay out for him pretty regularly. We don't keep him in the bathroom any more when we're not home, and haven't been doing that for about two weeks. He's gaining weight again, which is a good thing, because he lost close to two pounds in the first weeks.

Sixth week

Back to the vet. I could tell he was surprised by how well Max was doing. He examined him thoroughly, including some blood tests and samples. He mentioned a couple of things that we found to be alarming. He said Max had had some liver damage because of the over-dose. He could feel that Max's liver was not entirely healthy by it's shape and the feel of the edges of it under his fingers. He said that there was a possibility it would regenerate with time, but that it might not. He also said that Max had developed a heart murmur. He wasn't sure if that was the result of the overdose and mistreatment by the other vet, or whether Max had had it all along. Either way, he couldn't hear it consistently, and it probably wasn't life-threatening.

He suggested that we continue on as we had been doing with training him, but that Max might be at the limit of his ability to learn. The brain damage was very severe, and he felt Max had accomplished some pretty amazing things.

Six months

Max continues to learn, but very slowly now. He started to nip at our hands when we pet him, so we give him a little "thump" with one finger on the nose. He stops immediately, but loves to be petted, even on the belly.

We found that he can't get himself entirely clean, so have started to bathe him about once a month. He makes a lot of noise when we're doing this, but doesn't move around much. He finds the water confusing, and the tub too slippery to try to stand, but starts purring loudly when we wrap him up to dry and cuddle him.

The earthquake last month was hard on all the cats. We weren't home when it occurred, and when we got home, we couldn't find any of them. We called them, and started hearing little noises. We found Venus under the covers on my bed. Cassie started yowling as soon as she saw us, she had climbed to the top of the curtains and couldn't get down. Dusty had trapped herself in a box that had fallen over, upside down. Max took a while to find, since he didn't meow. We could hear his blerts, but couldn't tell where they were coming from, and finally found him under the couch. We don't know how he got there, since he's now a year old, and weighs close to 14 pounds. The gap between the bottom edge of the couch and the floor is less than three inches. We had to get a neighbor in to help us lift it to get Max out from under.

One year

I've been in touch with the animal behaviorist again, and she asked me to update our experiences with Max. He's now 18 months old. He weighs 17 pounds, and has a look of profound innocence in his eyes.

He does meow once in a while, although he forgets how to within a week or so. He blerts a lot tho, a kind of bubbly question mark with a kitty grin on his face.

Dusty doesn't like Max at all and has taken to smacking him whenever she sees him. He does get his revenge though. We had to take the hood off the litter box, because when he knows she's in there, he sits in front of the entry and won't let her out, even though she smacks him and howls the whole time. Sometimes when she smacks him, he'll chase her. She tries to get higher than him, howls and hisses at him, and smacks at him as he paces back and forth around her.

Two years

We have a new vet again. We moved to another town, and the veterinary group here is an all-female group. The vet that specializes in cat disorders has also had experience with the neurological problems that cats occasionally develop, and her and Max have fallen in love with each other. He begins to purr as soon as he hears her voice when we visit, and she calls him her "handsome little fellow."

Max is still doing well. Him and Dusty keep up their ongoing fight. Venus has accepted Max as a cuddle companion. I think she's beginning to feel the effects of old age. She's about ten years old now, and is starting to have some arthritis. She had a bout of cancer last year, but seems to be well now.

Strangely, when we brought Venus home from the hospital, Max went into a growling/hissing frenzy. He was horribly upset, we think by the blood and medicinal smell that was on Venus. We had to wrap him in a towel and put him in the bathroom where he stayed for several hours, hissing and growling all the time. When he finally came out, he went right to Venus and washed her face then curled up next to her.

Max jumps on the beds, couch and chairs now. He's really rather clever about it, he gets up on his hind legs, feels the top of whatever he wants to jump on with his front paws, and then gets back down. He then jumps. He usually misses the first time and goes sliding back to the floor, but makes it eventually. Sometimes, though, he gets lazy, and paces around, blerting, till someone picks him up.

