How to catch a cat in a HavAHart trap

My employer shared the letter with me not because there was really anything I could change or that could be done about what had happened. It was more to let me know that she had received it and because it was too good not to share.

A few weeks previously, a couple had brought us one of their adopted feral cats for a bite wound on its back end. They had warned us about how the cat was and told us to be careful with her. We had listened and had found the small gray tabby to be a wonderfully easy patient. She snuggled up on us during her exam and we loaded her in to her carrier without incident when her owners came to pick her up. I find this to be true of many adopted feral cats. They turn into big loves so long as you let them set the terms.

We did the recheck in our Ludlow office. The owner was present for the recheck, she had not been present for the initial visit. I took the feral cat out of her carrier, she was nervous but after some chin scratching she rubbed up against my hand. When I went to lift her up to examine her abdomen the owner tried to intervene. The cat did not approve of the intervention, my response to the intervention or both. She exploded around the room, knocked the blinds off the windows and then hid behind the sink. I retrieved her and finished the recheck. The issue had resolved and would not require any further attention. The feral cat and her owner returned home.

The letter arrived the following week. I don’t remember the details anymore, I had saved it for a few years but must have discarded it recently. The basic premise was that I was an inept veterinarian who didn’t know how to handle feral cats and shouldn’t be allowed near animals. I do remember that the word “idiot” was used eleven times in the one page letter. It was directed at me every single time. Needless to say I was not this client’s favorite veterinarian.

Fast forward one month, exactly one month from the day of that fateful recheck exam. The same owners bring in another feral cat, this cat had just been captured by these feline rescuers and was still mean as could be. It likely goes without saying that they did not want any of the veterinary services to be performed by me. Completely understandable.

Then the cat got loose in the cat ward. Bear with me while I paint the cat ward into your mind. It’s a rectangular room, eight feet wide by sixteen feet long. There is a single door at one end of a sixteen foot wall and two large windows along the other. At the 8 foot wall nearest the door is a treatment table and scale for weighing cats and a cat kennel bay on the other end of the room. All in there are 10 feline kennels in that room. The cat ward also serves as the location for the server and data lines for the hospital so there is a shelf in one corner and a hole in the ceiling for all of the data lines to go throughout the practice.

We attempted to capture the cat but he wedged himself behind the kennels against the far wall in the cat ward and would hiss and strike at us as we tried to get him out. Fortunately, the kennels are on wheels so I wheeled the kennel away from the wall and climbed on top of the kennel to get at the feral cat. The plan was to corner the cat on one side of the space behind the kennel by advancing a broom towards him. Once he was in a position he could not bolt from I was going to jump down, throw a thick towel over him, scoop him up and return him to his carrier. Seemed easy enough.

Instead of being cornered, the cat decided that it was fighting time, he attacked the broom that I was advancing towards him without any semblance of fear. My plan had been to use the broom to guide him gently out from behind the kennels, his plan had been different. Once he latched onto the broom and realized it was good for climbing, it took less than a second for him to be crouched next to where I was laying on top of the kennels. We locked eyes. I sat still watching him as he glared at me, waiting for him to attack me. Instead he hissed once in my face, turned and jumped up through the hole in the ceiling and was gone. I sat for a long moment in silence. All I could think to say after that moment had passed was, “I can’t believe that actually happened.”

I got down from my perch and went to the hatch that led to the crawl space attic above the cat ward, stood on a stool and shined a flashlight inside. Two glowing green eyes peered back at me and after looking around the small crawl space, I decided he didn’t have much room to hide and I could probably capture him with the net. So I climbed up into the crawl space with a four foot long loop net and planned to capture the escaped feral cat. I was of course, wrong. The crawl space had roughly one million tiny places for a feline to fit that a human might not even see let alone climb into. And it was approximately 1000 degrees Fahrenheit in there. After a few minutes up there, I retreated to the safety and comfort of the treatment area and thought about what to do next.

We decided to set a catch and release trap with some cat food in the attic and wait until morning. My boss told me she would call the owners of the feral cat when she arrived at our Ludlow office for afternoon appointments and explain everything to them. That seemed fair, I hadn’t even lost the cat. I was just trying to be helpful. What we didn’t take into account was that we were at the tail end of road construction season here in Vermont and the commute took her considerably longer than usual. As a result, appointments started a little late in Ludlow and she struggled to keep up. In Rutland, the owners of the feral cat stopped by to pick up their cat.

I must have rehearsed what I was going to say to these people fifty times in my head before I stepped into the cat exam room. I was going to explain to them that I (the veterinarian they called an idiot in the letter they wrote to my employer) lost their feral cat in the ceiling of our practice. Then I was going to get out of the room. As soon as I closed the door behind me, my mind went completely blank. I stood there for what felt like an hour before I decided that I had to just go for it.

I do not remember a word that I said to them or a single word they said to me but I do remember that they didn’t smile. Not once. They left and we set a HavAHart trap with some canned cat food up in the attic.

