The human condition: The kitten that threatened my sanity

Pets are meant to be soothing and calming. But for Justine Picardie owning a cat has been an emotional and financial nightmare

Justine Picardie
Saturday 30 September 1995 23:02

after three-and-a-half years of persistent pleading from my eldest son, I finally capitulated in May and bought a small, black, sweet-faced kitten. It was rather more expensive an undertaking than I'd imagined (pounds 20 for her; pounds 25 for her litter tray and other accoutrements; pounds 50 for her vaccinations and various flea and worm treatments). But I comforted myself with the thought of all those medical studies which showed that pet-owners were smiley, happy people who lived longer than everyone else. It's something to do with stroking a furry animal, apparently.

And, indeed, the summer passed happily enough, though the studies say nothing about the mildly stress-inducing effects of removing cat poo from the back garden. But at the beginning of September, disaster struck. Lizzie (for that is her name) was sent to the vet to be neutered, and came back with a fractured leg. Not that the vet had noticed her leg was broken: when I pointed out that she seemed to be dragging it in a most peculiar way, he said that she was simply making a fuss about nothing. But she was no better the next day, so her leg was X-rayed, and then pinned with three metal rods in a lengthy operation.

How, you might ask, does a vet come to break a cat's leg? He couldn't actually explain why: though he admitted it might have happened when she was put in what is alarmingly known as a "crush-cage", after she resisted his attempts to anaesthetise her in a more conventional manner. But I am a reasonable woman and accepted his assertion that these things sometimes happen, and therefore did not say what I was really thinking, which was: "Shouldn't you have been more gentle? She's only a kitten." Nor did I complain to him when she came home, looking far more pathetically mutilated than before: the scar from the neutering operation on one side; a larger, more livid scar along the other; and a plastic contraption around her neck to stop her pulling her stitches out, which also stopped her being able to eat or drink with any comfort.

Stroking a cat in this condition causes nothing but guilt; for how could I have allowed her to end up like this? But the vet said she'd be fine; and that she'd be up and on her feet in no time. Six days later, however, a large and alarming lump appeared above her hip. I rang the vet, who said not to worry, it was probably one of the metal pins that had come a bit loose. After another 48 hours, the pin was protruding through her flesh, so I took her back to the vet. He told me that she'd be in no pain, which sounded unlikely, but I should keep her from rushing around. I pointed out that this would not be necessary, as she was hardly moving.

The following week, all three pins started poking through a bloody gash in her hip, and then fell out. Practically hysterical, I rang the vet, who said that I should put her in a cage. This did not seem to me to be an adequate solution. Why put her in a cage, when she was spending her time lying prostrate on a cushion anyway? So we talked to another vet, who said: "If this were my cat, I'd want her to see a specialist orthopaedic surgeon." He also advised us not to let the original vet lay a finger on her; we should instead ask him to refer the cat elsewhere.

By now, it was two weeks after the original operation to mend her fractured leg. The first vet (or Dr Mengele, as a friend dubbed him) was all for re-operating. I politely said that we would prefer her to be seen by someone else; and he agreed to send her to the Royal Veterinary College in Potter's Bar, north London. This is why, at 8.30 one morning last week, I came to be driving around the M25, sweating with anxiety and frustration, with a cat yowling in an old wicker picnic hamper on the back seat. By the time we had arrived there, after an hour of crawling through rush hour traffic, I could have done with a handful of Prozac and the cat looked ready to throw herself into the nearest river.

We were seen by a kindly, grey-haired professor who said that her leg would have to be X-rayed, and then operated upon. How much would it cost, I asked? Three or four hundred pounds, he said. This seemed like a lot of money, but what was the alternative? Amputation? So he took Lizzie away, and I was sent off to sign a consent form for the operation. It was then that I was presented with an estimated bill of pounds 634, with a note attached saying that the final cost might be far more. I promptly burst into tears.

Back home, my friends could be divided into two camps: roughly one-third of them advised me to sue the original vet, the rest said we should have Lizzie put down. None of this was very helpful, for why kill a kitten, who for no fault of her own has a broken leg? As for legal action - well, maybe, but it's a bleak prospect.

So now she's out of hospital, doubtless traumatised by a third operation (it took two hours to fit a metal plate to her femur) and with yet another scar on her poor, battered body.

To add insult to injury, she's confined to one corner of the conservatory for at least two weeks, boxed in with 4ft-high sheets of plywood to stop her getting out. Apparently if she moves too much, the plate will come loose and she'll need another, even more hideously expensive operation. She sits there miaowing piteously, while I try to figure out how to pay for the hospital fees.

The moral of the story is: pets cause stress; and vets make money. Both I and the cat could probably do with some therapy, or better still, a holiday, to recover from the misery of the last month - but forget it. I can't afford to pay for the damage to her shattered leg, let alone our frazzled minds.

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