As I said in the intro to this rambling parade of cat pictures, Loki lived up to his Norse namesake. From a tiny kitten, to a brat teen, Loki charmed everyone he met. Even my Dad, the die-hard dog fan.
It was during the last four years of his life – the Tough Times – that he showed he could kick death’s butt too.
I blame these years for every gray hair on my head. There are several times I can say, over that time, I started the grieving process – I was that convinced I was going to lose him.
But, with the patience of a saint and the ferocity of a devil, Loki fought back. He showed every challenge – and some vet techs – that he was a fierce opponent.
Even now, he defies explanation. This isn’t the first time I’ve tried to tell his story. Not by a long shot.
A friend even told me he inspired someone who was fighting cancer.
But… before we get to that part of the story…(WARNING: This post contains some sad pictures and some gross stuff, like blood. My blood. Darn cat.)
Things got interesting around Loki’s 7th birthday. I first noticed had an idea something was up when I couldn’t see him, and I heard a weird grumbling from my closet. He was snoring so loudly, I heard him over a TV show.
He was also sneezing, and his left eye was a constant sob story.
I took Loki to our local vets, Drs F and R, first.
(Note: I’m going to refer to Loki’s many vets by their respective initials. This is partially for privacy. It’s also because I don’t want to have to keep typing their names.)
I always found them to be warm, thorough, and they explained everything better than my own doctors. I’m sure that vets heavily on owners because their patients can’t speak for themselves. They wanted every crumb of information I had – and they got it! They assured me, if I thought it was important, it was important for them to hear it.
The vets also explained the costs and encouraged me to be cost-conscious. Another distinction from human doctors, I’d like to add!
Dr. F said he didn’t know what Loki had based on the vague symptoms. A runny eye, sneezing, and snoring could mean: Conjunctivitis, an upper respiratory infection, dental/oral problems, or cancer. All with wildly different treatments and price tags.
He recommended treating Loki for them in the order listed. It was also the most cost-effective plan.
Here’s where I learned the First Lesson of Loki: Buying pet insurance was the best decision I ever made. It has made me into a walking billboard for Healthy Paws Pet Insurance. (Keep reading to the end to see how much they paid out!)
But, I’m not kidding. In 10 years of my life, the biggest lesson I learned was, BUY PET INSURANCE. Get it early, before there are any pre-existing conditions. I’m not kidding. It’s a $40 monthly expense to budget for when getting (hopefully through adoption) a pet.
The lead directly to the Second Lesson of Loki: I was blessed that Loki put up with my nonsense. Cats don’t like eye drops. Or pills. Or liquid meds.
That, at one time or another, he let me give him all these treatments tells me I was lucky.
Also, that he was easy to bribe.
Let’s see… what’s another… oh, the Third Lesson of Loki: Whoever invented the top-and-front-loading cat carrier is my hero. This bad boy got a lot of use. Five stars – highly recommend.
After eye drops for pink eye, pills against viruses and against bacteria,steroids, and immune system supplements… nope. He was still a snot machine. (If I had to guess, it was about six months and many vet visits.)
It seemed like something was pressing on the left side of his sinus, causing fluid to escape where it could. The final word from Dr. F was that Loki had a very rare cancer or an abscessed fang.
This is what I’d have to call the Fourth Lesson of Loki: Veterinary science is way more specialized than I realized. There are loads of “general-practice vets,” but – boy howdy – are there a lot of specialties!
In my area, three vet hospitals could do a CT, an MRI, and a biopsy. Those were the tests to diagnose cancer. But, I chose NorthStar Vets, in spite of the 50-mile drive, one-way. They had a dentist. I was still clinging to hope it wasn’t cancer at this point.
(The office is so nice, and the staff grew to be like family to me. I think they need to praised, so I’m not shy about linking to them. If you need vet services in the NJ/PA area, highly recommend.)
