James Dean (JD) came into my life when he was just nine weeks of age. Skin and bones and less than half the size of his littermates, he was a pathetic little creature weighing a mere 15 ounces. He was infested with ear mites and had bad diarrhea from coccidia, causing him to be severely dehydrated. In fact, he was a mess.
His siblings trampled him at feeding time, pushing him out of the way as they gobbled up the food. He was amazingly energetic, considering how emaciated his tiny frame was, but the few bites he managed to grab were vomited up a short time later. Needless to say, JD was always in starvation mode.
A sucker for the tough cases, I offered to take this kitten on as a single foster in hopes of fattening him up through free access to food. He needed to reach the two pounds required for neutering before we could adopt him out. I thought maybe the vomiting was due to the fact that he had to eat quickly in order to get anything at all, but even not having littermates to compete with, it continued.
The dehydration also continued, so I learned to give subcutaneous fluids and made fresh chicken stock to encourage him to drink. I also began to liquefy his food.
Still barely over a pound at 14 weeks, the tips of his ears suddenly drooped, giving him a distinct Yoda-like appearance. Very endearing, but puzzling, and we feared his circulatory system had been compromised.
Feline-only veterinarian Dr. Cynthia Rigoni had this to say about JD’s ears: "The folded ears can be several things. However, with his history, malnutrition would be first on my list.” Whatever the reason, the ear folds lasted a few weeks and then, even more oddly, began to reverse.
He still vomited up his food after every meal and was only barely gaining two ounces a week instead of the usual four a kitten should. A couple of friends suggested JD could have megaesophagus, so I began to research.
Megaesophagus (ME) is a congenital condition found in humans, dogs, and (rarely) cats. During food intake the esophagus normally pushes the food to the stomach in a series of muscle-like contractions. In ME patients, the esophagus is enlarged, pouch-like, and the food is not pushed through but rather builds up until the animal regurgitates, or stays in place until it ferments. Sometimes the contents get into the lungs, causing additional problems.
Everything pointed to this condition, so we decided that he should be tested. JD’s barium X-ray showed an especially bad case of ME, one that was not treatable surgically. Spending most of the day at the specialist, he quickly became a "pocket kitten" and a favorite with the staff. No one could resist his big green eyes and quick purr, as between tests he snuggled and napped in their lab coat pockets.
With little hope that he would ever grow out of it, I refused to give up on him and continued his schedule of medications and feedings, requiring six hours a day of my time.
His food was blended into a slurry so that it would hopefully slid down through his esophagus. I added homemade chicken stock to his special canned food in hopes of adding a few extra calories, and pumpkin to calm his stomach should the food get that far. I was bottle-feeding him and holding him in an upright position for 20 to 30 minutes after each meal to let gravity move the food. Sometimes it took more than an hour to get four tablespoons down without them coming back up. Two hours later we would do it again.
His feedings were done in the bathroom, where I held him facing the mirror and the sink, just in case he had to vomit. As we rocked back and forth, we would watch each other’s reflection in the glass. Often JD would glance up at me with those beautiful eyes. Even three years later I can’t look into that mirror without seeing JD looking back at me. Sometimes he fell asleep and then I would carefully carry him back to the computer and curl him up in my lap while I wrote. With all that time spent in my arms and in my lap, he became one with my heart.
At four-and-a-half months, he finally reached that magic weight of two pounds. Now technically a teenager, he sported the long gangly legs but was still skin and bones. Even with liquefied food and meds, the vomiting continued.
A four-month-old kitten should weigh at least four pounds and be half the size of a small adult. JD was the weight of an eight-week-old, but with long skinny legs. His frame was small and pathetic looking. He was starving.
Always hungry, the kitten became a dumpster diver, coming out of wastebaskets with empty chip bags on his head. I once pulled a large book off a shelf to find JD hiding behind it with a food wrapper. In the mornings when I’d open his door, he’d leap the gate, running past me down the hall and stairs to the kitchen below to eat anything my cats might have left on their plates. Gone missing one day, I found him in a box in the garage where he had ripped open a bag of kibble, something he could never eat, try as he might.
Full of life as he seemed, it was obvious that he was constantly hungry and not thriving. With broken heart I made the decision to end his suffering. I gave him a day free of meds and let him eat anything he wanted, vomiting be damned. He played outside in the sunshine chasing butterflies and romping with my cat, Barney.
Hungry no more, he is now buried on a hillside overlooking the rolling valley on a friend’s ranch. I placed a can of food and his favorite mouse by his side.
Dr. Rigoni confirmed my decision, saying, "[The] poor boy was doomed from the start and you worked like a fiend to help him. … If [kittens] have someone like you to help them get calories, they can sometimes make it to a couple of years old. If not, they starve to death while eating. How fast it happens depends on how much can get to their stomach and how packed full of food the esophagus is."
I tried so hard to save him, but it wasn’t enough. Sweet JD, you are missed by many, and my tears still flow.
All photos taken by the author.
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About the author: Marci Kladnik, her four rescue cats, and one Scottish Terrier live in a small town with no stoplights or mail delivery. A retired graphic designer and technical writer, she designed and wrote for two publishers and two medical device manufacturers. She was also on the masthead of the monthly National Model Railroad Association Bulletin. For seven years Marci wrote an award-winning bi-weekly cat column for three newspapers; she is currently a contributing writer for Catster.com, an award-winning photographer, and president of the Cat Writers’ Association. Involved in TNR and feral rescue, she sat on the Board of Directors of Catalyst for Cats from 2007 to 2013. Her columns appear on www.catalystforcats.org.