Monday Musing: Pets and Persons

There are two kinds of people: there are the kooky kind who will spend $4,000 on dialysis for their cat whose kidneys are failing (substitute some significant expenditure of resources for individuals in differing financial circumstancesyou know what I mean), even if only to extend its life briefly; and then there are the kind who will make fun of the former (or even regard them with moral disapprovalthat money could have been used for better purposes, etcetera). Recent events surprised me by showing that I belong in the first category. And now that I know I belong there, I am going to attempt an explanation or at least hazard a conjecture, a speculation, a plain guess, at what puts some people there.

Frederica_krueger_3But first let me tell what happened: my wife Margit and our cat Freddy (about whom I have written before here) left New York City to take up residence in the northern Italian alps at the beginning of September. My wife is from that lovely German-speaking area known as the South Tyrol and is now teaching English there, and I will be joining her quite soon for an indefinite duration.

Freddy is a young cat with a unique personality of great beauty, and we went to some lengths to try and make the journey as stress-free for her as possible, buying her an expensive soft mesh carrier and a “cat ticket” so she could travel in the aircraft cabin with Margit rather than be scared alone in the cargo hold. It is a long trip even for humans, including a 4-hour drive at the end.

While Freddy did okay on the trip itself, she stopped eating soon after arriving there. After a day or so of this, Margit noticed that she regurgitated a piece of a thick string toy that she usually likes to just play with. Thinking she may have swallowed more of it from the stress of being in a new environment (cats are very territorial and do not like moving houses) she took her to a vet, who X-rayed Freddy and thought that she saw something blocking her intestines. Surgery was scheduled for the next morning.

Upon cutting her open, the vet found nothing inside. At this point, the diagnosis was changed to something called Feline Adipose Liver, which is something that cats can get by not eating from stress. If caught early enough, most cats can be made to survive this condition by being force fed by mouth as well as by injection for a few days or sometimes weeks. This regimen was started immediately, causing great difficulties for Margit who had started her own stress-inducing new job the day after arriving in Italy, and who kept having to take time off to attend to the cat and her many appointments at the vet’s. Still, we talked about it, and I told her that even if she has to quit her job she should do so to try and save Freddy’s life, and we also agreed that whatever material resources we have would be expended for any reasonable chance of making Freddy feel better. But she got worse.

Her eyes glazed over, she could not move with ease and hardly did, her breathing became labored and loud, and it became clear that she was dying. At this point, Margit was told that the vet she had been seeing was not the most reliable, and was known for operating unnecessarily on animals just to charge the large fees that such surgeries entail. Trust me, you cannot imagine my rage at this thought.

Now, after much research, Freddy was taken to a different vet, who criticized the first one for not having performed a standard series of blood tests to rule out common feline ailments, and when these tests were finally administered, the news was shocking: Freddy’s blood came back positive for Feline Infectious Peritonitis, an incurable viral disease (related to the human SARS virus) which quickly kills cats in a most painful way, causing them to lose their eyesight, and their organs to fail rapidly one by one. She already had many of the symptoms of the disease, especially the labored breathing which is typical of FIP. She was in pain and the vet recommended that she be brought in the next day at noon (a week ago Saturday) to be killed by lethal injection, sparing her (and, of course, Margit) a slightly more drawn out death of terrible suffering and agony. I spoke to Margit on Friday night and tried as best as I could to steel her for this duty and then canceled all posting at 3QD for that Saturday in a private act of mourning. Since the day I started 3QD more than three years ago, we had never had a day without any posts until then. (Did you notice?) And then I felt dejected and disconsolate, even desperate.