Walking into the building is like walking into a large, mid-priced hotel. There are couches along the walls, and the idea of “no dogs on the furniture” is laughable. They also have a “Cat’s Only” area where we sat and Loki didn’t have to see the scary, strange animals.
When I dropped Loki off on a Friday in October of 2017, I had no idea how well my behind would get to know those couches. The radiologist diagnosed his cancer that evening.
Unfortunately, the oncologist I needed to talk to about it wasn’t in until Sunday. That weekend, while Loki was hospitalized and then examined by Dr. K, he earned himself the nickname, “Devil Cat.”
Apparently, he bit everyone. Sounds like something the Norse g-d would do, if you ask me.
But with me?
Dr. K said she was prescribing him a low-dose sedative to take before vet visits, even before we discussed Loki’s diagnosis. Because he had nasal lymphoma, and she knew there would be many visits.
Dr. K was funny, in a dry way. She thought my little black cat was so crazy, she told another one of her patient’s owners about him. This other young woman also had a black cat that Dr. K was treating for nasal lymphoma.
For a rare form of cancer, I have heard of three black cats having it. I would love to see that studied.
But, this woman – K – heard about Loki’s “violent tendencies.” And he inspired her to make this wonderful carrier cover.
Not only would it hide him from bigger animals and bad weather, but it warned staff of the ferocious monster contained within. In the fuzziest way possible. (PSA: No vet staff was injured in the treatment of this cat. Beyond a few scratches, that is.)
But, here’s where the Fifth Lesson of Loki became obvious: It’s not over until you speak to the experts. Between learning he had cancer and speaking to Dr. K, I’ll admit, I started thinking what life would be like without him in it.
I assumed cancer was a death sentence for pets. Not only was I dead wrong (pun intended), but there were multiple treatment options. Again, with different costs.
In that first meeting, Dr. K did not want to give me a possible timeline (or life expectancy, really). I hope that she avoids cats’ claws like she tried avoiding that question.
She finally said, with chemo and radiation treatment, Loki could live another 2 years.
If we wanted to reach that milestone, first I had to choose how to do his radiation. Chemo was 9 months of mostly weekly appointments with Dr. K, but the hospital didn’t offer radiation on site. (Today, when putting the link for the hospital in this post, I was ecstatic to see they now offer it.)
Because, and only because, I had Healthy Paws, I could get Loki the “deluxe radiation treatment.” I took him to a veterinary CyberKnife center, which is said to be more precise.
It required only 1-2 sessions, compared to the other option’s 18 sessions, meaning less time spent under anesthesia. (He had to be anesthetized every treatment, otherwise he might move and accidentally injure himself.)
It was in another state, which was more money and time. But, in the “big picture,” it would still be less driving.
The cheaper option was in my state, but farther than NorthStar. I’d have to either drive more than 100 miles, each day, or get a hotel room for those 18 days.
The difference in cost? CyberKnife, the more precise and fewer treatment radiation option, was approximately $10,000. The 18-day plan was about $3,500.
All that without hotel and travel costs.
Thankfully, I had a relative who could put the cost on a credit card and wait for the insurance check for repayment. All told, the more expensive treatment cost me $1,182.5, $40-60 in gas, and $150 for a pet-friendly hotel for 2 days. (Remember – that cost savings came from a $40 per month investment! coughhintcough)
Loki, of course, cared for none of it.
But, he eventually tried to make the best of it. Even when forced to wear a Handsmaid’s Tale-style bonnet to keep him from licking his IV port overnight.
Unfortunately, in the two weeks or so between his diagnosis and CyberKnife’s pre-treatment CT scan, the tumor grew. The staff was gentle, but direct, when explaining how his prognosis had changed.
He probably would not hit the 2-year post-treatment survival average with such an aggressive cancer. The radiation technician said, maybe, with treatment, 9 months. From the looks of the tumor, they weren’t being dramatic with that prognosis.