Max's pacific nature and affectionate behavior have earned him the right to go into the nursing homes with me when I go to do volunteer work and visiting. He even has his own little tag, which they don't require him to wear, even though all the other cats have to wear them. We tried putting a collar on him to attach the tag to, but oddly, it made him limp.

Five years

Venus (left) and Max (right)Venus has had several more bouts with cancer. Each time we bring her home, Max goes into one of his little hissy fits, and we have to wrap him and put him in the bathroom. I got bit badly by him on the hand during one of these fits, and had to go to the hospital.

We have noticed that there are times that it's almost impossible to get his attention by calling to him. Cats are notorious for ignoring whatever they want to, but there's at least usually a flicker of eye, whisker, or ear. With Max, there's no reaction, and even picking him up sometimes doesn't break the spell.

Six years

Max has begun having epileptic seizures. His vet was not entirely surprised by this. She has had training in some of the neurological things that can go wrong, and says that this is fairly normal in cases of brain damage. She's put him on Phenobarbital twice a day, and he hasn't had a seizure since then. He may have to take it for the rest of his life.

Max is not allowed to visit in the nursing homes any more until he's been a year without having seizures. I think he misses it. When I get ready to go, and begin to gather books and things for the visits, he sits in front of his carrier.

(Later that year)

We have tried reducing the dose of medication for Max. He's responding well, and a little more alert. The meds tend to make him drowsy. He's developed another problem, the urinary tract disorder that male cats sometimes get. He had to stay at the vet's for several days, while she cleaned him out. He responded well to the anesthesia, which was a relief. We've been very afraid about that, especially since the epilepsy started.

Interestingly, the vet said that those periods when Max gets immobile and we can't get his attention are Petit Mal seizures. The other seizures, the ones that have him spasming, drooling, etc., are Gran Mal seizures. He hasn't had a big one in a few months. He had a few during the summer, and since the summer was so hot, I think it was related to the heat. Increasing his meds for a few months seemed to take care of it though.

Ten years

It's hard to believe that Max will be 11 years old on Halloween. He's a senior cat now, something we weren't sure would happen. He has had more than his share of health problems.

Venus is no longer with us. She succumbed to the cancers two years ago. Anyone who thinks cats don't mourn should have been at my house when I came home without her. Dusty paced the house, going to each spot that Venus used to rest, sniffing, and then sitting up and howling. She did this for three days, not eating and barely drinking. Cassie didn't seem to be as deeply affected, although she would examine the spot on my bed where Venus used to sleep. Max jumps on the bed sometimes, but leaves it again as soon as he figures out Venus isn't there. He, too, paces the house, looking for her. He still does it once in a while.

Max hasn't had a seizure in over two years now. He's maintaining very well at less than half the original dose. He's had another attack of the urinary tract disorder, though, and so takes a urine acidifier several times a week to keep him healthy with that. The vet heard his heart murmur a couple of months ago, which she has been able to hear only a few times since she started seeing him. She says it's getting a bit stronger. His liver damage seems to have regenerated itself, though.

The vet continues to be amazed by Max. She checks his reflexes each time we visit, and spends a great deal of time working with him. He's begun to show some signs of old age. His weight fluctuates seasonally, and he no longer reaches his heaviest weight of 18 pounds. Instead, he bounces between 12 and 15 pounds, depending on the season. This worries both of us, but it seems to be normal for him.

Another thing that is normal for him is that he only urinates once every 24-36 hours. The vet can't figure out why or how he's doing this, but again, he seems to be maintaining well with this. He does, however, pee a lake when he does it.

He's still very easy to pill, though. Although the preferred method is still to roll him over on his back and open his mouth to pop it in, I often do it while he's eating. I push his behind to the floor so he's sitting, lift his chin while he's chewing, and open his mouth enough to pop it in. I wish the other cats were so easy to pill!