Since that time, I have thought a bit about my own reactions which, as I mentioned above, surprised and even embarrassed me. It is obvious that different people feel various degrees of affection for their pets. This can depend upon the type of pet (very few people, I imagine, are capable of feeling very strongly about a goldfish, or a snake, or even a hamster), how much time you have spent with the pet, the nature of your interaction with the pet (how much you play with the pet, whether the pet sleeps with you, how much time you are alone interacting with the pet, whether it is the only pet in the home), and so on. And, of course, it depends upon the type of person you are, and how much empathy you have for other creatures. Now I am not a cat-lover in general. Other people’s cats do not evoke much affection from me and just bore me, and I am mostly indifferent to many animals. (I am also a meat eater, so clearly the slaughter of animals for my consumption has never been much of an ethical problem for me.) So why this reaction, which I might have laughed at in someone else?

Here’s what I think: while you can have various degrees of affection for pets, there is a quantum leap that you can make (and this is a Rubicon that cannot be uncrossed): if in your own psychological representation of your pet, you habitually grant them personhood, then there is no choice but to treat them as you would a person because different parts of your mind which specialize in generating the emotions which allow you to interact with (and love) other humans come into play, and these are irresistible impulses. You might as well try to not care about your children. I believe that some animals, like cats and dogs, have through their long histories of living in people’s homes as pets (more than 10,000 years in the case of cats), been naturally selected to encourage human empathy. Imagine what a survival advantage it is to the household cat that its young behave in such ways and make such tiny, vulnerable (to the human ear) sounds that it takes a particularly monstrous human to harm a kitten. Similarly, they have, I think “learned” (even if they do not have the equivalent emotion–after all, just as I don’t know what it is like to be a bat, I don’t know what it is like to be a cat either) to express emotions that move us and encourage us to conceive of them as persons. I can recognize fine distinctions, I imagine, in Freddy. She appears very much an adolescent (which she is): pouty, moody, angry, playful, lazy, affectionate, awkwardly sexy, etc., in turn. The fact that I work from my apartment and therefore have spent most of my waking days around Freddy since she was even younger doesn’t hurt that I have developed a very fine-grained sense of her moods and feelings. And it doesn’t hurt that Freddy has a bizarrely human and intelligent personality either. She likes to constantly imitate me in a million ways, lying down in a very unnatural (for a cat) position on her back next to me in bed, with her head on the pillow next to mine. Or look at this photograph in which she is copying my pose almost exactly (I am lounging on the other corner of the same sofa with my spread-eagled legs on a table) which shocked Margit so much that she captured Freddy with a camera:


Freddy is an indoor cat and I felt bad that she does not have as much stimulation as she should, so I bought some DVDs made for cats to watch on a High Definition TV. These show birds, insects, mice, etc. Freddy loves to watch, and does so with attentiveness and excitement. Don’t believe it? Check her out:


The objection that one should not waste ones money on things like cats is spurious and basically silly. I am not objecting to someone spending $20,000 on a cruise to the Antarctic, or a set of bigger breasts, or whatever. Is their travel or vacation or how their breasts look so important that they couldn’t spend the money saving childrens’ lives in Africa with it instead? This is crazy and would make it immoral for any human to live a life better than ANY other human on Earth. I’m not stealing the money, after all, I can spend it any way I like! Some might say that since cats have no sense of their future (hopes and dreams for it, for example) and they have no sense of their own mortality, it is not worth it to try and save their lives. Try telling that to the parent of a one-year old child, who also doesn’t have these things! Oh, I’ll stop there with my defensiveness. Ich kann nicht anders.

So what happened to Freddy? As Friday night wore on I became more agitated. I read on wikipedia that 19 out of 20 cats who have FIP will die. And then in the middle of the night here in New York, and only a couple of hours before Freddy’s appointment with eternal sleep, I called Margit and we agreed that there was no reason to rush this. I said that she is such an unusual cat in so many ways, maybe she will be that twentieth cat! We convinced ourselves that she would be. And we decided to let her suffer and die at home and to suffer along with her, rather than kill her.

With Margit’s constant and attentive care, a day later she started eating again, and for the last four or five days, Freddy has been COMPLETELY normal, running up and down the stairs, playing with her ball, eating with gusto, sleeping well, breathing completely normally, and making friends with other humans. And I have my hopes.

This post is dedicated to Ruchira Paul.

All my previous Monday Musings can be seen here.

Have a good week!