She also warned the treatment could mean he’d lose his left eye, and/or his vision in it. Or, he might get some light-colored patches of fur.
Oh, and he might look funny for a few days.
Armed with this information, we headed home after his second treatment. Still, I was not prepared.
WARNING: NOT HORRIBLY GRAPHIC, BUT HEART-BREAKING PICTURE UPCOMING.
Then, like magic, 2 days after his final treatment and he was back to his old self. And facial shape. (But still covered in snot.)
Dr. K assured me cats handle chemo MUCH better than humans. I watched my Mom struggle with chemotherapy side effects, so this gave me a lot of relief.
But, there were obvious signs of nausea during his treatments.
There were a couple of small-scale scares, such as upper respiratory infections. Loki always seemed to bounce back.
Eventually, I started seeing the color fading from his face. It happened so slowly and so fast at the same time. .
Within 6 months, he went from all black to looking like he’d sneezed into a bag of flour.
April 24, 2018 – Dr. K gave us the news we’d been hoping for: Loki’s cancer was in remission!
He still needed bloodwork and ultrasounds every 3-6 months, though. For reasons I don’t understand, the treatment for his nose could cause bladder and/or stomach issues.
We went along, happily, until around his 9th birthday in July 2019. Again, Loki’s appetite decreased.
Thank goodness for his regular oncology check-ups. No extra appointment needed! Dr. K looked at Loki and diagnosed a “resorptive lesion” on his fang.
Oh goodie. It seemed like “problem tooth” from earlier was back. Oh well, at least this time I knew that’s what it was and it wasn’t something like freaking cancer, right?
Annnnnnnnnnnnd… nope. Suddenly, we were bouncing around to different vets. Again.
Dr. K referred me back to my local vet. Dr. R (Dr. F’s colleague) looked at Loki’s earlier chest x-rays, and told me to find a cardiologist.
Apparently, Loki’s heart looked enlarged. She said that cardiac issues make anesthesia more dangerous.
That could make removing the offending fang – which the vets recommended to stop his pain – a flirtation with death.
Off to a new vet hospital we go! A new vet specialist, new vet hospital, and I’m hoping for new positive outcomes! Loki’s new cardiologist, Dr. P, looked over his test results and smiled warmly.
“I’d recommend putting Loki under anesthesia when and if the only other option is death.”
I gotta hand it to the vets – they shoot straight. Loki’s heart was so damaged, Dr. P was shocked that he wasn’t already in full heart failure. He said that, when Loki did go into Congestive Heart Failure (CHF), fluid would build up in his chest. When that happened, we could manage it.
Of course, we’d be dealing with a special case, given Loki’s medical history. But Dr. P was cautiously optimistic.
He prescribed 2 medications: One to get the heart’s chambers beating in the correct rhythm, one to thin his blood. Hopefully, that would keep blood moving out of the heart and not hardening into a deadly clot.
Funny thing – My Dad was on very similar medications for his heart. So, I was already familiar with them, and that he’d need periodic blood tests. Dr. P warned that some cats reacted badly to the blood thinning medication.
The side effects came on so gradually, they were almost invisible until … they weren’t.
This was the second time I was convinced Loki would have to be put to sleep or would pass away. Starting in early fall of 2019, getting him to eat was hard.
I’m talking a full-blown fight, just to get him to eat food.
He’d hide, and hiss whenever I made him to move to go eat. (I always found him. His hiding places were terrible.)
Watching him go from begging for all the food, to disinterest – even aggression – towards it, was upsetting.
It was obvious he was miserable. I resorted to spoon-feeding him wet food. He became so lethargic, I resorted to carrying him to meals.
Then, the drooling started.
WARNING: ICKY PIC AHEAD!
You can bet, in the few weeks it took Loki to go from “fussy-eater” to “anorexic drool-factory,” I wasn’t sitting on my hands. I was on the phone to the vets, taking him in and out of their various offices.
Despite obvious signs of distress, no one could figure out what was wrong.
