Mr. Randall is one of my favorite clients. He and his wife adopted a kitten about six months ago from the shelter; over Thanksgiving they got a second kitten to keep him company. Both the cats and the people are just tremendously nice and pleasant, and it’s always a bright spot in my day to see them.
He came in to see me because they were concerned that Pawsy, the newer kitten, had worms. His belly looked a little big to him, he explained to the tech. My tech came out of the room shaking his head. “It’s not good,” he told me.
I went in the room, smiled at Mr. Randall, and looked at Pawsy. My heart sank. Two weeks prior, Pawsy had been the epitome of healthy young kitten. Today, he looked like the textbook example of FIP.
FIP (Feline Infectious Peritonitis) is a nasty virus that seemingly strikes at random. No one is entirely sure how it works. The current train of thought is that it is a strain of coronavirus, which is pretty endemic in shelter environments; normally corona is fairly benign. But in some cats, for reasons unknown, the coronavirus turns into something horrible and rapidly causes a variety of symptoms, which invariably lead to death. There is no cure.
I knew this. Mr. Randall didn’t. He thought Pawsy had a mild treatable case of worms. Usually, when clients bring in a critically ill pet, they are aware that something bad is going on, and I just have to confirm their suspicions. In this case, I had someone smiling and cheerful and just so damn nice and I have to figure out a way to say, I’m sorry but your kitten is going to die soon.
I have a terrible poker face, by the way. It is a both a blessing and a curse to be completely unable to bluff or deceive. It took a monumental effort to merely be neutral as I did my exam. I examined Pawsy, dehydrated and a little thinner than before. I palpated his large, fluid filled belly and furiously searched my brain for something, anything else it could be.
By now Mr. Randall has realized I’m a little more serious than usual. Rather than a sudden smack across the head with a sledgehammer, this is gradually holding the shoulders and turning someone in a different direction. This, and not that, is the road we are heading down. I am sorry. He looks at me when I finish, and we have the same frown. “I’m concerned that Pawsy has something pretty serious,” I tell Mr. Randall. “I’m going to take him in the back and do a belly tap.”
Now he has a minute to digest this, and re-frame his expectations. In the meantime, we take Pawsy back and unfortunately, his belly is filled with the exact straw colored fluid that I knew it would be. Sure, you can say you don’t know for certain unless you do a PCR test, but there just isn’t anything else that does this, like this.
So when I finally have to tell Mr. Randall the entirety of the problem, what FIP is, he is a little more prepared to hear it. “I’m so sorry to have to tell you this,” I say, and mean it. He grabs my hand. “I know,” he says. “Thank you.” He takes Pawsy home to talk with his wife. We don’t know how much time they will have, but it’s not much. Days, probably.
After reading the information I gave them and looking around on the web for a few hours, the Randalls call back and say they would like to come back in that afternoon. The reality of the situation has sunk in and they don’t want him to suffer. “It’s so hard,” Mr. Randall tells me while his wife cries. “He still looks OK, but I know how bad it is.”
I pause, ponder whether it’s appropriate or not, and tell him briefly that I had to euthanize my own dog just the week prior. “I know how hard it is,” I say genuinely. “It’s just awful.”
Then he said something I wasn’t expecting. “Oh no….I am so sorry.” And he meant it. We both look at Pawsy, lying quietly in his wife’s lap. There is not much more to say.
His ashes arrived back at the clinic the same day as my dog Mulan’s. It’s a frustrating reminder that some things in this field are a constant no matter how hard you try.