MALEVICH chose us as much as we chose him. There was a knowing, pleading look to his innocent eyes as he gazed up at us on our first meeting. He seemed to sense that we would make decent new parents.
If you’ve ever been to a rescue centre, you’ll know how sad it is that you can’t take them all home, and give them all a new life. My husband and I had walked up and down the pens at Cats Protection, peering in, reading the name tags and notes, our hearts twisting at the thought of picking one because it meant effectively rejecting the others. Many were asleep. Some were docile, others were young and lively but had to be homed with a sibling. And then, in the very last pen, was a sole black beauty.
Alert and desperate to be let out, but without the mischievousness of a kitten, Marley struck the perfect balance between curiosity, tolerating humans and a cat’s natural superior indifference to people.
Some rescue animals would have used the opportunity of freedom from the pen to shoot off, but Malevich (his given name was Marley, but I wanted a unique formal name for him; though we still used Marley for short) was mature enough to stick around, without demeaning himself by reciprocating any affection.
Evidently, in his six years, he had not learnt to receive love from any owners – but we weren’t about to let that situation continue.
The moment when you and your spouse look at each other and say, “Shall we?” and your insides give a joyous little leap is one of the best ever.
Little did I know then that after seven years, Malevich would leave us devastated. It’s less the fact of his passing away – nearly all pet-owners go through bereavement at some point – than what he went through. There are still times now when I feel I will never stop weeping. But six months on, I am sharing his story both to honour him and to pass on the valuable lessons we learnt.
The Cats Protection staff seemed surprised when we chose Marley to adopt. Most adopters shun black cats; he was black all over. Most prospective owners prefer kittens; Marley was already six, and comparatively big – tall but not skinny. He didn’t even purr when stroked. Perhaps that’s what drew us to him, in an obscure way. But from that first moment, in September 2008, the fit felt right. We didn’t need a cute kitten to be able to love a cat in need.
During the adoption process, at one point, when the subject of his food cropped up, the staff laughed. “Marley loves his food, all right,” they said. We laughed, too.
For seven years, our lives centred on Malevich. We took photos and videos when he played with his ping-pong balls; when he sat under the dining table to be goalkeeper; when he lay on the stairs for a game of tennis; when he rolled over to show us his tummy; when he stretched himself out to over 2ft long in a patch of hot sun. We talked to him, and he talked back. We were gentle with him; in return, he would launch himself at my legs to sink his teeth in, demanding breakfast when I got up every morning.
Although he never curled up on our laps, having – we suspect – had a bad experience of humans previously, he loved being with us, and, when not sleeping under our bed, would follow us from room to room, for our company. He showed affection with frequent head-butts, and finally learnt to purr at neck-rubs. We loved him without limits; we hope and believe that was returned.
When he had been with us for about a year, on a routine vet’s visit, Marley was declared overweight, verging on obese, having put on about a kilogram. Oops. Although we had by no means been liberal with the treats, we had been giving him tinned food, more or less on demand. The vet explained that tinned food is high in sugar. And the consequences of obesity are well known – with, for cats, kidney problems being a high risk.
On the vet’s advice, we immediately switched to a prescription-only high-fibre, low-calorie dried food, which Marley wolfed down, considering it a starter to his main course. On our part, it was a case of tough love. Having to say no so often, feeling we were depriving him, was very, very hard. There were times when he seemed so hungry that we wondered whether it would be kinder to let him have a shorter but happier life as a fat cat.
However, our persistence paid off as, over time, the scales slowly crept down, and he learnt to adjust.
At 5.3kg, Malevich was close to his ideal weight when, in 2013, he appeared unwell – restless and unable to get comfortable, not himself at all. A first vet’s visit resulted in an antibiotic jab; when, over the next two weeks, he started retching and being sick, the vet advised a diet of just wet food, such as fresh fish, explaining that a dry food diet can irritate the stomach. Within 10 days, an endoscopy (a camera down the throat, under sedation) showed, to our and the vet’s horror – that our poor boy had severe inflammation of the bowel, with not just one but multiple ulcers. The vets had never seen such severe ulceration.
My heart went out to our poor boy, who must have been suffering so much, and yet was – largely – so well behaved.
