The Cost of Putting Down My Cat

More money than you’d think.

I first met Charlie when I was twenty and he was two. He was really skinny, and I picked him up for free from a foster home near my college where he lived in a garage with — honestly — at least twenty other foster cats. Charlie did not care for me much at first, and he spent a lot of his time pressed between the cabinet and the shower, so I would sit on the tile and work on my homework near him. Eventually, he started coming out around me, then my roommate, and then he became a full-on party cat that would lay on everyone’s coats in the winter and let them pet him. Drunk on whatever alcohol we managed to get our grubby hands on, guests would gather around him and tell me, “Man, that’s a good cat.”

The first medical issue with Charlie appeared five years later in the form of a stinky ear. As far as cats go, this was a pretty normal thing to have happen, and on October 10th, we brought him to the local vet. With the medications given and the tests run, we left with Charlie in tow and our bank account $218.58 lighter. With treatment, Charlie’s ear infection quickly went away, and for a while, there was peace in the Goetz home.

As a rule, we feed our cats when we come home at night to avoid getting bitten hands when we’re laying in bed in the morning. In the evening, we were always bowled over by Charlie (nine pounds) and his “brother” named Jack (sixteen pounds). Charlie always ate very quickly, gobbling up his food and keeping his eyes peeled for anyone who would take it from him. Jack lazily picks up the dry food in his mouth and then spits it on the ground, where he paws at it and then feeds himself like a Grecian party god. It’s grotesque.

But on November 3rd, things did not go as planned. The Purina Salmon & Whole Brown Rice food was poured, the cats descended onto it, then Charlie took one bite, hissed, and ran away. We tried to coax him back with different food and then with a can of tuna, but the results were the same: bite, hiss, run.

When we arrived at our vet next morning, I was unshowered with a bandana tied in my hair and a pin of a cat with sunglasses stuck on the lapel of my jean jacket. I felt genuinely unbalanced as I held Charlie in my arms in the waiting room, his little head tucked into my (smelly) armpit. The vet came in and put Charlie on the table, opening his mouth and looking around. Charlie was quickly diagnosed with Stomatitis — a condition where your gums are gross and bad — which had flared up and was causing him immense pain.

To keep him comfy, we were given little syringes filled with liquid medicine to shoot into his mouth for pain relief. This cost $148.26, and we are told he needed to return in a week so the cat dentist could remove some of his teeth. Although I wished that someone would pick me up and cradle me and then take my energy and my health and give it to Charlie, at the time we visited, this was not a service they offered.

Once more, for pain management, we took him into the vet before his surgery. In addition to some more pain meds, they ran a blood test to make sure he wasn’t suffering from a bigger issue. Everything came back normal. $178.94.

On November 9th, Charlie had his surgery, which went very well. The vet called me while I was at work to tell me — after full inspection of his little cat mouth — that they had to remove three and a half teeth. I asked her what “and a half” meant, and she said one of his teeth was absorbed by his gums. I Googled a picture of that, which maybe you don’t want to do.

After work, we picked up Charlie from the vet. I rubbed his velvety ears through the crate while the receptionist went over the bill with us, patiently explaining each charge. We added on hypoallergenic food and paid $433.73.

The total for our vet bills’ for that week was $760.93, which is just over a fourth of what my husband and I bring in every two weeks. In the car on the way home, while Charlie slept on my lap, I asked my husband, “How do people do this?”

But when we brought him home, Charlie didn’t seem to care as much as us that his mouth was stitched or that his leg was shaved from the IV. He jumped so quickly back into things that I found myself ducking and leaping after him to make sure he wouldn’t hurt himself, like Kevin Costner and Whitney Houston in The Bodyguard. He was still eating, sleeping, and meowing, and he still accompanied me into the bathroom every time I peed.

We were certain he was getting better, and then suddenly, he wasn’t.

On November 12th, we woke up to find that suddenly, Charlie couldn’t walk straight. We rushed him to an emergency vet, who was certain he had vertigo. She took out a chunk of ear wax from his ear, and Charlie started walking right again. $142.52.

Then he stopped eating, and the vet thought it was just the excess of medication he has been given that was making him sick to his stomach. We brought him in for another appetite stimulant, and they ran more blood tests and took more x-rays, which all came back negative for any abnormalities. They noticed a return of the ear infection and prescribed more aggressive medications to treat it. $552.02.

