Guest post by Casey Hersch
This is the second in a series of posts by Casey Hersch. Casey discusses the many lessons she learned about caring for Yochabel during her illness, including her quest to stop Yochabel’s cancer from growing/spreading, barriers present with senior cats, variations in diet including supplements and herbs, and how to focus on the individual cat’s needs. Yochabel was not only Casey’s feline companion. She left Casey with ways to cope with her own illness, and with a greater sense of acceptance and gratitude.
Yochabel’s nine lives: life gets better with age
I don’t know the story behind all of Yochabel’s nine lives. In one life, I know she was abandoned and severely injured, rescued, and adopted. In another life, she was known as a “love” when one-on-one with other humans, but when she was with other cats, she was a bully. When free to roam outdoors, she got into trouble with neighbors for hassling their horses, and no matter how many times she was told to stay out of the neighbors’ garden, she didn’t listen. I imagined how she arrived injured and left to die in a field: Was she an owner release because she couldn’t play with other animals? Did her family lose her on vacation? Maybe her owners died? But as we all know, the many lives of our cats remain mysteries.
Yochabel came to live with me at 17 years of age. She was in poor health; I thought I might only have days with her. She could barely walk a few inches without needing to rest. She had kidney disease, infected teeth, asthma, dermatitis, tremors, and severe arthritis. A diet of exclusively dry kibble had been hard on her aging body, and she was overweight. I couldn’t help but blame her past nine lives for her deterioration. In the rural mountainous region where Yochabel first lived, it was not uncommon to have cats killed by wildlife at night. A common dilemma facing cat guardians in that area is safety versus freedom. In an ideal world, there would be a balance between the two. Her owner prioritized safety. Yochabel was well cared for and undoubtedly loved, but the majority of the day she was isolated and lacked socialization and exercise. She lived alone in a small building, separate from the main home. Overtime, this took a toll on her spirit and health.
Yochabel didn’t hold any resentment about her past lives. She understood forgiveness and gratitude. Therefore, it was up to me to suspend my judgments about her prior lives. I needed to focus on how I could enhance her quality of life now. What I know is that for the last of her nine lives with me, she was infinitely loved, and the limited days I thought I had with her turned into years.
Don’t judge a cat by her fur (or her age)
When Yochabel came to live with me, I had many ideas about how she would behave in my home. I expected a senior “cranky” cat. I thought she wouldn’t want to be touched and fussed with–after all, the older we get the more we like our routines. Frankly, I expected her to bite or cuss at me when I put her in a travel carrier. She proved me wrong on all counts. From the moment I placed her in the carrier, through the day she passed away, she purred like an oversized motorboat any time she sensed human connection.
I assumed Yochabel would want privacy since she lived so many years in solitude. I had a room ready for her with a cat house and places to hide. Instead, she chose a spot with an open view into the rest of the house. She intently watched my husband and I come and go as we became her first experience of entertainment, and she loved it. After all, she had nothing to watch for the first years of her life, so watching us must have been like watching a blockbuster movie for her!
To my surprise, Yochabel was very social. Our first night together, as hard as it was for her to move even a few inches, she did. I called it the “clip-clop and plop” as she hobbled her small steps,” clip-clop,” then “plopped” down on the floor, and repeated. Each time she inched her way closer to me, eventually wedging herself against my legs. She welcomed my touch and reached for me with her paws, purring, as if to say, “Come here. Here I am. See me. Pet me.” Her eyes were so bright and filled with gratitude and love, I was overwhelmed. She was obviously starved of touch and human connection. Studies show that infants and animals die without touch. Studies also show that touch and physical contact strengthens the immune system and improves health in humans and animals. Yochabel needed to be touched, to be seen, and to be communicated with. Her transformation was beginning.
The effort she was willing to exert to stay by my side was labor intensive. I wanted to ease this for her by carrying her around with me. She resisted being picked up–it was unfamiliar to her. She didn’t feel safe off the ground (she hadn’t jumped in years). So instead, we invented the “carpet ride.” She learned to “clip- clop and plop” into her bed in the living room (the start of an exercise routine,) then I would bend down and grab her bed while pulling the bed’s sides through the house so she could follow me. She enjoyed this immensely and she began to trust me at her own pace.
Yochabel and the Healing Wheel: the beginning of true healing
After struggling for years with autoimmune illnesses, I created the Healing Wheel. It shows how healing is comprised of physical, emotional, and passion dimensions. Because I focused on balancing my Healing Wheel, I had achieved a quality of life despite being told Crohn’s disease is incurable. I knew Yochabel’s health shouldn’t be any different. So far, I had offered Yochabel touch, love, and an environment that fit her personality. These were already positively impacting her quality of life. I knew there were many aspects of her Healing Wheel awaiting discovery.
Don’t give up: miracles can happen
It would have been easy to give-up on Yochabel or not invest time and money into rehabilitating her. Initially her veterinarian said all I could do was offer pain management. After all, “she was very old and there is not much to do.” However, I know from my own struggles with autoimmune illness that our physical presentation is only one part of the healing journey. The mind and spirit are equally as important. Yochabel found a reason to live and this gave her the strength to “clip- clop and plop” despite joint pain. I saw a cat who wanted to participate in her life and was giving it everything she had–regardless of her age.
I began my search for in home integrative services which could help her heal from the inside out. I refused to ask her to travel with painful joints. For 3 years, Dr. Christine Haas, a certified veterinary acupuncturist, and Dr. Troy Stevens, DC, a certified veterinary chiropractor, came to our home. With each visit, Yochabel improved dramatically. Gradually, she no longer required her carpet rides to get up and down the hall way, but she still asked for them because she enjoyed our special bonding time.
Building connection through talking and singing
Yochabel was incredibly compliant. Sometimes, I wondered why it was so easy to care for her. Even when she had fleas and I gave her a bath, she didn’t fuss one bit. Over time I understood why. As an only child, my mother crafted songs to help me through situations and we talked a lot. I grew up talking and singing to my cats about everything. Yochabel was no exception, I talked and sang her through each new situation. All she ever asked for was love and that’s all she ever gave back. But something more important was happening: I was listening to her. I wasn’t forcing her to do what I thought was best for her. I was offering her choices, observing her, seeing how she responded. I was taking the time to develop a trusting relationship with her. There was give and take and we both invested in our team.
While I was carpet riding her through the house, I sang her the carpet ride song:
♪ “Let’s go on a carpet ride, up through the magical sky.
Let’s go on a carpet ride and send it soaring.
Mommy loves her baby girl, baby loves her mommy,
sooo – let’s go on a carpet ride tonight.” ♪
This song, while it may seem silly, became a part of our daily lives and our routine, a way we communicated our love for each other. This laid a foundation for more important communication and understanding, as singing became a way of dealing with the tough stuff years later when she became very ill with cancer. This song also helped me transition her to the “magical sky” when it was time for her to leave her body. From the beginning we were learning how to talk to and respect each other – the heart of healing.
Stay tuned for Part Three:
Yochabel’s Wisdom: The Food Connection
Casey Hersch, MSW, LCSW is a licensed clinical social worker, author, and founder of http://www.lightyoursparkle.life. She specializes in chronic illness and ways to empower others to be an expert on their own bodies. Pet companionship, and in her case, her cat friends, have been at the heart of her own healing. She is passionate about integrative treatment models for humans and pets.