Pippin – Case History

It was the first time in a long time that he had been able to stroke the cat, without fear – for it was dead.

Pippin had a short life of three years. She had always been a little strange. At first wary of strangers. She had been a “rescue” from the RSPCA cats’ home and right from the get go seemed a little on edge. When her first owner moved away and could not take her with him she was handed on to his friends, a young twenty something couple who had never had a pet before. Like lots of novice pet owners they thought it might be a good way to practice being parents before having children. At first she seemed like a regular cat, just a bit shy. But how nice it was to have another species to coexist with. It made them feel whole. Wholesome.

They were confident she would adjust to them and become a normal, loving cat. With the previous owner she had slept on the bed, but the young couple kept her out of their bedroom. At night she wandered the hallway yowling.

Getting up one night to get a glass of water the young woman was attacked around the legs by the cat. She swatted the cat away. Not my finest hour, she later told me, as if she were to blame for all that followed.

Then one evening the cat was sitting by the back screen door and something caused the door to bang a little on its hinges. Next moment the cat flew back at the woman, ears flattened, claws out, fur electrified and attacked her, scratching and biting. It was a vicious event and the next day the woman took the cat to the vet clinic to see if there was a medical reason for the attack. For why else would Pippin throw herself at her, enraged; she loved her already.

Nothing wrong could be found with the cat. With the vet the cat was fine, smoochy even. I was not the vet.

They took the cat home but something had shifted. They had begun to fear Pippin. And there were other emotions too – a soup of dread, suspicion and regret – all became the young woman’s bedfellows as she became intent on solving her cat’s behaviour problem.

She was a torty cat with orange eyes and wonderful soft medium long fur. She was a patchwork of ginger, black and white. The kind of fur you want to run your fingers through – for isn’t this the essence of pet love? In the vet world torties are known for their high reactivity to a procedure. Tortishells need quick and careful handling or else they need a lot of sedative. They scratch and bite and sometimes are hell to deal with. But this is when they are aroused by fear and having something done to them they don’t like- like having an intravenous injection. To their owners they are just regular cats and as affectionate as any other. Their owners rarely see their “bad” side.

But when an owner says their tortie is aggressive, you believe them and reach for the padded gloves.

No one wants to be bitten by a cat. Their teeth are very sharp and like a needle they inoculate bacteria under the skin. A cat bite can give a nasty infection, swollen and painful.

Pippin began to prowl the house. Stealth mode. The young couple feared surprising her as an attack might follow. They wanted her to see there was nothing to be afraid of outside so they took her into the yard  on a leash but she had never been an outdoor cat and was clearly scared of what lay beyond the screen door. She just wanted to be inside. The young woman tried a few more times but Pippin didn’t seem to want a bar of it. And perhaps it was making her worse.

Then one night she attacked again and the owners could see no reason or instigator for it. She simply flew at the young man and attacked him around the arms, biting through his clothing.

They brought her to see me. The young man pushed up his sleeves to reveal the criss cross scratches over his arms. Like bus window graffiti.

On the vet table she sat in her cat box, eyes widely dilated, peering. A paw came out through the bars and swiped at the air. She didn’t seem too fearful, more eager to get out of the cage. After talking for a while I opened the cat cage and out she came. She was like a hyperactive child; buzzing around the room, intent on exploring everything. She was quickly up on the shelves and benches but not in a panicked way, more in an adventurous, curious way. Wired felt like the best word to describe her.

After hearing their tale of horror it was decided she had been spooked by something outside the house, perhaps another cat and had then redirected her aggression on to them. I explained that the redirected aggression was the most violent form, the most unpredictable and the most difficult to solve. We needed to suppress her anxiety and screen her from her outside fears. She needed a safe room, full of cat soothing pheromones, high escape places and lots of food. We would also put her on xanax and prozac for her anxiety. I offered euthanasia and they declined.

With a plan everyone felt better. Pippin went back in her box, lured by her favourite treat, Vegemite.

Pippin went to stay at a cattery while the young couple were on holiday and it was agreed that while she was in boarding the original owner would visit her. She was going well at the cattery – so well that the cattery owner was surprised that she even needed medication. Then the original owner visited. He was sitting in her large enclosure and had petted her, when she moved away to the far corner, turned and attacked him, front legs boxing with unsheathed claws. He had never seen anything like it. Either had the cattery owner. Afterwards she could not be approached by anyone and the cattery owner had to start medicating her in her food.

When the young couple returned they were devastated to hear about her attack on her original owner, but being in the cattery where life is very different from home, they excused her.

I saw her again and took some bloods. She was fine.

Life with Pippin became like living with a time bomb. No one was sure when she would explode. Rules for living with Pippin included; no sudden noises or touching, screen the large windows that view the yard as much as possible, lock her away from visitors and children, have blankets at the ready to throw on her if she attacks. Give her Vegemite. Plenty of it.

The female owner said that fifty percent of the time when she was being petted she would appear like she was going to turn on you. My advice was; don’t pet.

The young woman had a cold sore on her lip; no wonder, I thought. She was picking up more medication for Pippin. Her skin looked bad.

Then they said they had decided to let her go. By this they meant give her away to someone willing to take her on. But there was no one. It came as no surprise.

The young man brought her in in her familiar cat cage and she looked at me with her round orange eyes. He said his girlfriend was too distressed to be here. Pippin was a bit heavier than I remembered, perhaps from her meds and also all the food given to appease her.

I took her out the back and we administered a heavy sedative into the lumbar muscle.

I took her back into the consult room and explained it would be five minutes or so before she was sedated enough to be put to sleep without any restraint. She fought the sedation, it seemed. The dose did not knock her as much as I had expected and when I took her from her cage she still was a little alert. But he could at last stroke her and talk to her and not imagine she might turn on him. I administered the euthanasia solution and within seconds she was gone.

He stayed with her for a long time afterwards, just kneeling by the table, his face close to hers, as he patted her. Her eyes remained open and he peered at them. It would have been an act you would have been too fearful to do while she was alive. She never really knew the firm, yet calm, confident touch of people. Humans were always tentative and scared around her. How strange to feel such relief at her passing. Now you could breathe. Finally, as simply fur and non-seeing eyes, she was, at last, tame. Her sentient self had been so full of unpredictability  and so chaotically unhinged that it took her death for her to become their loving pet.