Treatment involved five medications, some three times a day, others twice or once a day, including Zantac (an acid-suppressant), a stomach-liner like Gaviscon, an anti-sickness liquid, antibiotics and steroids. The regime was so complicated that I drew up a chart to tick each medication off when he had it.
At this stage, Malevich’s love of his food worked in our favour, because it meant he was always prepared to try whatever was in his dish, even if the medication made it taste and smell vile to him.
To watch him gradually show signs of improvement was a massive relief, of course, and the worry served only to reinforce our love and concern for Marley. But the thought that, in serving him only a dry diet, we may have unwittingly caused the ulceration filled us with horror and regret. In hindsight these things always seem much clearer.
A second endoscopy, a couple of months on, showed that his ulcers had gone and his intestines looked “beautifully clean”, according to the specialist.
The vet insisted there were no links between his ulceration and the years of the high-fibre dry food. However, his diet had by now been switched to a low-allergen type. This was also dry, but the vets assured us that it would not be harsh on the stomach. At one point, we suspected constipation, so we started adding a little water to the dry biscuits to moisten them, and even added in a little wet food sometimes, a tactic that, we realised, would also make the biscuits less harsh on the intestines. If only we had done so with the earlier food.
But our biggest mistake of all came several months after he had been well again. At 12, he no longer played with his balls or chased string like a kitten; as he went up and down stairs, we suspected the onset of arthritis. The vet prescribed Tramadol, painkilling tablets, three times a day.
Had I Googled them, I would have seen the stories of people who found they caused stomach problems – and would have seen the warning on human medicine websites not to take if “you have a history of stomach or bowel problems, eg pain, inflammation or ulcers”. That was my big mistake, and one for which I’ll never forgive myself.
Instead, I used a cat “pill-popper” to give him the tablets.
Soon, he was unwell again – and, alarmingly for someone who’d always had such a good appetite, was losing weight – too much weight, despite our no longer restricting his food and despite his being back on steroids. We restarted a regime of acid-suppressants and steroids, but this time the improvement was less clear-cut.
Nevertheless, after several weeks, it was decided we needed to reduce his steroid intake because it compromises the immune system. I could see the situation all becoming messy. Every time we tried to reduce the steroids, he went off his food more, but we hoped he might cope with our reducing the dosage extremely slowly (by a quarter of a tablet once every few weeks). A third endoscopy was not thought to be a wise idea, and so we struggled on, Marley now quite thin, lethargic and with a gut-wrenching sadness in his eyes, born of what I can only imagine was constant or varying pain from his intestines.
I had always been clear in my mind that I never wanted him to suffer, that I would always do whatever was best for him. That I would never let him down. I felt profoundly that we had a great responsibility to him, and that when the time came we would definitely not prolong his life for selfish reasons.
Avoid our mistakes
- If you are advised to feed your cat dried, high-fibre diet food, be cautious. Talk to your vet about stopping it after six months or using wet food at regular intervals
- Sprinkle a few drops of water on any type of dried food – high-fibre or low-allergen. That’s as well as always ensuring a bowl of water is out.
- Consider rotating different types of food – fresh, tinned, pouches and dried – to avoid problems caused by over-reliance on any one
- Watch out for signs of discomfort. You know your cat better than the vet does; often an endoscopy can tell you a lot
- Never, ever give Tramadol to a cat with stomach ulcers
- Don’t give a cat a human cancer drug unless really necessary – eg if cancer is diagnosed
Before last Christmas, the vet had suggested trying a human cancer drug, even though there were no signs of cancer, to zap the bowel inflammation once and for all. We strenuously resisted the idea, but by February this year, it became clear Malevich wasn’t getting any better. Reluctantly, and with reservations, we agreed we could see no other options for helping Marley get better. It was painful to think of our darling boy suffering. The vet wouldn’t suggest it if there wasn’t a chance it would work, I reasoned.
Chlorambucil, the cancer drug, isn’t easy to get hold of on a private prescription, and I had to ring a number of pharmacies to track some down. It came with warnings that it was so potent I should wear disposable gloves just to handle the bottle.
But from Marley’s point of view, the drug was great: the tablet was buried deep within a hunk of soft full-fat cheese, which he devoured.
