Guest post by Casey Hersch
This is the third 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.
My Girl is a Foodie
It was our first day together. I was excited and nervous at the same time, uncertain how Yochabel would adjust to her new home. As she maneuvered awkwardly in her bed, favoring her right side, and slowly eased herself down into a sitting position, her eyes remained locked with mine. As I passed by, doing my usual chores, her little paws had a life of their own as they reached for me, brushing my leg as I walked by. She obviously wanted something…
And then it happened. I poured a scoop of kibble into a bowl. She scooted herself out of the bed, tumbling around with her roly-poly body, and butt sliding her way to the kibble bowl. As she plopped onto her stomach, she spread her legs flat on the floor, cradling her bowl, doing nothing less than a face plant. I heard an orchestra of sounds: “Naw, naw, naw, purr, purr, gurgle, gurgle, burp!” This girl is a foodie! Within minutes the entire bowl of food was gone. Given her enthusiasm, I imagined eating was a significant source of comfort and pleasure in her prior life.
Yochabel was a quiet cat. During the years we spent together, I can count on one hand the number of times I heard her meow. But at meal time, I could hear her eating from across the house. Yochabel’s passion for food, and her enthusiasm towards it, always made me smile. I felt my spirit rise every time I saw her food performances. She would park herself in the middle of the kitchen floor, a traffic hazard, waiting for the slight chance I would drop one smidgen of food (or forget I had just fed her). She would remain in one spot, and used her front legs to spin herself around, securing her sore hind legs, to see if she could snag the “surprise” food piece. To accommodate her love for the kitchen, we built a special “pedestal,” (a carpet covered platform 6 inches off the floor so she could watch me without straining her arthritic neck). She sat, safe from spills from a hot stove, and waited for her yummies. Over time, we had to lower the platform to 3 inches off the floor for safety. When she thought she smelled food, she would suspend all judgment and fling herself off her pedestal, realizing only after she found the piece of food, that she had body slammed her frail physique onto the linoleum. I know she would have said it was worth it. Food truly was her passion.
Notice your cat’s passion and joy, and use them for healing
I took note of Yochabel’s passion for food from day one. This information was essential as I cared for her, especially when she developed transitional cell carcinoma (bladder cancer). It is easy with chronic illness to let it consume one’s life and steal away all joy. Some illnesses, especially cancers, decrease appetite. Similar to humans, cancer can make our cat companions appear to be “finicky.” Nothing seems to be satisfying or tastes good. Sometimes we assume they have stopped eating because they are ready to die, rather than considering other reasons. These changes in tastes and preferences can be a result of the cancer (and age), and are not within the patient’s control. Nausea, lack of energy, and other bodily changes can all influence appetite. When Yochabel’s appetite and tastes changed, I felt that it wasn’t because she wanted to stop eating. It was because her body needed something different than what I was offering her. Just like when my mother gave me chicken soup when I was sick with the flu, I needed to find Yochabel’s version of chicken soup to help her eat through the difficult times.
Yochabel taught me a series of lessons that improved her health, made her comfortable and able to enjoy her passion – food – through her very last day. As mentioned in Yochabel’s Wisdom: Securing the Bond, the Healing Wheel includes passion as one critical component of healing. I made sure that I nurtured her passion for food and prioritized ways to keep this joy in her life while supporting her health. Anything that gives us joy should be expanded (while being mindful of balance).
Change can be harder for cat parents than for the cat
Through the years, I developed beliefs about feline nutrition that negatively affected my good intentions to support my cats’ health. I erroneously believed cats are finicky, should only be fed one brand of food, dry kibble is best, cats should never eat people food, and my veterinarian knows best what to feed my cat. Ultimately, I was in charge of my cats’ diets. After all, I chose the food and determined how much and when to feed. Sad to say, I chose a diet for my cat that suited my preferences and lifestyle. I even chose foods that were trendy and had cute packaging (why not? If I eat gluten free, shouldn’t my cat?) I lost connection to the reality that my cat is a carnivore, accustomed to eating meat and definitely evolved to having a different palate from my own.
This all changed with Yochabel. She taught me about feline nutrition, tastes, and preferences. She showed me how to create and build a diet through wellness and illness.
Meal time evolved as an art of attunement and observation of her responses to food.
This observation was coupled with expanding my knowledge of
- Yochabel’s nutritional needs and preferences based on her medical conditions
- Understanding species appropriate nutrition for cats
Even more important, I had to change. I had to be willing to put effort into providing appropriate nutrition for her, instead of simply pouring kibble into a bowl to suit my busy schedule.
Diet should reflect changing individual needs
My life has been consumed with nutrition and diet regimens due to the complexities of having Crohn’s Disease, an autoimmune condition that affects the small intestine. The small intestine absorbs nutrition from food, therefore, with Crohn’s disease, malnutrition is a risk. Difficulty digesting food and food allergies require that I get creative with my meal plans. Some days I can eat solid foods, some days I like creamy and warm food, and other days, I like bland or liquid food. This has changed throughout my lifetime depending on my symptoms and test results. Yochabel was no different…
Changing Yochabel’s diet for kidney disease
Yochabel’s progressive kidney disease required major dietary changes. She had consumed a diet of dry kibble for 17 years. I knew she needed a moisture rich, nutrient dense diet in order to support her ailing organs. I was afraid she wouldn’t tolerate any change. Gradually, I made a transition from kibble to a homemade, whole foods, species specific diet. To my surprise, she loved it as much as the kibble! With diet change alone, her kidney function markedly improved. Our bond deepened as I became Yochabel’s personal chef, trying new combinations of meats, vegetables and fruit, offering them to her and observing her reactions. It was abundantly clear what she favored, tolerated in moderation, and refused. I listened and trusted her instincts. She obliged by considering everything I offered. I trusted that her instincts, supported by a collaboration with her licensed veterinarian, integrative health team, my love for her, and my commitment to educating myself (The Conscious Cat is an excellent source of information) were improving Yochabel’s quality of life.
Changing Yochabel’s diet for tooth resorption
Just when I thought I had Yochabel’s meal plans figured out and we were in a healthy, flowing routine, she stopped eating. I tried to entice her with smorgasbords of favorites, and she turned her nose up in the air. I kept trying to find a new version of food for her soul, and kept failing. I noticed something else: she wasn’t social anymore. She wasn’t waiting on her pedestal. I concluded there had to be something wrong inside her mouth. Sure enough, the veterinarian confirmed she had a painful dental condition called feline tooth resorption. She wasn’t eating because it hurt. I imagined what it felt like to chew on an exposed nerve root from a tooth, Ouch! While the only recommendation to alleviate her condition was tooth extraction, Yochabel’s age and compromised kidney function placed her at high risk for surgery. After several consultations, including one with a veterinary dental specialist, it was concluded surgery was not a viable option. To make eating more comfortable for her, I warmed her food and pureed it in my Cuisinart. After all, if my mouth hurt, I would want warm soup. After making that adjustment, Yochabel lapped up her dinner even faster than when she could eat with her teeth.
For over a year, Yochabel ate her pureed and warmed homemade soup. I also rubbed her gums with a veterinarian recommended periodontal ointment. One afternoon, I accidentally dropped some ground beef on the floor, and I noticed not only did she inhale it, but she appeared to be chewing. Her veterinarian confirmed that her mouth was remarkably improved. Yochabel resumed her regular homemade meals. I am pleased that throughout our time together, her passion for eating never faltered.
This would not have been the case had I not changed my approach to fit each new circumstance.
Stay tuned for Part Four:
Yochabel’s Wisdom: Answering to Cancer
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.