Dr. P said it might be the blood thinner. But, he thought the side effects would have shown up sooner. Dr. R said it might be his tooth. But, it wasn’t responding to the pain killer she’d prescribed.
I collected all the information from the experts. It seemed like stopping the blood thinner and hoping was the best course of action.
Trying to stay positive, I made an appointment with the NorthStar dentist. That was the next step if stopping the blood thinner didn’t help.
Thinking realistically, I had a professional photographer friend come and take “last” photos of Loki. She had taken pictures of him back when he was all black, and I wanted some updated shots in case “anything happened to him.”
Wouldn’t you know it? The Death dancer had a few steps left in him.
We changed him over to Xarelto®. From the (constant) TV ads, I thought it was just for older men frolicking in the sunshine. Apparently, vets also use this clot prevention medication.
Here, again, having Healthy Paws pet insurance meant we could save Loki’s life.
All those carefree cavorting commercials must be expensive, because a 30-count RX of 2.5mg pills cost $280. That’s a one-month supply. (The standard dose for humans is 10-20mg – that’s $1,120-$2,240 – which is so crazy!)
Oh, and the other heart medication costs another $120 per month. That’s nothing to sneeze at – Especially when insurance pays it and not me!
Loki no longer had cancer, nor was he in heart failure. But his pills alone cost almost $400. That’s before the oncology and cardiac appointments and tests. Using Healthy Paws, I just had “lay out” the costs and cover 10 percent (plus exam fees).
Despite Loki’s renewed interest in sunbathing, his overall turn-around was slow. My heart was in limbo for a few months.
Eventually, he began showing signs of his old self.
Thus started his new diet. I dubbed it, “the Loki eats whatever he wants” diet. He’d go into my sister’s room and eat whatever food she’d left out for her foster cat.
If I had a snack, he’d have to see whether or not he wanted some first.
Slowly, he bounced back from his unintentional anorexia. He became more loving too – Either because he didn’t feel like he was dying, or he wanted more food, or both.
He still wasn’t a lap cat, but he decided people didn’t suck.
At least, not entirely.
At least, not entirely right now.
Throughout 2020 and 2021, I did whatever I could for Loki. I tried to engage him with the world beyond taking him for regular vet check-ups.
There’s more to life than physical health, after all.
His oncologist recommended moisture to comfort his damaged nasal tissue. I bought a humidifier to keep his nose clear.
Everyone recommended I brush Loki’s teeth. Including him, once he got in the habit.
And Internet cat behaviorists (many thanks to Jackson Galaxy) recommended mental stimulation.
Part of that meant giving Loki access to the windows. So that he could look at all the nature he’d love to eat.
But, that stimulation wasn’t enough. Loki had a subtle way of telling me.
That’s how, at a little over 10 years old, my cat learned to walk in a harness and leash.
That gave me the Sixth Lesson of Loki: You can train a cat, and an “old cat” can learn new tricks! (And bribery is an acceptable part of it. Just don’t overindulge your cat!)
In the short amount of time Loki was harness-trained:
- He never left the back porch. The yard is gravel and his indoor-only paws were delicate.
- He tried to eat everything.
- He got to see snow (and I sprinkled some on his head).
- He learned how to let me know he wanted a walk. He’d stand by the back door, in the laundry room, and refuse to leave. He would meow until I took him outside. (One of us got trained – but it might not have been Loki.)
Unfortunately, symptoms of feline heart failure are subtle. Coughing, lethargy, a lack of appetite… it sounds like every day in the winter here. (He did not do well with the dry air.)
And cats are masters at hiding when they feel sick. It keeps them from appearing weak to predators in their world. Even when the only “predator” is the Cuddle Monster.
In the end, I’ll never know how long Loki was sick. And, in hindsight, of course, there were signs.
Like when my typically stoic companion clawed the crap outta me. For trying to give him food. (Here comes the blood.)
