Tuesday, May 8, 2018

Goodbye, Michael

cats, cat, grief, losing a pet
Michael (left) with a younger Hero - the first moment they sat together.

Today’s post has been extremely difficult for me to write.

Less than a week ago I said goodbye to Michael, the cat I’ve cohabited with for most of my adult life. At 17 years and 7 months old, after several years of very stable, well-managed chronic kidney disease, Mike got worse. Her appetite reduced over the last few weeks, and despite medication, fluids and lots of TLC her quality of life took a nosedive very quickly.

It was paramount to me that she did not suffer. She died in her family’s arms, in a room full of people she loved and who loved her. She was a uniquely outgoing cat – she would approach visitors (one – a cat lover – said she could be “intimidating” in her enthusiasm!). She chased large dogs out of the house. She would solicit a chin scratch or belly rub from anyone. Inspect any suitcase/handbag/backpack or shopping bag. Conquer paper bags and cardboard boxes. Go through the groceries before they were put away.

cats, grief, Michael, Mike
Boxes were also fair game.
I adopted her when I was a veterinary student undertaking a volunteer, live-in position in a local veterinary hospital. At just four months old she had been picked up by a good Samaritan, having attempted to cross the treacherous Parramatta Road by herself. She was put up for adoption, but quickly moved into my bedroom.

I did a cursory examination and thought she was a boy. I named her after Detective Mike Hoolihan, the lead character in the Martin Amis novel I was reading at the time: TheNight Train. This was fortuitous. Detective Mike Hoolihan was female – as Mike turned out to be.

She put up with a lot of time away on my part doing prac work, sat in on study groups (sat on where possible), and was always there at home when I was working long hours to comfort me after a day at work.

When the vet clinic I was living in was broken into, she was the one who woke me, with her hackles up and her coat so puffed up she looked twice her size. She was growling at the door and ready to take on the intruder, who fortunately fled the scene.

She’s moved house with me, supported me through several intensive periods of study, and motivated me to try to improve the world for companion and non-companion animals alike.

I really believe that until her last day she enjoyed a life worth living. It was the right time to let her go, although being in a home without her feels empty. She would normally wake me. Realising his food source was sleeping in, Hero eventually woke me this morning and we both looked for Mike. Normally Michael would herd me down the hallway and into the kitchen. It was always about food, except when her kidney disease really kicked in. In the last few months she would usher me into the bathroom first, demand I fill the bath a little with cold water, and have a drink before breakfast. And then chase that with a glass of water on the coffee table, before heading back to bed.

Michael, feline chronic kidney disease, polydipsia
Like other cats with kidney disease, Mike was constantly drinking. She preferred drinking from glass - preferably someone else's.
There are a hundred daily routines she won’t be part of anymore and each one, right now, is an unexpectedly painful reminder of her absence.

Grief is a very personal thing and people experience it differently. Losing someone after almost 18 years, someone I connected with on a daily basis in a very real and tactile way, is hard. Being a vet possibly made the decision easier, and I was able to euthanase her myself, respecting her preferences. She deserved that – she put in at least as many hours in the study as I did over the years (if she wasn’t in the kitchen, we’d say “Mike is in the office, doing the hard yards…).

cat, Michael, cat on textbook, Clinical Medicine of the dog and cat
If you could learn by osmosis by sleeping on textbooks, Michael would have been an honorary professor by now.
But it hasn’t made grieving any easier, nor has knowing she was old and “had a good innings”. Despite what I know about grief, I think I really thought it would. 

In our work, veterinarians experience the loss of patients far more frequently than doctors do, but it doesn’t give us mastery over grief.

I’ve been flooded with memories. Michael, the times we lived through, the patients she met and comforted, and the losses she comforted me through. The friendly head-butts, the gentle paw in the face to get me up in the morning. All I could do the day she died was look at every Michael photo I had. She was in the midst of every family gathering. She put up with Hero through his annoying kittenhood phase. She helped teach veterinary students – she appeared (photographically) as a case study in classes, her tufts of discarded fur were donated to a research project on humane rodent deterrence. She spent much time being warmed by this very keyboard and it still contains tiny traces of her fur.

A colleague sent me a paper about the dual process model of grieving, which holds that we tend to oscillate between loss-orientated and restoration-orientated processes for a while, and I’ve found myself fluttering about in this space. Loss-oriented processes are things like grief work, intrusion of grief, denial/avoidance of restoration and breaking bonds or ties. Things like poring over old photos or formally recording Mike as deceased on the Companion Animal Register. Restoration-oriented processes include attending to life changes, distraction from grief, doing new things, and establishing new roles, identities or relationships(Williams and Green, 2016). This is the bit I am working on at the moment, but its still a bit raw. A veterinary colleague who lost his dog late last year said to me "its like feeling demyelinated". 

In Michael’s honour I am raising funds for the Cat Protection Society of New South Wales. They do an extraordinary amount of advocacy for cats, from rehoming cats to making important submissions on animal welfare policy. Thousands of cats and kittens have enjoyed better health care and welfare, and avoided suffering, due to their work. Donations over $2 are tax deductable. If you wish to donate you can do so here.


UPDATE: before I finished this post, Michael’s page raised over $1500 which was our modest goal. I am so grateful to the people who have donated. If you would like to make a donation to the Cat Protection Society via Michael’s page you can still do so.

Michelle de Kretser, in the Sydney Morning Herald this week wrote a beautiful article about losing her dog Minnie.

You can read the full article here.

I am very grateful for the kind words from clients, colleagues and others who have shared the impact of losing animals they bonded with over the years.


WILLIAMS, B. & GREEN, R. 2016. Understanding bereavement in animal owners. In Practice, 38, 140.