Charlie returned to the vet for a check up on November 19th, and they gave him another appetite enhancer since he had not yet returned to his normal diet. $72.29.

Ten days later, Charlie seemed to get significantly worse. Although we had been able to get him to eat small amounts before this, he suddenly stopped eating altogether. We brought him back to the vet, who ran further tests, which again came back totally normal — with the exception of his lack of interest in food, Charlie was perfectly healthy. They gave us a can of high-calorie food to force-feed him, and then they recommended we set up an appointment with a specialist, as they were officially out of ideas. $484.21.

The morning Charlie was headed to the specialist, I held him close and kissed his tiny head. He had lost two pounds at this point, and I could lace my fingers into the notches of his spine. While my husband cooked breakfast in the other room, I talked to Charlie. I don’t remember what I said, just that I kept talking, and at the end of it, I told him I’d see him soon. I went to work while my husband dropped Charlie off at the vet, and then we waited.

A few hours later, I talked to a vet tech who laughed when she talks about how sweet Charlie is. “Man,” she said, “That’s a good cat.” At the end of several hours of testing, they couldn’t find anything wrong with him, and when they put him back in his cage, he had began to chow down on some patte version of seafood. After over a month of struggling with food, that little orange bastard was eating with strangers.

She put me on the phone with the vet, who laughed as I apologized for crying, and said that she was obviously very happy with out things were playing out. But she didn’t want to send him home only to have him back in again, so we talked about running further tests. In order to see into Charlie’s ear (which they were convinced was the problem), they would need to put him under for a CT scan. She estimated the bill at around $3000, including all of the tests they had already run that day.

My husband and I were pretty tapped out at this point, but we were determined to find out what was wrong with Charlie so that we could give him proper treatment instead of always just tackling the next thing. The vet let us know about something called Care Credit, which is sort of like a credit card for big-ass vet bills. (I also found out you can also get pet insurance, but not if your animal has a preexisting condition.) We applied and were instantly approved, allowing us to move forward with the testing without draining our account.

The next morning, Charlie went in for his scan, and about an hour later, the vet called me again. Her voice was thick as she told us they found a tumor so far in Charlie’s ear that it had started burrowing into his skull, and that he was not going to be able to make it out of this. I thanked her and told her how happy I was he got to eat before the end — one last delicious and stinky meal.

On December 7th, Charlie Cat was laid to rest. Original cost of Charlie’s visit to the specialist, including his CT scan: $2481.34; with the Care Credit interest over two years: $2891.00.

In total, we had spent $4973.29 on Charlie’s vet bills over the course of two months.

My immediate reaction to adding up the numbers was a deep sense of guilt. For one, Charlie had been taken back and forth to the vet so many times, pilled, given shots, etc. No one had ever pointed to something terminal, so we were always acting in the way we saw best for him. Had we known we could end his suffering early on, we would have done it, but we were never going to put our cat down because of a persistent ear infection. It took three different facilities before we were able to find the answer, and I wish we just could have known.

And then there’s the money. Almost five thousand dollars. Yeah, my husband and I were able move things around to try to help him, but what if if this had happened just two years ago, when we were both working just-above-minimum-wage jobs? How do people without chunky savings accounts deal when their pets get sick with something vets can’t put their fingers on? Most pet owners are prepared to spend money on their friends if they need to, but who budgets for $5,000? I felt guilty for affording it, and guilty knowing we wouldn’t have been able to just a couple of years ago.

As I moved forward in my work and my pay, I kept thinking that once we reached a certain amount of money, we’d be safe. But the money didn’t help. The vets told us nothing could have helped Charlie Cat, because he was always going to die. All that’s left of him now is the pressing of his paw-print on a piece of clay with building-block letters across the top spelling out his name and the memories of our five very good years together.

My cat was a fighter, an ex-feral beast from the mean streets of the Chicago suburbs. You could yell in his face and beat your chest and he wouldn’t flinch, but sometimes, when you got up too quickly, he ran as if someone pulled a gun on him. When my husband held him, it was Madonna and Child, with the red hair from both of them blending so seamlessly it was like paint strokes. Sometimes, when he laid in the sunlight, his coat seemed to melt, as if he was just a cat-shaped thing made of warm butter. His name was Charlie, and last year, he died.

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