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  • Writer's pictureSarah McDonald

Navigating a Pet Emergency

Happy Pancake Tuesday! In honour of this delicious day, I want to share an experience that happened last fall after my boyfriend, Taylor, and I adopted our kitten Pancakes (see the connection!?) together and she suffered a major health emergency. This was the first time that I personally had to deal with a pet emergency as an adult without having my parents around to make all the hard decisions. It was also the first big emotional and financial challenge Taylor and I faced together in our relationship. I want to share with you how we navigated the situation in case you are going through something similar with a pet or just generally appreciate reading about how we worked our way through this.

Hello, I'm a Cat Lady

Over the past couple of years I have become a bit of a cat lady. In October of 2018 I adopted my first cat, Harper, from the Oxford County Animal Rescue. Before that, I would not have considered myself a cat lady, in fact, I didn't really like cats much at all. Cats always seemed ambivalent towards me and I preferred the blind, unconditional love that you get from dogs. When I decided to adopt Harper, I had just moved into my own place for the first time. No roommates and no family; it was just me and I was experiencing a lot of loneliness. My apartment started to feel ginormous and empty at night with just me in it and I decided that adopting a pet might help to ease some of that anxiety. A cat made a lot more sense for my lifestyle at the time. To say that Harper has been important for me over these past 2+ years would be an understatement. She taught me that sometimes cats don't show their love very easily but when they do, it's one of the best feelings. Harper has been with me through a lot over the last two years. She is incredibly sweet and curious but she can also be a bit spicy. She plays fetch better than most dogs and loves the bathroom tap a little too much (hey, sometimes you need a little privacy in there).

Tiny Harper during her first month at home in Oct 2018

Harper was a rescue and was so easy. She's never had an accident in the house *knock on wood* and uses the litter box even when I'm a bad cat mom and wait too long before cleaning it. I adopted Harper as a 6 month old kitten and took her for her spay when the rescue organization instructed me to. I keep up with her regular yearly check ups and shots and she hasn't had any health issues or given me any trouble at all.

From Paula to Pancake

Flash forward to September 2020. My boyfriend and I started talking about adopting a second cat together. I have always felt a little bit guilty that Harper has been an only cat for two years. I adopted Harper, in part, to help alleviate my loneliness but I wondered if I was just passing that loneliness onto her. Taylor and I also wanted the joy of adopting a pet together and experiencing that next step of our relationship. It was important to me to use the Oxford County Animal Rescue (OCAR) organization again so we started to keep an eye on their website until a kitten came up that spoke to us. Ideally we wanted a kitten or younger cat that would adapt well to life with a new adult cat and we also needed a kitten that was fairly brave since Harper can be a bit of a bully. One day while I was doing my regular check I saw the cutest fluff ball named Paula and in her profile they described her as "brave". I was sold. Since I had previously adopted from OCAR we were instantly approved. The name Paula never felt right to us so we renamed her Pancakes and now Taylor and I both agree that she is totally a Pancakes. She is a complete goofball with a massive personality and we love her.

I found a screen shot of Paula's adoption profile!

It's Like Vertigo For Cats

As I said, Harper has been a dream since I adopted her and hasn't had any issues, health or otherwise. I foolishly applied this to ALL cats and thought, "wow cats are easy peasy." In early October I was out for a walk when Taylor called me..., like on the phone. Does anyone else hold their breath and brace for the worst news when someone calls them? I knew it wouldn't be good news. Why would he need to call me when I'd be home in 20 minutes? I could tell from his voice that he was trying to sound calm so it didn't freak me out but he also told me that I should get home A.S.A.P. because Pancakes was acting strange.

When I got home I burst into tears because it looked like she had had a stroke. She couldn't stand and was constantly falling over. Her neck was at a painful 90 degree angle that we later learned is called a "head tilt" and she was throwing up over and over. We drove her to an emergency vet clinic and spent the next three hours painfully waiting in our car to find out what was going on. We learned that she was experiencing vestibular syndrome, which our vet explained looks a lot worse than it is and is very similar to what someone with vertigo would experience. We took her home armed with medications and a $300 vet bill but without any explanation as to what caused the vestibular syndrome. Over the course of the next week I read everything I could about vestibular syndrome (I'm a librarian, it's what I do) and learned that the symptoms of this condition are caused by inflammation that affects the vestibular nerve, which runs from the heart and up to the head through the nasal passage. The most frustrating part of this syndrome is that most of the time the cause is unknown. The syndrome itself isn't life threatening but the symptoms could be. For example, vestibular syndrome can result in dehydration from repeated vomiting or injuries resulting from a lack of balance. We spent the majority of that week making sure that she was confined and safe.

