Sept. 28 2016 11:12 AM

The trauma of putting a price on your pet's life

Such a cat-astrophe
Photo by Jessica Bradford

"Now, here’s the morbid question,” says Kathy, the woman we’ve hired to watch our cats while we’re away on vacation for 10 days. “What’s the cap of how much you are you willing to spend if one of them needs emergency care?”

My wife and I look at each other. We hesitate. It’s not anything we’ve ever really discussed before.

I pick a number randomly: $2,000.

For a cat who’s displayed reasonably good health for the two years since adopting him, this seems like an exorbitant amount—not very realistic for our household income, but enough to give Kathy the impression we’re not deadbeat cat parents.

I look at our two cats, Harvey and our new kitten, Vincent Price. I mentally split the sum between the two. Harvey, you get $1,500 and Vincent you get—he sinks his tiny claws into my foot—you get $250.

Two days later—and three days before we leave— Harvey throws up clear liquid. He’s been a notorious barfer since the day we got him, but this is different. There’s none of the grotesque heaving that often accompanies cat vomit (so recognizable that internet users can mix it to a techno beat)—he just opens his mouth and a viscous substance spills out. He does this three times in one day.

Then, we remember the plastic bag. The second night we had Vincent, we accidentally locked Harvey in our guest room with the new kitten. In addition to the already-stressful circumstance of being stuck with this new frenemy, our guest room is also where we store our plastic bags. Harvey, being a connoisseur of plastic bags, got his claws on one and scarfed it down in what I’m sure was a stressinduced feeding frenzy.

Harvey crawls into the enclave on his scratching tower, what we refer to as his “dark place.” He growls at us if we try to touch him. I make the mistake of Googling the symptoms, and the results are as dire as searching any ailment on the internet: Your cat has something stuck in his stomach. Your cat can’t breathe.

Your cat is going to die.

We rush him to the VCA emergency room in Mission Valley. In the car, his meows end in tiny dry coughs that make me curse the invention of plastic.

To her credit, the vet is very patient with us as we simultaneously list Harvey’s symptoms and possible causes:

- He’s been puking
- It could’ve been the plastic bag
- He went in his dark place
- It could be the stress of our new kitty
- His meow sounds different
- He could be eating the new kitty’s food

I watch the doctor write down and quietly mouth the words: “Meow. Sounds. Different.” Because I’ve gone full-blown cat-dad hysterical, I don’t realize that the doctor might be humoring me.

They want to perform X-rays on Harvey—the plastic bag concerns them (not our self-diagnosed stress or different sounding meow). The doctor says that if plastic gets stuck between the stomach and intestine, it could be pulling Harvey’s innards out of whack, playing them like an accordion.

The price tag on X-rays? $900. There goes half your medical budget Harv Harv, I think. I sign it.

The X-rays are inconclusive. There’s definitely some pressure in Harvey’s abdomen, but it’s hard to determine whether it’s plastic (which turns out to be difficult to x-ray) or stress gas. The doc recommends additional follow-up X-rays in the morning.

The receptionists at VCA emergency warn us that if further X-rays reveal plastic, surgery would probably cost between $3,000 and $5,000.

We drive home in silence. Even Harvey, who’s normally vocal in his carrier, seems to feel the gravity of the situation. We could ignore it, pretend there’s nothing wrong, or we could take him in for more expensive X-rays the next day, which could verify that nothing’s wrong or result in an operation that we can’t afford.

I call my mom, who’s had so many pets over the years that she probably has a punch card at her local vet.

“That’s a tricky situation. I’m sorry, kiddo” she says. “I don’t know what I’d do if I were you, but one of the most valuable pieces of advice I ever got from a vet is to set a limit.”

$2,000, I think, but now, it’s not so huge. Now, it looks like a puny number. Insufficient. Not enough to save our boy.

That night, Harvey pukes again. It might as well be his death rattle.

We take him to the VCA Angel Hospital in North Park, mentally preparing for the worst. Resident vet Dr. Ball performs more X-rays and, again, there’s a cloudy spot that could be nothing, or could be plastic.

He wants to do surgery. “I could do it for—” He pauses. It’s the world’s longest dramatic pause. “A thousand dollars.”

Both my wife and I burst out in tears. My wife hugs Dr. Ball; I want to marry him.

He cuts our cat open and finds… nothing. But it doesn’t matter, because within a couple days, Harv Harv is back to his feisty old self, asserting dominance over Lil Vince with sweet wrestling moves and a totally intimidating scar on his belly. My wife thinks Harvey faked the whole thing to protest the new kitty, which could be true, but if I had to do it all again, I probably would.

I look at the cats fighting and think, careful guys. Play gentle. I’m only spending $2,000 if you get hurt…

Okay, maybe $3,000.


See all events on Friday, Oct 21