Marmalade came into my life just as I was leaving the Healdsburg Animal Shelter (HAS) after my “tri-out” day for the position of Vet Tech. I was walking out the door when a woman came in carrying a half-dead cat. She explained she was following a car and the car pulled over to the side of the road and someone just threw the cat out the window. Didn’t even bother to stop the car. Just threw the cat out like it was a piece of garbage.

Welcome to shelter medicine.

And that’s where I want to sidetrack for a minute. Shelter medicine. There’s something you need to understand about shelters and, more specifically, shelter medicine. As crude as this sounds, shelters are basically a dumping ground for unwanted pets. Some of these pets are owner surrenders because the owners can’t afford them anymore or are moving and can’t take them with, or just don’t want them anymore. Most of these owner surrenders come to us in good shape and just need to be properly cared for until they find a new home.

However, the vast majority of animals that end up in shelters are there because they’re sick or have behavioral issues (or both). Instead of doing the right thing or the humane thing (take them to a vet or bring them into the shelter for proper care), irresponsible animal owners simply discard their pets as if they were trash – just let them go outside to fend for themselves or dump them in a field somewhere or, as in the case of Marmalade, throw them from a moving car.

I will say this upfront: I have absolutely no compassion or respect for these people. I understand not being able to afford medical care or behavior training for an animal. But that does not justify treating them inhumanely. Period.

Back to Marmalade.

Even though I wasn’t an employee of the shelter (yet) there was no way in hell I was going to leave HAS without taking care of this cat.

The first thing I remember about Marmalade was picking her up. She felt, for lack of a better term, hollow. She was so light and fragile I honestly thought I could break her by holding her wrong. And I honestly thought she could die on the way back to the clinic (It really wasn’t a clinic but we’ll get into that later).

The first thing I did is give her fluids. She was so emaciated and dehydrated that her body literally sucked the fluid out of her Sub Q tube as fast as I could deliver it. You could see every bone in her body. Some times you look at animals like this and you think the best solution is to just put them to sleep to save their pain and suffering. And honestly, I was considering it. But when I looked into her eyes I saw a tiny light that said “Please don’t give up on me!”

So I didn’t.

I hand fed her for about an hour. She was very hungry and wanted to eat but she was so weak she couldn’t chew. I mixed a high-calorie wet food with a little water, loaded it into a syringe and squirted a little into her mouth at a time. Even swallowing was hard for her. But we stayed at it until she couldn’t swallow anymore. I made a big soft bed for her, gently laid her down, kissed her goodnight and promised her I’d be back first thing in the morning.

I didn’t sleep. Couldn’t. I couldn’t stop thinking about her. Did I care for her properly? Did I miss something? Should I have given her more food? More fluids? What if I missed something. Worse even: What if she dies overnight.

The next morning, before heading to HAS, I held my cats, D.J. and Blanche, for a long, long time. I don’t know why.

The hardest part was waiting outside the shelter until the morning crew arrived. I got there early (7:45am) and it was the longest 15 minutes in recent memory. Once I explained to the crew who I was and what happened the day before they let me in and I hurried back to the clinic.

I paused at the door. My heart pounded. I was afraid to go in thinking the worst. I took a deep breath and opened the door.

Her cage was the last one. As I neared I was afraid to look in. What if she was dead.

She wasn’t moving. I stared at her chest. Nothing. Shit! As I reached for the cage door she suddenly took a breath. Then another. She was alive. Sleeping. Comfortably. My heavy sigh sucked the air out of the room. I gently opened the cage door. She awoke, looked at me, and yawned. I carefully picked her up and held her. She looked up at me. She purred. I cried.

The routine now was to hand feed her at least three times a day with high-calorie wet cat food, give her fluids every day until she was hydrated, and monitor her weight to make sure she was gaining and not losing.

So, for the next three days, on my own time, I spent hours at the shelter giving her fluids, hand feeding her, and giving her lots of love in order to get her healthy again.

