fuzzy notepad

[blog] Goodbye, Styx

I can hardly believe I posted a bunch of photos of Styx earlier this year.

Three months later to the day, I put him to sleep.

I suppose this is his obituary.

Before

Mel and her husband moved in in January 2011. Their party included an impressive array of critters, filling our formerly petless house to capacity:

  • Apollo, a German Shepherd who has yet to understand that he’s not still a puppy
  • Granite, the husband’s 15yo cat he’d had since kittenhood
  • Napoleon, a clumsy ditz of a rescue cat
  • Armando, an affectionate sweetheart cat adopted alongside Napoleon
  • Twigs, Mel’s pride and joy sphynx

Sadly, the numbers dwindled over the course of the year: Granite succumbed to old age, and Armando had to be given away after months of trying to stop him from peeing on furniture. This left us with just Twigs and Napoleon as permanent indoor fixtures. As luck would have it, the two cats we lost were also the two who spent the most time around me: Granite mostly passed the time loafing on my bed (and, when I lay down, would saunter up to me and snuggle up with his crackly old-man purr), and Armando loved everyone.

Now, Twigs is pretty playful, whereas Napoleon is more… dainty. Without a cat buddy to play with, Twigs got increasingly rowdy over the following months, even with three humans to entertain him. He also started hanging out with me a good bit more, much to Mel’s chagrin.

The natural outcome: it was decided that I needed my own cat, both as a buddy for me and as a playmate for Twigs. Of course, he would have to be a sphynx as well. So in early December Mel and I drove down to a breeder on the northern border of Oregon.

Styx

I’d never had a pet before, really. As a kid I’d had two county fair goldfish which, shockingly, both died within 24 hours. Not a good track record.

While the breeder was trying to herd some of her five kittens out from under the bed, I spaced out a bit and looked around the room. Sitting a few feet away from us was a single fearless kitten, watching us with a tiny scowl. I squatted down and reached out to pet him; he tilted his head and swatted repeatedly at my hand, missing it completely but trying anyway. On my second attempt he let me touch him, and he immediately let out the loudest purr I’ve ever heard—like coffee percolating.

By now the breeder had retrieved a few kittens, but I’d fallen in love already. I played with him some while the breeder rustled up paperwork. It took me ages to actually get the payment to go through, by which time I’d lost track of my chosen kitten; we found one who looked similar, but he was clearly not the same. I was the one who found him in the end: he’d fallen asleep in a plush cat cube.

We’d decided in advance to name him Styx to match Twigs (but with a cooler spelling). He slept in my arms almost all the way home.

I kept him in my room for the first week or so, letting the other two cats in to smell him a couple times before formally introducing everyone. If I remember correctly, Napoleon wasn’t a huge fan at first, but Twigs got along with him pretty well right from the outset. He was a scrawny and odd-shapen little kitten, with long lanky legs and a potbelly and gigantic paws; while age evened him out somewhat, he never quite grew out of being a barrel on stilts. In clown shoes, I guess.

Now, Twigs’s affection is very direct: he’ll climb on top of you and expertly nestle his butt into any cat-shaped nook on you, or lean against your chest and make his deep sophisticated purr while nuzzling your chin. If he’s particularly settled in, he’ll groom you for hours with his cheese-grater tongue, something I can’t bear on my tender skin (though I appreciate the sentiment). I’d been around him for a year now, and had taken it for granted that another sphynx would act similarly.

Styx did not. Everything about him was a little awkward. He rarely quite made eye contact, instead opting to stare just over my shoulder. He very rarely nuzzled, except on very special occasions. And he never quite figured out how to sit on people—even when I got him to lie on me in bed, most of the time he would face away from me. And while he would sometimes groom people with his much softer tongue, it was always just two licks in one spot, and then he was done.

But he purred like crazy, especially for me. One of our most common greetings was for him to come out to the kitchen and grumble at me, me to call out his name, and him to start purring from that alone. He loved to be around me, and would frequently follow me around the house just to hunker down on the floor near my feet every time I moved around. Sometimes I’d reach down to pet him, and he’d casually stroll just out of my reach and hunker down again, deciding that he didn’t want pets right this moment but still wanted to stay nearby. He really liked when I pet him as he ate, too, and would somehow purr while eating. It violated everything I know about cat physics.

