Sunday, February 6, 2011

Nibbler's Illness, Surgery, and Recovery (Part VII)

After a fantastic year of having Nibbler complete our home, improve our lives, and improve our other cats, he got very, very sick. He'd only ever had an upper respiratory infection before, and he recovered from that just fine. So at first we weren't all that concerned. But then one Saturday night he started throwing up bile. The next day he wouldn't eat, he wouldn't sleep, he wouldn't play, he wouldn't purr, he wouldn't use the litter box. He literally wouldn't do anything. He looked absolutely miserable. I didn't want to take him to the vet on Sunday since only emergency vets are open, and I knew that would cost me hundreds of dollars just to bring him in. So we looked up his symptoms, and taking him to the vet would mean lots of x-rays and possibly surgery. That could mean over $1,000, which we weren't prepared to pay. We hoped that he could just work it out on his own. We read that he likely had a foreign object stuck in his stomach and that if you fed the cat hairball formula food, he might be able to pass it on his own. So we went out and bought the food, but Nibbler simply wouldn't eat. He wouldn't even lick his paw when we tried putting some hairball formula liquid on it.

Since he kept vomiting on the carpet, we kept him locked up in the bathroom when we left the house. You can see how miserable he was just from this picture when he climbed into the sink.

First off we were hesitant to take him to the vet because of a previously bad experience. We were burned off of the vet in general in 2006 when we took Leela there for a limp, and they charged us nearly $300 to do nothing for her. They took a bunch of x-rays and told us she'd just have to walk it off. So now whenever I have a cat get sick, as much as I'd like to take him to the vet, I worry about spending several hundred dollars just to be told he'll get over it on his own. With something as serious as this clearly was, we were worried we'd be spending thousands of dollars for a surgery he might not need. But when we realized that there was no way to avoid taking him there, Oscar looked up vets online and found one with really excellent reviews for pricing and customer service.

We learned that when we took him to the vet, they would do an x-ray and then a barium scan. The scan might also help him pass the object on his own, and we really hoped that would happen. In the meantime he just kept getting severely dehydrated, and after forcing him to have some water, we took him in to the Animal Hospital at Murphy's Corner on Monday afternoon.

After the vet called to tell us the news, she informed us that Nibbler's stomach was basically twisting itself into knots, which kept him from being able to take anything in or get anything out. She didn't even bother to perform the scan. She knew from the x-ray alone that this was bad and called for emergency surgery. She told us he would die without it, and that she was surprised he'd lasted as long as he had. She also told us that the surgery had a high success rate and that she'd just performed it on a cat 5 days earlier.

When we came in to wish Nibbler luck and take a look at the x-ray for ourselves, she showed us Nibbler's in comparison to the cat from a few days before. The other cat had actually had complications during surgery. His intestines ruptured from the pressure of all the objects he'd eaten. Fortunately they were able to save him, but only because he was already on the operating table with his belly cut open. We compared Nibbler's x-ray to that other cat's, and Nibbler's was noticeably worse. At that point I really wanted her to just put him under the table immediately and get to work. She had two assistants and another doctor come to assist her with the surgery, and we thought it was hilarious that her name was Dr. Bishop. Dr. Bishop is also the mad scientist on the TV show "Fringe," and we laughed that maybe this was his female, veterinarian equivalent.

We held Nibbler for a few minutes before he had his tummy shaved and went in for surgery. He was so miserable I had to stop myself from crying.

Fortunately the price she'd quoted us was much more reasonable than we were expecting. We'd read online that the surgery could be anywhere between $1,000 and $4,000, and she said $975 max. I was relieved by that price since that's really not bad considering all they have to do for the cat. First off we had two doctors and two assistants working overtime after business hours. They had to cut open his stomach and physically remove the objects. They had to be super gentle too or they could rip the intestines apart. Things like ribbon (which was one of many objects Nibbler had in his tummy) are very sharp on the sides and they had to knead it out tiny piece by tiny piece. Imagine how much that surgery would cost for a human child! And it requires every bit as much care and precision to perform it on an animal.

She said she'd call us when Nibbler woke up from surgery and said it could be as late as midnight. But she called at about 9. His surgery actually went perfectly and Nibbler woke up purring. He was just delighted to finally be out of pain. And for no extra charge they kept him at the hospital until Friday and monitored his eating and litter box habits. When we came in to visit he was much happier and extremely purry.