You can get your own here: HavAHart

The next morning the cat was in the trap. We called the owners, they picked up the cat and we never saw those cats or their owners again. I saved the letter for years but apparently discarded it recently. I suppose I am ready to move on.

Thanks for reading.

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Euthanasia Aftermath

I struggled with writing about this situation. I struggled with posting a blog about it. Please try to understand.

A few weeks ago a very good client of mine passed away unexpectedly. She had a little toy breed dog who had been battling some significant but non life-threatening medical issues for the past few years. We had developed a fairly good client-veterinarian relationship and the little dog had gone from being terrified by my presence to being quite happy to see me. I always did have a pocket full of cookies for him after all. Quickest way to a dog’s heart.

I was notified on Wednesday of the woman’s passing and the daughter set up a visit for the coming Friday to have the little guy put down. Apparently, no one in the family could take the dog and with his medical conditions the owner had left instructions to have him euthanized rather than have him surrendered to a shelter or rescue group.

I expressed some concern about the visit when it was scheduled and my employer and I discussed the dog’s history. He was 13 years old, had multiple health issues and could be aggressive when he was not feeling his best. We foolishly decided that I would have a conversation with the owner’s daughter when she brought him in for his visit.

The morning of the visit came. Not that these details are important but they play into the narrative so bear with me. My family was planning a trip to visit my wife’s family in New York. When we do that, I typically drop everyone off in the morning and then pick the kids up from daycare and then get my wife from work so we don’t have to leave a vehicle at her office over the weekend. As would be expected when you are getting five people together for a weekend away from home, I was running late that morning. Veterinary medicine is one of those professions where if things start getting a little out of hand, it snowballs quickly and getting caught up can be a challenge.

I arrived at work to a fairly busy appointment schedule. I am pretty decent at compartmentalizing my work, so there was no thinking about the four hour drive I had ahead of me until 4:30 that afternoon, but also when I’m in an exam room with a client, that’s all I think about. I didn’t plan ahead as much as I would have liked for the euthanasia visit coming in at 10:00 am.

The time came and a very distraught woman brought in a happy but slightly disoriented little dog. The woman was sobbing, able to get a few words out about her mother’s wishes and was in no place to discuss other options. We fell back on our training and guided the woman through the euthanasia process. We put the little dog to sleep and prepared his remains for cremation and because we were running behind schedule we went right into our next appointment. For some reason I feel like it’s necessary to inform you that this whole process took nearly thirty minutes and as we were preparing out back we weren’t happy about it but at the time I did not see a reasonable alternative.

I went for a walk that lunch break to process my thoughts, something was weighing on my mind. My wife called and she was in the middle of a pretty difficult situation and having one of the worst days a veterinarian can have. Little did either of us know she was about to have the worst day she has yet experienced as a veterinarian and in my opinion the worst kind of day a veterinarian can have. Not that that particular detail is important but it plays into the narrative.

I got back from the walk just in time for the first appointment of the afternoon. With appointments and callbacks I didn’t have a chance to even think about anything else until I got in my car that afternoon. When I got in the car I was on a schedule. I had to get home, pack the car for the weekend, I had a list of chores that needed doing before we left. The dogs had to be fed and they needed to do their business before we took off for a four hour drive. I packed the car and picked up the girls. We (they) talked about their day from the daycare to the practice my wife works at. Once at my wife’s practice we started discussing her day and it was such a horrible day the conversation took up a good section of the drive. It wasn’t until we were on the thruway, there is this place on the right hand side when you’re heading south that has log cabin homes on display it was there that my own thoughts started creeping into my consciousness. Like fog settling on a highway at night, they did not bring with them anything good. By then my wife was trying to get a nap in and I was left alone with the radio. I started playing back the day in my head and was overwhelmed with grief as I thought about the small dog I had euthanized that morning.

I still think about him a little bit almost every day. These are the thoughts that run through my head: I wonder if I had brought him home how long he would have really had left. I could have brought him everywhere with me and I’m sure eventually my wife would have come around. I’m just manly enough so that carrying a small white dog everywhere would have looked cool or ironic. How many times in my career is something like this particular situation really going to happen to me? This could have been a once in a lifetime opportunity to make a dog’s life a little better and I missed it. Not only did I miss it but I was the instrument that ended his life. I wish I’d had more time or had reached out to the owner’s daughter a little earlier. Maybe she would have been adamant that we follow her mother’s instruction but maybe we could have come up with a solution together. I’ll never know.

Self pity aside, this is not a situation that is all that unusual in veterinary medicine. We are often faced with the request of euthanizing a pet for reasons many people might disagree with. The idea of euthanizing a pet to meet the request of an owner after they have themselves died is also not that unusual. It happens. At one point in my career we had a patient whose owner had left him a trust fund and the remaining inheritance wasn’t to be released until the pet passed. You can imagine how the lawyer felt about those veterinary bills. But ultimately, decisions like this are always going to be a part of this profession. Some of them will be a struggle and some of them won’t. This one was and still is. I don’t think that the owner’s family did anything wrong by him, I just wish it had played out differently. Hoping there’s not a next time.

Thanks for reading.

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