Something about his social awkwardness but clear desire for affection resonated with me right from the start, and I always found these little antics heartwarming. Can’t imagine why. :)

I’ve never known such a vocal cat, either. Not just the very regular purring, either; he had a wide range of meows and used them frequently. Many of them were closed-mouth grunts and grumbles—if something disturbed him in his sleep, he’d awake with a distinct “rrt”. In the course of getting our attention, he’d often start with a short grunt and gradually escalate to a full meow, opening his mouth a crack more with each attempt: “rrt”, “mrrrr”, “mrraa”, “mrrrooow”. This was particularly entertaining in contrast to Twigs, who only meowed when very emotional, and usually opened his mouth ridiculously wide to do so.

He never stopped being the rascal who first swatted at my hand. He didn’t swipe at people much after that first time—in fact, I had a hard time ever getting him to play with my fingers, and the few times he did, he usually gave up after a minute and instead purred while staring at my hand. But he loved anything flat and round or long and thin, like half the objects on my desk, and loved fishing. He’d regularly drive me crazy by knocking a coin or bottle cap underneath my keyboard, then jostle it around for ages as he tried to fish it back out, sometimes even trying to stick his whole head underneath once he realized it wasn’t attached to my desk. Once recovered, he liked to carefully hold a pencil or bottle cap in his teeth, hop down to the floor, and bat it around some more. He also had a funny occasional habit of sitting on the edge of a book, reaching down, and scrabbling at the pages. No idea what he was trying to do, but it was endlessly entertaining. I had to start hiding round flat things in a desk drawer so he wouldn’t lose them, and so he started running over whenever I opened the drawer, trying to stick his paw in and fish around.

Styx liked to sleep with me, just as Twigs sometimes does, though with considerably less grace. He generally hopped on the bed up near the top and climbed over my face on his way to burrowing under the comforter. Usually he slept in the nook behind my knees (I sleep on my side), but sometimes he crawled all the way down and snuggled up to my feet. Which I don’t understand at all, as my feet are generally frozen when I get into bed. This also resulted in a few sudden starts in the middle of the night, when he forgot they were my feet and started flipping out and bear-hugging them with claws out.

Mornings were equally exciting. Styx somehow developed the uncanny ability to wake me up 5–10 minutes before my alarm went off, even when I changed the time. Usually this consisted of an escalating series of meows at the side of my bed, but on particularly sleepy mornings, he’d learned to walk around on my face a bit and then poke me. Poke me! I’d never known that was a thing, but he did it: he pressed a paw briefly against my face or shoulder with his claws out just enough to prickle. Once he pressed his paw right against my closed eye. That got me up pretty fast.

On weekends I’d lie in bed half-asleep petting him for a while as he stumbled around aimlessly on my bed, meowing at me occasionally, still walking over my face, and purring the entire time. If I wasn’t in bed and he felt like taking a nap, he’d devote furious effort to burrowing his way under the comforter, then eventually get too warm and poke his face and paws out somewhere. While awake, he almost always nestled into a neat compact loaf, but in his sleep he sprawled all over the place on his side—a couple times we almost squished him, not realizing the imperceptible bump in the bed was a snoozing cat.

Anothered favorite antic was to climb on shoulders. Usually this happened if someone picked him up, but he also leaped onto my back by surprise a couple times, both when I was hunched down scooping litter and when I was standing up near an accessible launchpad. Once in a while he’d sit nicely on a shoulder once there, but most of the time he lay down on my back, with his butt on my shoulder and the rest of him in a casual sphinx pose across my upper back, forcing me to hunch over to support him. I’m sure it was no good for my back, but it was adorable, and an utterly ridiculous thing to be so stubborn about doing.

Styx loved everyone. The first time we introduced him to Apollo was also the only time I’ve ever seen Styx scared of anything: he ran up the cat tree growling and hissing with the short fuzz on his tail bristling like a pipe cleaner! I wish I could’ve ever seen it again, but Styx turned fearless after staring down a ferocious giant and ultimately befriended Apollo. Twigs has always mostly tolerated Apollo, but Styx practically had a secret friendship with him, giving him occasional nuzzles when they thought no one’s looking. He also tolerated Apollo’s attempts to play (nosejabs and lots of wet dog licks) remarkably well, even sometimes stumbling around Apollo’s legs purring while getting slobbered on.

Napoleon is very aloof and has only ever shown affection to Granite, who spurned his advances. Styx likewise tried to rub on Napoleon at times, only for Napoleon to awkwardly inch away. Alas. Napoleon did groom Styx once in a while, though usually only on the fuzzy backs of his ears.

