Wednesday, January 4, 2012

The Tail End

I stepped on my beloved cat's tail not once but twice.

In over eight years, I'd never stepped on his tail. Why now? Why me? I really have no answer. He got underfoot when I was opening mail and, without knowing he was there, I took a step forward toward the dining room table.  Crunch!

The scream echoed throughout the house. I'd heard Zuni complain in the past but never anything like this.

I bent down to see what I'd done, but Zuni ran for the hills. He wanted nothing to do with me. I was his caretaker, his mommy, and I'd let him down. Even his cat brain understood that.

I felt like such a louse and prayed that whatever I'd done wasn't that bad.

The first vet was unable to get Zuni to settle down enough to get a good look.

"We'll have to put him under."

That seemed rather extreme.

"And what if you find that his tail is broken? What next?"

"We put him on pain medication and antibiotics, if necessary. Beyond that, nothing. Cat's broken tails usually repair themselves."

"Then give me the pain meds."

With difficulty, I maneuvered Zuni back into his cat carrier, put him in the car, and raced for home.

Over the next few days, as the pain subsided, I was able to investigate his tail. I didn't see any open wounds but did feel what I thought were possibly two scabs. Thank god. He was going to be just fine.

Almost a week later, I was in the basement putting a load of laundry in the dryer. I didn't see Zuni around my feet, focused as I was on not dropping a wet sock or small kitchen towel. And it happened again. I stepped on his tail!

This time, neither Zuni nor I was so lucky. The tip of his tail protruded like a small hot dog, red and glistening. Whatever hair had covered the tip was miraculously gone. Something was terribly wrong.

It was the afternoon of December 31. Our vet had closed his doors at noon. So, it was off to Animal 911, a 24/7 care center about a 10-minute drive from my home.

"You'll be fine," I mumbled to my wounded cat as he sat stoically in his pet carrier stationed securely on the passenger car seat.

Zuni was whisked away by the attending at the emergency pet hospital. I felt like such a bum. And I was embarrassed. What I'd done, albeit unintentionally, made me look like an abusive pet owner who had absolutely no awareness or consideration for my cat. It was if I'd broken a child's arm not once but twice.

"I have a theory," the vet said. "I think the damage was done the first time you stepped on his tail. He's been operating at half mast and, this second time, he just didn't have enough control to move his tail out of the way."

I breathed a sigh of relief. Maybe it was an accident waiting to happen.

"Still, there is no doubt that we'll have to amputate."

My stomach turned.

"How much? How much will you have to cut?"

"I won't know until we get him in surgery. My best guess is about three inches."

"There's no other option?"

"No other option. The tip of his tail is almost dead. The injured section has sustained nerve damage, and there's no way of restoring it."

"What about the hair?"

"It will grow back. In time, no one will know."

Right, except me. I'll know. That long, bushy tail won't be long enough to wrap around his legs like a winter scarf. It will no longer stand like a periscope when he walks.

"What's the healing time?" I asked, worried because we had only eight days before leaving the country for two months.

"Ten to twelve days."

My heart sank. "We don't have that long. We're going to Mexico and leaving Zuni with a house sitter who likes cats but . . ."

The vet explained the protocol. He'd be given antibiotics twice a day for a week and pain medication, as needed. That meant we could finish that part of his treatment before leaving.

"And the stitches?"

"They'll dissolve on their own, so you won't have to worry about that. But he'll have to wear a collar to prevent him from licking and scratching."

There was no way. Zuni was a wild man who bit attendants during routine exams. To stick one of those plastic Elizabethan collars on him and expect him to get used to it was as likely as asking me to move to Alaska during the winter.

"Good luck getting it on him," I muttered, suddenly exhausted.

They did manage to attach the collar. And he hated it. The minute we arrived home and I opened his cat carrier, he catapulted out and flew through the air, landing on his feet, and then running up and down the stairs, bumping into walls at every turn. When he came to a halt, he was panting, his little tongue hanging out, his breath fogging up the plastic collar. It was pathetic, really.

The next morning, we found Zuni sitting calmly in the upstairs hallway, his collar crunched up against an adjoining wall. Our little Houdini had somehow squeezed out of a collar that was good and tight the night before. My husband and I knew then that we'd have to take turns making sure that he didn't bite or lick the stitches until they dissolved.

It's Day #4. Zuni seems more and more like himself despite the missing 3 inches of tail. Still, we're not out of the woods yet. I caught him licking his stitches earlier this morning and have had to sequester him in my office where I can keep an eye on him.

Small penance for the harm I've caused.

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