Look at that face! I took this photo her first night home.

Deciding The Treatment Plan

Taylor and I were starting to have some hard conversations about what our next steps would be and this was the first time in our relationship where we had to address a big financial issue together. The emergency vet explained that we would need to book Pancakes a CT scan in order to start investigating the cause of her vestibular sydnrome and that scan would cost about $2000. There was no guarantee it would show us the cause and it would only be a tool for diagnosis. We would still have the costs of treatment to think about. At the end of that week I got a call from a sales person trying to sell me something. I don't know about you but my brain instantly shuts off when I hear a sales person on the other end. I was trying to politely shut the conversation down until I registered that she was trying to up sell me pet insurance because our existing plan was expiring in a few weeks. Our existing plan!?

"Are you telling me that I have pet insurance?"

Yes, as it turns out, our vet had enrolled us in the healthy start program at her first vet appointment but forgot to mention it to us. This made our decision A LOT easier when we realized that we would have a substantial amount (80%) of Pancakes' vet bills covered by insurance. In all likelihood we would have gone forward with treatment regardless but now it was a no brainer.

We booked her CT scan for later that fall. If you've never taken a cat (or any kind of pet I assume) for a CT scan it does involve being put under anesthesia. The CT scan showed that she had a polyp in her ear which was causing an infection that wouldn't heal and needed to be removed surgically. We spoke with the neurological vet specialist who gave us a couple options and walked us through the implications of those options. We decided to move forward with an aggressive surgery where there would be a very small chance of the polyp returning. We booked the surgery for early January and crossed our fingers that she wouldn't have another vestibular flare up.

We made it through the holidays and on January 5th we dropped Pancakes off at the same emergency vet clinic where we started this journey back in October. I don't have any children but based on this experience I have a tiny taste of what it is like to sit and wait for news that your kid is OK after surgery and the sense of relief that follows. Because it was a complicated surgery the clinic kept her overnight to monitor her. We picked her up the next day and spent the following two week in cat nurse mode administering three different medications throughout the day and keeping her separate from Harper so she could rest and heal.

We are now over a month post surgery and Pancakes is doing great much to Harper's disappointment since Pancake's #1 favourite past-time is chasing Harper. If you found this article because you are trying to learn more about Vestibular Syndrome, don't panic! With the help of a great team of veterinarians we were able to identify the cause and treat it. So far Pancakes has only had one flare of vestibular syndrome. This doesn't mean we aren't worried that it will come back one day but we will cross that bridge if we have to.

The majestic Pancakes in her natural habitat. On the kitchen table.

What did we learn:

  1. Get pet insurance. If you decide to adopt a pet look into the Healthy Start program. We plan on keeping this insurance plan for a year in case anything else comes up related to this issue or something unexpected. Our insurance plan is $44 a month, comes with a $100 yearly deductible and has a $5000 per year limit on each condition or injury. So that means we've used up our $5000 limit this year for anything related to this condition but come November we will have another $5000 if her polyp returns. And remember that insurance plans do not cover preexisting conditions so if we were to cancel this plan and enroll her again it wouldn't cover anything related to the vestibular condition.

  2. Emotional support is so important. Dealing with anything health related, whether it's a person or a pet, is really stressful. I've cried a lot over the last few months out of worry and concern for this tiny creature that completely relies on us for her well-being. Having someone to lean on and talk through this experience made it doable because we were in this together and it really made me value our relationship. Not everyone chooses to be in a relationship but we all need emotional support from people we love to get through these difficult experiences and it's important to recognize that we need to reach out more to our friends and family members when they are trying to navigate these stressful situations. If you're in the midst of a stressful situation, don't be afraid to ask for help. I often try to take on more than I can emotionally handle and that never works out well. I'm also working on actively asking for help more often.

  3. Pets are a big responsibility. This might seem obvious but deciding to adopt a pet is a big decision with really big potential responsibilities like a $6500 condition that presents itself a month after you adopt them. I adopted Pancakes under the false assumptions that cats are "easy" but quickly learned that while Harper was easy cats are not. Adopting a pet is so wonderful and rewarding in so many ways but it's not all sunshine and rainbows. Sometimes it's also vomiting, late night emergency vet trips and surgery.

Best friends whether they like it or not!


xox Sarah

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