There are few things more pathetic than a very sick cat. Even sick dogs don’t paint such a sad picture, because at least we expect dogs to whine and moan when they’re sick or injured. But when the ever-stoic feline finally cops to feeling like crap, you know things are really bad.
Thus, it’s only natural that when our kitties start feeling better after a bad spell, we’re profoundly relieved. And, knowing our cats as well as we do, the odds are good that we’ll notice those changes long before even a veterinarian would.
Does that mean we as cat caretakers are susceptible to seeing improvements that aren’t really there?
A recent study from North Carolina State University suggests that this is quite possible. The researchers went so far as to conduct a three-part study featuring a medication for feline degenerative joint disease and a placebo in order to see if there is a statistical way to weed out the “caregiver placebo effect,” as the scientists called it, and determine the true effectiveness of the medicine.
I know all about the desire to see improvements in a beloved cat’s condition. When my Dahlia got so sick a couple of years ago, I hoped against hope that I’d find her feeling better every day. But I’m enough of a realist that there was no way I could deny how ill Dahlia was, and there was no way I could fail to see the pain in her eyes.
On the other hand, I’ve got my cat, Siouxsie, who has severe arthritis in her hips. I started her on a new herbal medicine a couple of months ago. I knew I was going to be inclined to see improvement even if none existed, and I know many people are skeptical about alternative remedies, so I took video of her walking before I started the medication so that I can compare that video to one I’m going to take in a couple of weeks.
It looks to me like the medicine has really decreased her pain level and improved her quality of life. She’s become more spry and she’s asking for shoulder rides again, something she hadn’t done for several months. Generally speaking she seems more alert and engaged, and less grumpy. Even my vet, who only sees Siouxsie once every few months, noticed the difference when I took her in for her last checkup.
Of course, we all want our cats to be healthy, happy and pain-free, but we need to be vigilant that our desire for our cats’ recovery doesn’t blind us to the reality of the effectiveness (or ineffectiveness) of the medication we’re giving. To deny the truth is not just a waste of time and resources, it’s cruel and inhumane.
Case in point: I once knew a woman whose elderly dog was severely arthritic, going blind, and lapsing into dementia. The dog’s owner asked me for advice. I told her what I saw: The dog was obviously terrified because she was in excruciating pain, couldn’t see, didn’t know where she was and couldn’t remember even the people who were familiar to her. I wanted to be compassionate with the woman, but I also had to speak the truth. “I know you and the kids love her and she’s a huge part of your lives,” I told the woman. “But I also think you know it’s not a kindness to keep her alive in this state.”
She clearly didn’t want to hear what I had to say because she refused to have the dog euthanized, instead opting to give homeopathic remedies and aspirin — which really did nothing to help.
It broke my heart to see this dog, who clearly had “that look” in her eyes and was more than ready to have her suffering ended, live in this horrific state for another several months because her owner refused to see the reality of her dog’s illness and pain.
What about you? Have you watched an animal suffer as an owner insisted the pet was getting better even when it was obvious that this was not true? On the other hand, have you seen a recovery that others didn’t and had to deal with people wondering why you were keeping your cat alive? Let’s talk in the comments.
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About JaneA Kelley: Punk-rock cat mom, science nerd, animal shelter volunteer and all-around geek with a passion for bad puns, intelligent conversation, and role-play adventure games. She gratefully and gracefully accepts her status as chief cat slave for her family of feline bloggers, who have been writing their award-winning cat advice blog, Paws and Effect, since 2003.