Styx and Twigs were practically brothers. Sphynxes are endlessly playful, and the two of them kept each other entertained, racing up and down the hallway and having dramatic cat battles on my bed. Twigs also liked Styx for his unique property of “being warm on my butt”, and liked to sit on him, which usually ended in Styx’s conceding his entire warm spot. The pair of them often slept together, and Twigs liked to groom Styx (and escalate into mini cat battle by biting his neck and making his war meow).

But I was his favorite, and he would usually come to (or want to see) me, meowing the whole time. For reasons unfathomable, he’d regularly sit out at the end of the hallway right in the way of anyone trying to walk anywhere and meow at nothing in particular until I came to see him. (And then, not uncommon, instant purr.) He’d sit on my desk in front of my monitor and stare off to the side. He’d come into my room, hunch down on the floor, and just sit there. He’d meow at me to go to bed with him, or meow at me until I at least lay on my bed and wrapped him in my robe and pet him until he purred himself to sleep.

There are a thousand other little things he did. He would flatten his ears out to the sides if you rubbed the back of his neck the right way. He’d stretch by pulling himself across the floor in a couple discrete motions, one paw at a time, while making the most adorable delighted face. He got all into our shelves, somehow stretching straight up four times his own height and past a catproof bookend to knock stuff down. He left his tail sticking out aimlessly behind him whenever he sat down, versus Twigs who has always curled his tail neatly against his side.

Downhill

I came back from a Yelp visit at the beginning of the month. I walked in the door, saw Styx waiting for me on the back of the couch, and immediately commented on how skinny he seemed. Mel and her husband commented that he’d been kinda lethargic while I’d been gone, eating little and spending most of his time sleeping. We speculated that it was separation anxiety, and I set about fussing him like crazy.

A week later, he was still noticeably skinny, despite eating plenty and otherwise seeming perfectly fine. I was starting to worry, so I took him to a nearby 24/7 emergency vet (the only place open on a Sunday) to get him poked and prodded a bit. The vet told me he had a heart murmur, something he’d always had, but looked fine weight-wise. I could already see the faint outlines of his ribs and light bumps along his spine, but was at least somewhat reassured.

A few days passed; Styx was still skinny and still spent most of his time sleeping. I took him to my regular vet—if nothing else, they might have an earlier record of his weight.

They did. He’d been 9.6 lbs when they’d seen him in September. Now he was 7.3 lbs. They also had a record of his heart murmur, and it had definitely gotten worse. They did some blood tests and found he was slightly jaundiced; the vet gave him a prognosis of “guarded” and recommended I see a cardiologist. They gave him some antibiotics and a B-complex shot, and he at least seemed happier the rest of the day.

It was at least somewhat encouraging that he fought tooth and nail against every vet: he hated having his temperature taken, and everywhere I took him consistently needed three people holding him to get a needle in him. He slept a lot at home, but he was so scrappy at the vet that it was hard to imagine anything was seriously wrong. And when we were left alone together, he would parade around the room meowing his annoyance, thoroughly search for an escape, huddle around my feet and nuzzle at my ankles, and eventually give up and come chill on my lap.

A few days later I went back to the emergency vet, which happens to employ some specialists as well. The cardiologist diagnosed him with hypertrophic cardiomyopathy (HCM), a genetic condition common in sphynxes that causes thickening of the heart muscle. If undiagnosed, the heart can wear itself out abruptly, in the worst cases leading to the abrupt and unexpected death of a perfectly healthy cat. (Or person—the same condition affects people, as well.) The cardiologist prescribed a beta blocker to reduce his heart rate and ease the effort of his heart, but he also suggested I see an internal medicine specialist about the jaundice.

By now I’d been googling furiously for what could possibly be wrong, and hadn’t come up with much. The possibility of feline infectious peritonitis had come up, but the cardiologist told me his latest bloodwork ruled it out. What a relief!

This fourth set of vets kept Styx for the day to do an ultrasound. They found a handful of concerning symptoms, including fluid in his abdomen and a few slightly-enlarged organs. They sent off the fluid and more blood samples for a variety of tests, the results of which wouldn’t be back until the following week. It was Thursday. The internalist was off on Mondays.