Dusty still attacks Max whenever she gets too close to him. She hasn't mellowed with age at all, and still looks her youthful self. She's now 14 years old. I sometimes see her stretching a bit painfully in the mornings, perhaps with a touch of arthritis. I'm sure we'll address this with the vet next time we visit. When I mentioned her behavior towards Max to the vet, she immediately responded that Dusty had to be a torti. Now, I was pretty amazed, because she doesn't usually see Dusty more than once every two years. But the vet laughed and said that when she hears about a kitty that's that feisty, it's usually either a torti or a calico.

Cassie is now the dominant cat of the house. She's 13. I was sure Dusty would take that position when Venus died, and she did for a short time, but her heart doesn't seem to be in it. Cassie even disciplines Dusty when she wants to, although I make them stop when she gets too rough. Cassie is still pretty much a twit, though. She's a Maine Coon, so very talkative and affectionate. She doesn't beat up on Max, and even consents to wash his face once in a while.

Max still has a very limited field of vision, about a foot. He is very affectionate, though, and loves to be petted and picked up. He's learned a new trick in the last years: if someone scratches his head between his ears, he purrs very loudly. When the scratching stops, he opens his eyes very slowly, the raises his right paw and strokes the air a few times. That's his signal that he wants more scritching.

He still meows only intermittently. He has to relearn it every time, and so does it in little bursts of a day or two, then forgets again for three to six months. He blerts a lot though. One funny thing he does is cluck like a chicken when I vacuum. He hears that vacuum turn on, and runs from the room. When I go to search for him, he's flattened himself to the floor, all paws splayed out, chin flat, and is clucking from between his cheeks and lips. The first time he did it, we nearly passed out from laughing so hard.

All in all, Max has done well, considering the problems he's had to overcome. I'm hoping his senior days will be as easy for him, and that when it's his time, he'll be without too much pain.

Max today

Epilogue and Eulogy for our beloved Max

In August of 2000, Max began to have one of those diseases that cats get in old age: a hyperactive thyroid. He responded well to the medication, but there were other things going on coincidentally at the same time. He also had considerable intestinal distress, and this never did let up even though we changed his food and medication. This continued off and on for a while He gained back a few pounds that he'd lost, but never went above the ten  pound mark. This was a significant loss for a cat as big as Max.

Two weeks ago, in mid-January, the intestinal distress increased again, and he once again began to lose weight. He also seemed to be talking a lot,  blerting as he wandered the house, even meowing a bit. He didn't like being  handled much, though, it seemed to hurt him to be picked up and moved  around. So I let him rest as much as he wanted, and snuggled him when he'd let me.

In the first days of February, he seemed to lose ground a little faster, and  lost interest in eating and drinking. As painful as it was, I knew the time was drawing close when he'd tell me he was ready to move on.

Then, on the morning of February 3, 2001, I gathered Max to me and took him to see his beloved Dr. Angelique. She gave him an examination, and the way her hands moved so gently over his body told me she knew the kind of  pain he was experiencing. She told me she believed he was having some  severe bowel disorders, even possibly cancer, and that we could treat it by hospitalization, but that she believed we'd be having the same discussion in a week or two. She reminded me that she'd been hearing his heart murmur again recently, and she hadn't heard it in six years before. I remember how Max looked at me that morning, and I just couldn't imagine him having to be in such pain for that much longer. As I held his head in the palm of my hand and stroked him and told him what a good boy he was and how much I loved him, she bent and kissed him, and told him what a handsome fellow he was, and then with both of us crying, she set his little spirit free.

I can't begin to tell you how much I miss him, his comical little movements, his affectionate nature, the sounds he made to let me know he was there. I  miss his wanderings, learnings, forgettings, and most I miss his warm company as I sit here at my computer. I wish you well, my little fat fellow, and may the kisses and stroking of loving hands always be with you.

Reprint permission

Max's tale is being used as a training aid in several animal behaviorist groups around the country, to help people cope with animals brain damaged by accident or anesthetic. It is free to print and distribute as you like, with the provision that StarryNyte be noted as the owner/author.  You can write to Starr, or visit her home page, StarryNyte Writing Resources.

She is the author of the humorous writeup Our Strict, Unbending Rules for Dealing with Stray Cats here on CatStuff.

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