We got to visit Nibbler at the animal hospital on Wednesday. By then he was doing good, he was eating, he was purry, sweet, and lovey, and they were just keeping him for a few days to make sure he didn't have any setbacks from the surgery. They also told me he was beautiful, playful, and had been so sweet and purry with them that they wouldn't want to let him go. It was nice to have someone else confirm how I feel about my cat. :)

When we went in to see him, Dr. Sowder said that Nibbler was eating and drinking normally, but that she'd be really happy to see a bowel movement. I noticed the litter box had no litter (just newspaper) and she told me they do that because the cats often flip the box over, and it just makes a mess. But when I told her that Nibbler actually loves litter, she pored a little bit in. He immediately walked around in it. He didn't use it just then, but he knew what it was for and it wasn't long before he used it and was back to his normal self.

When I picked him up on Friday they sent me home with pain medicine, antibiotic, and a lot of prescription gastrointestinal formula cat food. Adding $975 to $30 for the new patient fee, $100 for the x-ray, and more for the medicines and special cat food, I was expecting to pay at least $1200. But the final bill was only $994. They didn't even charge me to have the staples removed a few weeks later. For all the services they gave us, I think it was worth every penny. This is what his belly looked like for about a month after surgery.

We did have to pay an expensive surgery for Nibbler, but he wouldn't have survived without their intervention. He actually had balloon ribbon, rubber bands, and well over 30 of my hair ties trapped in his stomach and intestines. The veterinarian assistants even took pictures of the mess. The doctor said she couldn't believe
he'd been able to survive as long as he did with all that blockage. But now he's all better. Apparently they caught it just in time, too. Nibbler must have organs of steel to make it as long as he did, but even steel has its limits. We don't plan on testing them again! We are going to be more diligent at keeping our house clean and keeping those things away from him. When I went to pick him up at the end of the week, Dr Sowder tossed me a bunch of scrunchy-type hair ties and said "Use those. He can't eat them."

I was really happy to have Nibbler home. He recovered well from major surgery, and he was soon as affectionate as ever. Plus he proved to all the ladies at the animal hospital that he was worth saving.

When we had to put Nibbler on his special diet, all he wanted was to eat the other
cats' dry food. And, of course, the other cats wanted his wet food really bad. Nibbler had to have his special wet food, but the other cats couldn't have it since we wanted to make sure Nibbler was able to eat it for as long as possible after the surgery. Since he could only eat so much at a time, I had to refrigerate it a lot so the rest of the can didn't go bad before he got to it, and he refused to eat it cold. And believe it or not, the smell of microwaved cat food is not pleasant. It was only ever in the microwave for a few seconds, but boy did it make the house reek long after it was consumed. And Fry and Leela about went crazy for it. They would just spin in circles and slam against the bedroom door desperate to get a piece of Nibbler's food. We'd let them lick Nibbler's cans when he was done, but otherwise Nibbler ate all of it. Fortunately he started being willing to eat it cold after about a week.

Fry was grumpy when Nibbler came back. He growled like when Nibbler was new. But he got used to Nibbler much quicker than the first time.

We decided to get a real tree this year so that Nibbler wouldn't eat the fake tree like he did last year. He must have been climbing all over it while I was gone since we'd come home and he'd reek of pine! Plus an added benefit of the real tree is that Nib taught himself to the fetch the small sticks that broke off. How many cats will fetch a stick?!

I knew that Nib was eating my hair ties, and I'd try to stop him if I'd see him doing it. But since I'd find a hair tie in the litter box every once in awhile, I wasn't too worried about it. I just assumed they would pass through him eventually. I had no idea so many were still stuck inside him. I'm so glad I didn't let my cat die from my own ignorance.

Ultimately what brought us to our decision to save Nibbler was the thought "would we rather have a new computer/new vacation/new TV or Nibber alive?" We'd spent so much money on trips that year that our funds were much lower than usual. We'd actually just returned from a short trip totally astonished by how much it had cost us, and we'd promised to stop spending so much money for awhile. But we knew we wanted Nibbler alive much more than anything else that was worth $1,000, and I have to say that even though it cost a lot of money, I've never once regretted saving Nibbler. I've regretted spending $1,000 on a television or computer, but never Nibbler. He's as delightful as ever, and if anything I think we love him more now that we realize how much he's worth to us. I know I've had the thought "why did we buy this flat screen HD TV when we already have a perfectly functioning TV, but I've never thought "gee, I wish I'd kept that 1,000 dollars since I already have two perfectly functioning cats." In all honesty, even if Nibbler died tomorrow I'd still be happy that I paid for his surgery if only for the love he's brought into our home since he got back.

This was Part VII of a 7 part post. If you would like to read more, there's a ton more info and a lot more cute pictures in the other posts. Part I tell about never thinking we'd pay a lot of money for a pet and then doing it, Part II tells about first getting our first kittens, Part III is about our cat Fry, Part IV is about our cat Leela, Part V is about our cat Nibbler, and Part VI is about all of our cats and the cute things they do together. Enjoy!

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