On Friday I received his discharge papers, complete with a more detailed list of possible diagnoses. The common possible diagnosis for each of his symptoms, and the top of the overall diagnostic list, was FIP.

Let me tell you about FIP.

Coronavirus refers to a family of viruses that cause SARS and a decent chunk of common colds. Cats have their own family of feline coronaviruses, which are usually just as harmless: sometimes a runny nose or a bout of diarrhea, sometimes no symptoms at all, and then it’s gone.

Very rarely, though, a particular coronavirus will spontaneously mutate inside a cat and become a cruel sadistic joke. It almost exclusively strikes young cats. It causes vague unhelpful symptoms like fever and weight loss. We don’t know why it mutates. We don’t know how to prevent it. We don’t know how to cure it. We don’t have a reliable test for it. And it is almost always rapidly fatal.

Thus began the worst weekend I’ve ever had. I spent most of it sitting around holding him, crying, or both. The googles didn’t do much to reassure me: the wet/effusive form of FIP, which he would have, had a median survival time measured in days. I had trouble sleeping, not sure whether I’d still have a cat when I woke up.

At this point Styx still seemed otherwise healthy, despite having lost even more weight and spending most of the day sleeping. Yes, yes, cats sleep a lot, but they don’t sleep all day: Styx would sleep for a few hours, get up to stuff his face and use the litterbox, then go right back to sleep. He seemed happy, though, and was certainly content to snooze the hours away in my lap.

Was that really only a week and a half ago?

On Tuesday came a call telling me some lab results had come in: he was negative for a variety of regular infections that might have caused this. On Thursday a PCR came back, inconclusive. I took him back to the vet.

He’d been a little more active and still had a healthy appetite, but he’d lost some more weight even as I was stuffing his face with the most fattening cat food I could find, and he’d also peed my bed—but only once. With everything else ruled out, the vet assumed FIP and prescribed him prednisolone, a steroid and immunosuppressant and the only treatment ever consistently observed to extend an infected cat’s lifetime at all. We discussed some experimental treatments, but they were a bit of a pain to obtain. They told me they’d look into them over the weekend; “no hurry”.

Styx ended up staying at the vet a few hours that day to get x-rays and some more bloodwork. By the time I got him back, he was desperate to get out of his tiny cat prison, pawing at the door for the first time I’d ever seen. When I let him out in the house, he was his purry affectionate self for the rest of the day, loving on my feet and stumbling around to see what everyone was doing. He was definitely more active than he had been, and stayed that way for the next several days.

End

On Saturday, Styx developed diarrhea. On the front door mat, right next to the litterbox.

That’s the thing I cried over the most. I broke down sobbing several times in the process of cleaning it up. This had been the final nail in Granite’s coffin, too. We’d taken him to the vet after a week or two of litterbox misses, and been told that the best thing we could do for him was put him down that very night. That was the first time I’d watched something bigger than a beetle die. I still feel awful for being the one to insist we take him to a vet.

Sunday brought several rounds of misses, mostly on my floor. I also discovered my robe, which doubled as Styx’s favorite cat blanket, had been peed on. I quietly washed it and switched him quickly back to mostly dry food. Sphynxes have sensitive stomachs; this might have been a bad reaction to the cat food, right?

I don’t want to preserve yesterday’s events in graphic detail for all time, so suffice to say: no. Styx’s gastric problems got exponentially worse over the course of the morning (and I do not use words like “exponentially” lightly), and I spent most of my time cleaning up after him. I had to wipe him off, give him a bath, wash my robe, scrub my floor. The whole time he meowed sadly at me.

Mel was asleep, her husband was out. I was at a loss for what to do. I’ve always been terrible with hard decisions—on more than one occasion I’ve asked half a dozen different people for advice just in the hopes that hearing it will somehow save me from having to decide at all.

And then I looked at Styx and I knew he was done.

Mel woke up, her husband came home. We fussed over Styx, spoiled him with lots of cottage cheese curds.

I washed my robe one last time and made a phone call. I sat in the living room holding him while he burrowed into my robe and slept for a while.

I took Styx into my bedroom, still wrapped in my robe, and he gave me a brief purr. The vet arrived and everyone shuffled in. The first injection was a sedative, and for the first time he didn’t fight the needle. He dozed off in a few minutes, with all of us petting him.

The second injection looked basically like drain cleaner. I asked to press the plunger. My cat, my call.