But then he started urinating outside the box. He’d only ever peed outside the box once before and now he was doing it everywhere.
Well, almost everywhere. I gotta say – Loki proved he loved me in those final moments. He only peed on my sister’s stuff.
Within 10 minutes, he went from curled up on my bed, to urinating on her blanket, area rug, floor, and lap. The truth hit me harder than Loki did with his claws.
To my sister’s credit, she kept her cool while I ran around like a chicken looking for its head.
She drove us to the animal hospital too. The staff whisked him inside immediately. In part because his cardiologist and new oncologist were in the same building as the ER, and he was a regular patient. I had also called several times.
Following the vet ER’s Covid-19 restrictions, my sister and I waited in the car. It was a very long hour waiting for them to call. When they did, they explained:
- What they thought was going on – It looked like Loki had gone into full-blown congestive heart failure. Fluid was building up in his lungs and chest cavity.
- What they were going to do – Give him diuretics and put him in an “oxygen cage.” Apparently, this $500 per day accommodation was like an oxygen tent for humans.
- What they thought it would cost – The veterinary emergency clinics I’ve used have required a deposit of 50%, based on a low-to-high price range. I think that’s a standard practice. The deposit was around $3,000.
The staff tried to calm me down. They were confident it “wasn’t time to cry yet,” and told me to head home for the night.
I spoke to them that evening before I went to bed. Even though Loki hadn’t eaten yet, they said he looked comfortable.
A little after 1AM, I got the call: He had stopped urinating. The vet explained Loki needed a catheter. Unfortunately, putting one in required anesthesia.
Bless this woman, I didn’t get her name. I know she had the hardest job of all the vets I’ve worked with.
She explained exactly why Dr. P had said never to put Loki under anesthesia: Fluids that they’d give him during it would, undoubtably, collect in his chest again.
It would send him back into total heart failure. Then, he’d need more diuretics. It could become a vicious cycle – and that was the best-case outcome.
She gave her professional opinion, directly, without prompting. She didn’t think Loki would wake up if anesthetized. He couldn’t be catheterized without anesthesia.
And he was in agony. It was so bad that the vet said she couldn’t, in good faith, let him wait until morning. I hate to admit that, in his last moments, I was over 20 miles away.
The vet who’s name I remember is the one who promised me that she’d tell him “Goodbye” for me.
I guess I wouldn’t be grieving if I didn’t feel guilty about something. Regret is most definitely part of the human condition.
Perhaps, that’s another lesson to take from Loki – Every day for him was brand new. And regret is for those who don’t dare.
What did I learn from my first “adult” pet, for which I was solely responsible? Hell, I could dedicate a million words to that question and still have more to say.
When all is said, done, and written, I hope I am now – and continue to be – a better person for having shared 10 years with him.
A lot of people reached out to me after he passed. I’m sure most veterinarians send a pet owner a note when they’ve made the tough decision to euthanize.
However, I insist that, because the vet needed two cards to contain all the signatures, speaks to Loki’s impact. Whether it was his radiation-whitened marks, his dogged determination, or my insistence that he stay alive, they were touched by him.
There was a clear impact on the world outside my heart.
Plus, I’m pretty sure he left a scar when he took that swat at me.
I think I might end up getting a tattoo one day. Something to honor the little black cat who taught me so much.
He did, once or twice, use my leg as a surrogate Mama cat. Anyone who knows cats knows what I mean when I say, “he made biscuits on me.”
And, because I’m pale as all get-out, I managed to snap a picture of the results. An homage to him walking all over me seems, in the end, fitting.
In closing, I’d like to bring this back what I called “Lesson One of Loki:” BUY. PET. INSURANCE.
Since my last post, I added up how much the company paid out (among many, many, other projects, responsibilities, and emergencies I had to handle since then – sorry for the long delay in cat pics!).
Healthy Paws Pet Insurance Company paid out $32,899.64.
He was worth every penny. 😻