by Joelle Steele

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I have always had cats. Love 'em. But Twinkle was not like any other cat I've known. The very fact that she lived to be 18 years old serves as proof that anyone can survive and overcome the odds and enjoy a happy life, because Twinkle had a difficult life from day-one.

Twinkle and her three littermates were orphaned by their mother, a neighborhood stray, when they were less than two weeks old. Their eyes weren't even open when I took them in. Two died immediately of distemper and one died of complications from a kidney ailment when he was only four weeks old. Twinkle somehow managed to hang in there. Aside from an eye infection which she incurred before I took her in, she seemed to be fine.

When Twink was about eighteen months old, she had her first bout with cystitis. By the time she was three years old, she had suffered with cystitis off and on for a year and a half and nothing showed up on x-rays. I took her to a different veterinarian who recommended exploratory bladder surgery. It turned out that Twink had two large stones in her bladder. Upon their removal, her cystitis ended for good. I thought that she would then be able to have a healthy life. No such luck.

At the age of three, Twinkle began losing teeth on both sides of her mouth. There was nothing wrong with them that the veterinarian could detect. They simply fell out, leaving only her "fangs," seven of the tiny teeth in the very front, and five teeth on the sides. She could still eat dry food a little, but mostly had to eat a canned diet.

When Twinkle was four years old, she tried to jump up onto a shelf but misjudged the distance and missed (a common accident for cats of all ages). She fell onto her back but did not seem to be injured at first. I watched her carefully and she didn't limp or behave any differently, so I assumed she was okay. Within a couple of days, however, she became incontinent and I took her to the vet who x-rayed her back and said she had a compressed disk. She was given something to reduce the swelling and relax the muscles and sent home.

For about three years, Twinkle seemed okay except that she did not like to be picked up anymore. If I tried to pick her up she cried, sometimes growled, and on a couple of occasions, bit me quite hard. By the time she was eight, she had begun to limp occasionally and I took her back to the vet who said it was just a result of the compressed disk impinging on the nerves. He said there was nothing that could be done about it and to just keep Twink as comfortable as possible.

Twinkle, a role model for cats and people

Twinkle at age 14.

By the time she was ten years old, she had been back and forth to the veterinarian's office more times than I can remember. Her medical bills were staggering. Limping was fast becoming a way of life for her, she did not like to be handled at all, and her disposition was primarily one of irritability. In addition, Twink had become extremely thin and sickly looking. One day, she stopped limping altogether and just began dragging her left rear leg. She stopped jumping, didn't want to play, and rarely got up unless it was to eat or use the litter box. My neighbor thought it was cruel of me to keep her alive under such circumstances and suggested that I have her euthanized. Instead, I took Twinkle to a different veterinarian, the one who had done the surgery for her bladder stones.

The veterinarian told me that she didn't think the problem was the disk at all and asked me when Twink was last x-rayed. She hadn't been x-rayed since the original injury, so the vet ran some new ones and found that Twink had a large bone spur in her hip. She also ran blood tests and found that she had a hyperactive thyroid which was treatable with medication.

The veterinarian recommended surgery because Twinkle was in so much pain. However, she said that owing to her age, she could not guarantee that Twinkle would ever be able to walk normally again. I didn't care. I just didn't want her to be suffering so I agreed to the surgery without hesitation.

For the last eight years of her life, Twinkle led a pain-free life and was on twice-daily medication for her thyroid condition. She went to the vet for her regular yearly checkups and blood tests to monitor her thyroid, and because of her advanced age, her liver and kidney functions as well.

But, Twink never did recover fully from the hip surgery. She was no longer in pain, but her gait never stabilized. Her head bobbed up and down and she wobbled from side to side when she walked. She could not jump up or down. She could not run, but she could sometimes manage a little faster pace. And, if she was startled and tried to move too quickly, her hind quarters often completely collapsed and she fell over. She had difficulty manoeuvering in a litter box and sometimes could not move fast enough to get to it, even though we lived in a very small apartment and the box was always close at hand.

Just in case you think that Twinkle was a pathetic or unhappy cat, I assure you she was not. She took her pills easily, twice a day. She never put up a fight. She howled like a banshee if the food dish went empty. She was an indoor cat, but I always made sure she had plenty of fresh air and a warm sunny spot to lie in. Since she could not jump up onto the bed or the sofa, I put little ramps up leading to the bed and a three-step end table beside the sofa. Whenever I worked at my desk or my drawing table, she came and asked to be picked up. So I lifted her onto the countertop next to the work area. If she fell asleep there and I had to leave, I would just pull my chair up next to a big box of computer paper and make her a little stairway to get down.

Twinkle was always affectionate, curious, and even playful. She preferred to be in my lap whenever possible but would settle for a sunny window if I was working and couldn't hold her. I often took her on errands with me following a veterinary appointment, and on those occasions she accompanied me in an open woven-grass totebag to classes, libraries, bookstores, on buses, and to a friend's office. She was the dominant cat in the household and in the building where I lived. She always wanted to be where the action was and she thrived on being the center of attention. She liked to wrestle with the other cats in the household. She never did do a bang-up job of bathing, but Muffin and Timmy took turns washing her and, as a result, she was always very well-groomed.

Twinkle had a great impact on my life. In fact, she probably saved my life. While she was going through all her bouts with illness and disability, so was I. Only I wasn't handling it as well as she was. It was 1981 and I was dealing with the results of a head and back injury and was extremely depressed. Suicide was never far from my mind. At one point, I decided to do the deed.

I started popping pills as Twinkle crawled into my lap. She began purring loudly and cried out when I didn't pay attention to her with my customary scratching of her neck and stroking of her coat. I started to take more pills and as I raised them to my mouth, she cried out again, her motor growing louder, and she stood up and tried to nuzzle my neck, making me drop the pills. I tried to gently brush her away and retrieve the fallen pills. She persisted. I had never known her to be so anxious for my attention. Here was this beautiful creature who loved me and needed me and I was actually going to leave her! I couldn't take any more pills. I just couldn't abandon my best little feline friend. If she could live with her disabilities, so would I.

Twink was disabled — physically challenged — but she chose to get on with her life. I don't think she even realized her limitations. When she wanted something and couldn't do it herself, she didn't crawl away depressed. She hollered — loud and clear — at the top of her lungs. When I figured out what it was that she wanted or needed, I created an environment in which she could achieve those things for herself, like the ramp to the bed, for instance. It was really so simple to make her life pleasant and normal. And, with a little help, her life had few limitations.

We can all learn something from Twinkle. I sure did.

This article last updated: 08/04/2008.

The articles on this Web site are informational only and are not intended to be a substitute for professional veterinary advice or treatment. Cats are not "one size fits all." They are different in terms of breed, age, health, lifestyle, and tolerance for different foods and other substances.