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THE $3,000 QUESTION

Pets: A Healthcare Conundrum

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"You have to kind of take a pinch of flesh around its neck, and shove the needle in, and then squeeze the bag," explained my friend Scott when I was temporarily tasked with injecting fluids into a housemate's terminally ill cat. Scott, a single tech writer who would end up "juicing" his liver-damaged cat Zeke until he died at 20, was an expert. "Juicing a cat is not pretty," he warned, and he wasn't kidding. Every day as I did it, I could hear the animal's wizened little internal organs creaking and whistling. And of course I wondered: At what point does this turn from prolonging life into delaying death? And where do you draw the line in terms of your own time... or money?

Hilda*, a single careworker, estimates that she's spent $3,000 in the last five months managing her 15-year-old cat Agamemnon's* congestive heart failure. She's shelled out $1,200 for an ultrasound, $450 for x-rays and blood work, $40 a month on a wellness plan, and $75 a month for gushy, meaty gourmet food from Portland-based Rad Cat. She's also gotten him a cardiogram and a stress-relieving hormone diffuser, and she looked into getting him a root canal before realizing his health may not sustain full anesthesia. "I guess I do have to rationalize the expense," Hilda admits, but a recent scare clarified how much she loved her feline companion. Last spring when Ag went missing for two weeks, Hilda says she fantasized about a Lebowski-style bargain: one of her fingers for his safe return. When he resurfaced needing serious vet care, she didn't hesitate to pay the proverbial arm and leg.

My own cat, Fauna, is five, lolling in that sweet spot of post-kitten and pre-suffering. She's spayed, immunized, and flea-free—and other than that, thanks for asking, she's nothing but beautiful. (Russian blue, glows like moonlight, coos like a pigeon...) However, since Fauna and I are currently uninsured Americans, I like to think we'll both die either naturally or suddenly. Otherwise, we might both end up toughing out our maladies untreated like Christian Scientists, or checking out painlessly because that's our only affordable course. Simplistic as it may be, Oregon is a right-to-die state, healthcare is always expensive and iffy, and suffering sucks.

Also, can we admit that this whole advanced cat care conundrum may be a bit country vs. city, or single vs. family? Fellow single urban people: Our cats' needs may be (ahem) lionized compared to those of a cat that runs around in the country, or lives with kids in a family, or both. My family had a couple of cats when I was a rural-dwelling kid. They came in as strays and went out as free agents. The whole arrangement was less a marriage than an affair, and when these free felines decided it was time to die, they disappeared, hid out, holed up, abstained. Our eldest lived to 15, but she never lay on a veterinary gurney with tubes running through her little wet nose. I still see that grim formality with animals as kind of a "city thing." In the country, it's just wilder. And sometimes a dingo eats your baby.

Of course I don't judge the Scotts who invest heavy time, or the Hildas who shuck out big money near the end of their cats' lives. But I sure hope Fauna and I won't have to go there. Even now, with that day still far away, we snuggle fiercely but part abruptly. It seems we'd both despise a long goodbye.

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*Names have been changed, so I chose unusual ones. Did you really want to hear about "Karen" or "Fluffy?" I thought not.

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