This year, one Friday the 13th brought a spell of bad luck to our house. We planned to visit with family that evening, so we left out the big peanut butter bones for the dogs and shut the door to the bathroom for the cats. The bathroom has always been a “safe room” for the cats, and it has a cat door at the bottom to permit them access to this quiet space to lounge when the dogs get to be too much. We left a movie playing on Netflix for some background noise and left everyone curled up in the living room. We made sure we returned home well before the dogs would need a potty break.
When we got home, nothing really seemed out of the ordinary, except that only Fry and Remi met us at the door. Axle had issued one of his rare “warning barks” when he heard the key turn in the door, but we just assumed he didn’t recognize the sound of the vehicle. As we took our shoes off, we noticed he appeared to be guarding something in the kitchen area. It was Leela. She was dead.
After we gathered our wits, we assessed the situation. Leela was cold and stiff. She wasn’t bleeding, and nothing was obviously broken. She had emptied her bowels on the kitchen tile. Her fur was mussed up and she had a little dog slobber on her, but no puncture wounds, no obvious trauma. Axle had scratch marks across his cheek and ear, but there were no other signs of struggle. Fry watched solemnly as my husband wrapped his sister up and carried her out. Still mostly in shock, we went to bed. Throughout the night, I’d hear Fry cry out in the dark of the house, looking for Leela.
Fry seemed fine the day after, although now he spends day and night meowing loudly through the house. The day after her death, I couldn’t get Leela out of my mind. Her death just didn’t make sense. Besides her lifelong history of gastrointestinal issues and her insistence that if it fits in her mouth it must be for eating, she was a healthy cat. In fact, I had just taken her and Fry in to see the vet the previous week for a brief exam and their rabies vaccines. She was a healthy 11 pounds (yes, I have big cats), and the vet saw no indication that Leela was sick.
Could it have been a stroke? A heart attack? Did she find some little string or something I missed and choke on it? We knew from early on that she would try to eat anything she could fit in her mouth, so we’ve always been careful about toys in the house, as well as household hazards. I even have to be careful how I dispose of my hair that falls out when brushing, as I’ve caught Leela choking on a wad of it before. What in the world could have happened to her?
As I was collecting the paper products to burn the next day, I found what I believe to be the answer. The day Leela died, I had gotten some shoes in the mail. They had been in their own smaller box within the large cardboard box, so I’d left the cardboard box out to burn. I figured the cats would like playing with it in the meantime. When I picked it up to throw it on the fire, I heard a rattling sound. Not only had the company placed some of those little silica gel packets in the shoebox, they had tossed them in the large cardboard box, as well. I hadn’t noticed them when I took out the shoebox. Perhaps they were wedged underneath the bottom flaps, or maybe they were tucked up in a corner. Regardless, they were in there and I missed them. On examination, I could see some tell-tale bite marks on the shredded packets and around the flaps of the cardboard box.
According to Dr. Erin Ringstrom of East Atlanta Animal Clinic, silica (like you find in shoeboxes and purses) “is not toxic if eaten. It only says ‘do not eat’ on the packet because it is a non-food item. It is a completely inert substance if ingested.” In her 10 years of veterinary practice, Ringstrom has never treated a pet for true choking, as “it is very rare for pets to truly choke, even if they eat non-food items.” Ringstrom went on to say that “cats that love to eat hair, fabric, paper, and plastic are far more likely to experience gastrointestinal upset, or even blockage of the GI tract, from this behavior.” Vomiting is a good sign that your cat is in trouble and should see a vet.
A choking cat can’t go get help or try to perform a self-Heimlich. They absolutely panic. The more the cat can’t breathe, the more distressed she becomes. Axle is very sensitive to animals (and humans) in distress and will try to help however he can, which explains the slobber, the scratches, and him guarding Leela’s body. If you do find your cat choking, Ringstrom suggests these steps from Veterinary Partner’s website.
Finding those shredded packets was terrible revelation. I could be wrong — Leela could have been suffering from some invisible disease or perhaps ingested some mystery substance from some unknown corner of the house. I’m pretty sure she choked on those silica packets, though, packets that wouldn’t have been there if I had done my due diligence as a pet owner and thoroughly checked the box before leaving it for them to play with. Leela would still be biting my toes and trying to sneak into our bedroom closet if I had just checked that box.
My negligence might have cost my cat her life, but it might save the life of your cat. Always check boxes for those pesky little silica packets, and dispose of them and any other potential choking hazards. Don’t buy toys with lots of strings or small parts that could be a choking hazard. Store hazardous materials out of reach in a room your cat doesn’t have access to. Keep your shower, drains, and floors clear of hair, especially if you have long hair like mine, because your cat is liable to eat it and/or choke on it. (That means store your hairbrush out of reach, too!)
If you find your cat choking, dislodge the item if it’s visibly lodged in their throat. If it’s something like a string, which Ringstrom cited as being the worst offender for intestinal blockage in cats, most vets recommend not trying to dislodge this yourself, as it may be partially lodged in your cat’s intestines. Wrap your cat in a towel (this protects you from scratches), place him in a carrier, and get him to the vet immediately.
As with the loss of any animal, the questions have already started. Will I get another cat? Isn’t it causing stress for Fry to be alone? Don’t I want this cat or that one since I “have room” now? The answer isn’t a simple yes or no. Our family is grieving the loss of one of our beloved family members. Yes, Fry is sad, but we hope that letting him sleep in the room with us at night and spending more time with him during the day will help ease some of his grief. No cat can replace Leela, but maybe one day we’ll be able to open our hearts and home to a homeless cat. Regardless, you can guarantee I’ll be a lot more careful in the future.
About Meghan Lodge: Fits the Aquarius definition to a fault, loves animals, and is always pushing for change. Loves ink, whether it’s in tattoos, books, or writing on that pretty sheet of blank paper. Proud parent of two dogs (one being very dumb) and two cats (one perpetually plotting my demise). I’m a former quiet nerd who’s turned bubbly animal-obsessed advocate.
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