On the forth day I could see that she was feeling better. She was eating wet food on her own, she was hydrated, she had gained some weight, and she looked like my time and effort was paying off. As I stood outside her cage watching her… She wasn’t doing anything special. She was just sleeping. Without fear. Not hungry. Not thirsty. Just sleeping. Sleeping as a normal cat should sleep… And I know this sounds corny, but as I stood there I really felt like I had done something wonderful. I saved a life. Her life. And I realized that even if I didn’t get the Vet Tech position at HAS, I’d be able to do this for other animals in need for the rest of my life somewhere else. It was an incredible feeling. One I’ll never forget.

I got the job at HAS and started work at HAS on February 8th, 2011. Needless to say, one of my first priorities was Marmalade. She was still vastly underweight, but purring and eating. With strays like Marmalade, who’re exhibiting symptoms that could be associated with many diseases, we did a FeLV/FIV combo to test for feline leukemia and FIV (FIV is the feline equivalent of HIV in humans). Both were negative. That was a good start. Then, instead of running a number of specialized tests, we wanted to see if any other symptoms manifested. Realistically, she could be dying from a vast number of problems. Or, she could’ve just been neglected. That would be the best case scenario. Although in the back of my mind I knew it was more than likely something else… something else that her previous owners didn’t want to address.

The scenario goes like this: Owners take cat to vet. Vet says it’s going to cost a lot of $ to “make cat better.” Owners throw cat out car window.

I weighed Marmalade every day to monitor her progress. Her appetite was very healthy, but there was a problem: she was very depressed. Even though she was in my clinic (if you’re a cat at HAS, my clinic is the penthouse) she slept too much, didn’t want to engage in any play, and just seemed, well, depressed. So we moved her into our Executive Director’s (Julie’s) office, complete with window and soft lap to sleep in. It was as if we flipped a switch. This was undoubtedly the best thing we did for her while she was recovering. Her whole demeanor changed. She had found her new home. She was playing. Snuggling on Julie’s lap. Chirping at birds from her window ledge. Marmalade was a cat again.

This went on for about two weeks. Then, for some unknown reason, she stopped gaining weight. She was eating everything. Wet. Dry. Human food. Everything. But not gaining weight. So our first plan of action was to do a CBC/T4 (Complete Blood Count & Thyroid test) to determine if it was renal or liver or pancreas, or hyperthyroid.

The blood results came back and her blood numbers looked good, but her T4 indicated that she was hyperthyroid. This is a very easy disease to control. We started her on Methimazole – half the recommended dosage and gradually worked her up to the proper dosage. We always start with half and work our way up to make sure there’s no adverse side effects and/or that the animal isn’t allergic to it.

The Methimazole worked. She was gaining weight. There were no adverse side effects. I resumed weighing her every couple of days to make sure she was continually gaining. She did so for the next three months.

I remember making the decision that Marmalade was ready for adoption. It was easy: She had gained all of her weight back. She was healthy (as long as she was on Methimasole). She was happy. And she was ready for a change.

Yet it was really hard. As much as I wanted her to find that perfect home, I knew that I was going to miss her terribly. It’s a selfish feeling, I know. But a true one.

Okay. So now we needed to find Marmalade the perfect home. Julie seriously considered adopting her. So did I. (I know, I want to adopt every cat.) But neither of our households were ideal for Marmalade. She needed a small, quiet place, void of other animals, and a person who was there all of the time. If you’ve worked in a shelter or done animal adoptions, you know how hard finding a home like this can be. I thought for sure Marmalade would end up a shelter cat.

Well, on May 19th, three and one-half months after I first saw her, she proved me wrong: Marmalade was adopted by a wonderful retired woman, who lived alone, had no other pets, and was looking for the perfect lap cat.

I cried again.

Post Note: I can’t put into words what it feels like to see an animal, like Marmalade make such a dramatic recovery. It’s why I, and others who work in animal welfare, do what we do. It sure hell ain’t the money! I encourage everyone to visit a shelter, rescue or sanctuary, share some time with the animals, volunteer, get involved. I guarantee you’ll walk away a more complete human being.

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