He was to have one tablet on alternate days. After three days and two tablets, we suspected he wasn’t right, but since he was unwell generally, it was hard to tell. But by the morning of day four, it was very obvious he was more miserable than ever. He couldn’t get comfortable, he looked distracted, his pupils were dilated, he couldn’t even sit right. It was a crisis.
That was the moment at which we should – as all along, in theory, we had been prepared to do – have taken him to the vet, in all likelihood for the last time.
But I am a fool, because I hesitated. The vet suggested bringing him in; I think it was anger at what the drug had done to him, at how ill the cumulative treatments had left him – plus the fact that I was due to go to work and my husband was out of the house – that made me say no. What they could do now, I asked. It was too late – the drug was already inside him, making him feel wretched. Unless there was an antidote, I argued, what would yet another trip to the vet achieve, other than making him upset and fearful, when he was already suffering?
I will never forget the next few horrific moments, the time when I was an idiot. As I was texting my husband about it all, Malevich decided he had had enough. Anything would be better than this suffering. Although he had been lethargic all this time, he suddenly, uncharacteristically, shot out through the cat flap and raced across the back lawn – to escape from the pain and the misery, to be alone.
I ran after him but it was too late – he was nowhere to be seen. Those moments when he had sat in the house, uncomfortably, miserably, were to be the last I ever saw of him.
Two weeks for us of non-stop door-knocking in the neighbourhood, giving out posters and flyers with appeals for help, tramping out after dark searching under bushes and in people’s outbuildings, the tears and the regrets – none of it was sufficient to atone for my idiocy in letting down our precious boy. The nights around that time were bitterly, bitterly cold, and even if he had survived without food and in pain for some time, I doubt he could have survived more than one night outdoors.
Six months on, I often weep for him still, and I will never stop loving him. It wasn’t right that he was suffering so much that he felt he had no option but to go off alone to end his life. He was my baby, and his suffering – not just at the end but also over the preceding months – is the greatest regret I have.
The fact that it all began when we changed his diet for health reasons is a terrible irony. And while I’m not by any means criticising the vets – who were always kind and advised everything with the best intentions – had I known then the lessons that I know now, I would, of course, have done things differently.
Every space where Marley used to lie, sit or investigate reminds me of him. When I’m out, walking close to the houses that back onto our garden, whose gardens he undoubtedly knew in his secret outdoor life, I want to call out to him. In the early days afterwards, I often did: “Marley, Darly.” I fantasised about seeing him pop out from a bush and come trotting to me. I fantasised about seeing him nonchalantly coming back in through the cat flap.
Unable to turn back time, I grew familiar with the physical pain inside your chest that makes you understand the origin of the word “heartbreak”. A fit of weeping can get to me on days when I haven’t expected it, although I know the familiar triggers – places and thoughts, allowing my mind to ask questions that will never be answered: “Where did you go, Marley?” “How long did you live before the end came?”
I weep not for my own loss, but for his pain, his suffering. I weep for what he went through unnecessarily. I weep because it was avoidable, because I was the one who forced the painkillers and the cancer drug into him. I, the one person who should have prevented his suffering. Taking him to be put down, to have ended his misery sooner, would have been far preferable.
I will always regret how Malevich suffered. Our precious, gentle, clever, innocent boy didn’t deserve it for a second.
I know I should feel glad that his suffering did end. But I am unable to see it that way: all I know is that he should not have suffered in those last weeks and days.
When a person is in pain or dying, at least they can understand their situation, can reason; animals can’t, and that’s why I weep. I weep for his confusion and for his messy death, as well as his agony.
In the unreal events after the agonising end of his life, I realised that soon my memories of my beloved baby would start to fade; and that one day my very pain and tears would ease – and I felt that itself would be an insult to his memory, as though his life and death were transient and insignificant. And this is why I’m writing this: to keep his memory alive in my heart, as well as to warn others not to make the same mistakes.
I distinctly recall in the midst of it all, when we were at the vet’s one day, he looked so vulnerable on the table that I suddenly felt an overwhelming need to tell the poor, confused boy that I would never let him down, that I would always do the right thing. But I weep because in the end, I didn’t.
I have cried many times while writing this. Six months on, I am just as pained and sorrowful as I was then. And I still wish now that I could talk to him, although it is too late, just so that I could tell him one thing: “I loved you more than anything, Marley Darly, and I’m sorry, so sorry, I let you down.”