I saw the moment he died, just as I’d seen with Granite. I can’t even explain what changed; one moment there was, plain as day, no longer a cat in there. He was only a year and eight months old, almost to the day.

I was amazed how fast he went pale, cold. Granite had been very furry, so he’d just been limp. Styx felt icy within seconds.

Together the three of us buried him in the front yard next to Granite, still wrapped in my robe. Granite’s grave is marked by a humble square of granite tile; I suppose Styx’s should be marked by a tiny tree. I’ll stop by a hardware store this week and see what I can find.

Me

We spent the rest of the day out at our special-occasion restaurant and wandering around a mall; I bought a new set of bedding, as my bed had already been ravaged by cat ass before this weekend and is beyond saving. I’m in the market for a new robe, too.

Twigs has been taking it the hardest, yowling with surprising regularity. He’s been a bit grumbly the past week, and was particularly sad all day yesterday. I could swear he saw it coming.

I miss him terribly. My bed feels very empty without a little cat nestled in it somewhere.

It’s a huge relief, though, to have some closure on this. I spent a month worrying that my cat might die, and it was thoroughly exhausting. If nothing else, I don’t have to worry any more.

I feel like I’ve been forced to grow up a lot all of a sudden, what with the grown-up decisions and existential crises. I keep expecting to feel clichéd reactions, like regret or resentment or guilt, but I don’t at all. I can’t even second-guess making the decision on the day I did. It’s not rationality, or confidence; there’s just no other way it should have happened.

So, dying fucking sucks, in part because it’s all the sorrow of death dragged out for who knows how long. Several times I thought I’d found hope it wasn’t FIP, or he might fight it off, or whatever, only to have it crushed soon thereafter.

Not that I will ever regret hoping. I did get longer with him than I expected, and I’m glad for that. I might not even have realized anything was wrong for much longer, had I not been gone for a week and a half and seen the weight loss suddenly rather than gradually.

I’m okay. I’m sad, but I’m not crushed like I thought I would be. In a way I lost much of Styx a month ago when he lost the energy to be his usual rascally self, and all the grief has been over the thought that I might never get that back. Now I know for sure. I feel worse for him than I do for me; by all accounts I’m perfectly fine, whereas he actually had to go through all this first-hand.

We fought tooth and nail, though. He kept his voice and his appetite to his last breath, stuffing his face even as that last vet was having me sign paperwork, and I shelled out three grand trying to help him. We lost, but we gave ‘em hell.

I’m not religious. I can’t even euphemistically suggest he’s off in cat heaven somewhere romping around. He’s not even in the ground in front of my house; that’s just a lump of animal now, something for bugs to eat. Styx is gone and I can never see him again.

We hate the thought that we’ll die and forget everything we’ve done. Our friends remember us, but they die as well. No matter how permanent a legacy we leave, someday the planet will wilt and die, someday the sun will supernova, someday the universe will disperse into dust. Zoom out far enough and nothing matters. So what’s the point? Where’s the meaning?

I always thought that was a funny question, seeing as the ones asking it are also the only ones equipped to answer it. Styx is gone, but he had a great time while he was here, and he brightened our lives in turn. That was sure enough for him. This has been… very difficult to write, yet I still can’t help but smile as I think about him, crying or not.

Life is its own meaning.

He was a fantastic cat and a wonderful little companion. It was a privilege to have known him, however briefly, and I wouldn’t trade it for anything.

I did my best; I have no regrets.

Next

My next pet will be a rock. Fuck mortality.

I’ll probably get another cat sometime. Hopefully from a coronavirus-free breeder. We absolutely can’t bring a new cat into the house for a few months, not least because it takes that long for coronavirus to die off, and I certainly don’t intend to go through this again anytime soon.

Alas; that’s exactly the amount of time in advance that I might want to reserve a kitten from a sphynx cattery, and I reeeeally don’t want to think about that quite yet. (Mel does. She’s already going crazy from having insufficient cat in the house. And Twigs has no one to play with again, which along with cat grief is making him a colossal pest.)

I know of some custom plush makers. I might see about getting a plush of Styx made. Then he can scowl at me forever.

I took a ton of photos and video over the past month in a desperate attempt to record as much of him as possible. I’m happy I have them, but given that most of them emphasize just how skinny Styx had gotten, I’m not sure I want to share them. The photo at the top is one of the last I took, a mere six hours before he died.

Also, here is Twigs playing with Apollo.

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(illus. by Rumwik)

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