De Dolore Animalium

Can you see it in his eyes? Yesterday, our cat had surgery, during which the vet removed a mass from his abdomen the size "of a small lemon" along with the adjoining lymph node. We are now waiting on the pathology report to tell us whether the mass was malignant or just one of those things that happen, on occasion, to grow in the intestines of cats.

We should have known earlier that something was wrong. Tom (our cat) had been losing weight for several months; he is now only 2/3 of the cat he was in June. But he had long been somewhat overweight and we were not initially concerned. Nor, when we left him with the vet while we were in Europe in August, did a blood test that the vet did then show anything wrong. Tom had stopped eating the first few days he was boarding, but after some antibiotics and a hamster that had escaped from the upstairs pet store and, for reasons known only to the hamster, wandered into Tom's cage, he (Tom, that is, not the hamster) seemed to revive. So how were we to know?

We--that is, my husband--took him to the vet this Saturday, after Tom had spent longer on the fluffy rugs in the bathroom last week than I did. Again, nothing in the blood tests; nothing clear on the x-ray. And so the vet scheduled him for surgery, to see if there was anything that wasn't showing up in the tests. And so there was. Presumably the mass had been growing on Tom's intestine for some time; it was probably there when he was at the vet's this summer. But, being a cat, how could he tell us that there was anything wrong? So he seemed a bit thinner. Perhaps that was a good thing, or just a consequence of getting old. But then he isn't that old, only nine. So, really, we should have been more worried. But he couldn't tell us, not in words.

I understand that there is out there a question, which I cannot believe has ever been seriously put, about whether animals feel pain.* Tom is clearly feeling pain right now. Do you not believe me? Perhaps he is just moving slowly because the stitches pull or because he is weak from being on the operating table for over two hours yesterday. But, no, he is clearly in physical pain. The thing is, is this all there is for him? Is he afraid? Does he know that there is a good chance, given the size of the mass and its possible malignancy, that he might die? Does he know that we're worried about him? He doesn't seem to want us to comfort him. Should we care?

At the moment, happily, these are for the most part simply hypothetical questions. We won't know for sure what the mass was until we get the pathology report and that won't be for a day or two. It would be wonderful, of course, if all Tom had to do now was recover from being cut open and having his intestine resected. But what if it is cancer and the prognosis is that it is likely to recur? Should we put him through chemotherapy? Probably not, according to the vet; these sorts of cancers don't tend to respond. Were we wrong to put him through surgery when he was going to die anyway? Well, we didn't know before yesterday afternoon what was wrong. Perhaps, after all, he will live.

It's hard writing about this because I don't know what to say. I want to pray for Tom, but what should I pray? He's had a good life being a prisoner in our apartment; fed, loved, given occasional adventures out on the porch (from which he, typically, returns rapidly inside). I don't want him to suffer or to be kept alive getting weaker and weaker just to satisfy my need for him not to die. And I don't think animals can sin, so there isn't really any concern there. But, oh, it was hard seeing him at the vet's yesterday evening, so weak and drugged that he could barely lift his head. There's no reason or meaning in his suffering. It just is. And it's hard right now to comfort him because, well, what can one say? We human beings can pretend that there may be an end to the suffering, but all he must know right now is the pain.

Oh, God, why do these your little ones have to suffer such pain?

*Apparently we have Descartes to thank for this one.


  1. Bear, warm, supportive thoughts for Tom and his prospects. You are taking good care of him. You don't have to say anything, just be there and provide a warm lap (or a comforting presence) when he needs them.




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