Sunday, May 26, 2013

On Blindness and Kindness

My seventeen year old Siamese, Little Big Mouth, is blind as of a week ago.

On this topic of blindness and kindness today I'd like to reach out to those people who maybe have a pet who is facing the same situation or maybe they're even thinking of adopting a blind pet and not sure of what they're in for. I'd like to tell you first hand. 

It happened slowly the first few months; we thought maybe she was just getting a little senile. Then five days ago she suddenly became almost mute overnight. For an excitable and verbose cat like her this was alarming. She began pacing the house, round and round the perimeter, using the walls as her guide. Not eating as much. Then clingy as all get out. Wouldn't leave my side or my husband's. If she wasn't laying on us or next to us with her body pressed to ours she was busy pacing. We also noticed that her pupils were not decreasing in size like they used to in different lighting. She has the most beautiful blue eyes but now you can barely see any blue at all, just black pupil.

Today we finally took her to the vet because she was pacing beside a particular wall with her face pressed against it and wouldn't leave it alone. Then I watched her nearly fall head first off my son's bed. The vet confirmed the blindness and called it SARDS(Sudden Acquired Retinal Degeneration Syndrome) Thankfully, he confirmed that she still had her hearing. So all those exasperated calls to her from us to get her moving in our direction that she ignored was really just her being a cat and not a sign of hearing loss. That was good news! She still has all her other senses.

Many people in our situation would have put their cat to sleep. They would think that having a visually impaired pet would be too difficult to deal with. We've learned a lot about ourselves as a family and her as a family member these past few days and one thing I can definitively say for sure is that having a suddenly impaired pet is difficult! It's heart wrenching. It's prone to make you burst into tears at the slightest provocation, especially while watching them struggle over something which used to be second nature to them. This is a member of your family who suddenly discovers that a big part of their world is gone to them forever. They are going to be depressed. YOU are going to be depressed. This change in their abilities requires quite a bit of patience and attention from the humans in their life. They can't do it all on their own and some things do have to change in the house for them to be safer. This takes time to learn as well as trial and error.

Animals are able to adapt more quickly to losing a sense than humans. I implore you to give the animal a chance to prove it to themselves and for them to have the opportunity to exhibit their instincts to you before you lose hope for their future. Don't give up on them. They have the same interest in their own happiness as you do for yourself and want to be as self sufficient as possible. This is really embarrassing for them to have to relearn certain things.  Trust me when I say that they do feel embarrassment and shame, and a great deal of fear at least in the beginning. But they'll find a way to be self sufficient and they'll surprise you when they do!! They learn so fast.

Watching this particular family member of ours adapt to her new situation has been an awe inspiring spectacle. I wish I could tell you all the little things I've seen her do the past few days that made me cheer for her. I can think of a dozen things from just this morning alone, but then this post would be a mile long and I don't think anyone has the patience for that. I'll just highlight a few and tell you what we've learned so far.

Her clingy behavior from a few days ago was due to total petrification on her part. She was literally too scared to move from the security of where she knew where she was to an open void which would swallow her up in her mind.

After she gave up being scared, Big Mouth's endless wandering all over the house had a purpose and we just weren't smart enough to figure it out until now. She was remapping the entire house in her head, not pacing because she was ill or dying or becoming senile. It had a purpose! Very smart kitty. Granted, it was tiring on her part and very frustrating, but she instinctively knew that she had to do it.

She's learned to lead with her nose and stretch her neck a tiny bit, giving her a small extension in reach so that she can stop before crashing into something. I imagine her nose is quite sore from the past few days.

We also learned.....

  • We must be decisive about doors. Either have the doors completely open or completely closed. No inbetween. She'll get herself caught behind the doors otherwise and just sit staring at the door jam until you get her out. Her whiskers brush wall-like structures either way she turns whichever way she turns so she's confused and doesn't know how to get out. She panics and so just just sits down.
  • Don't move around furniture without 'showing' her the changes and letting her explore it. Statistically speaking, that is going to be the very next thing she runs into face first.
  • Don't leave toys(kids or cats) out on the floor, at least until she gets her bearings. 
  • Overhanging/drooping things are a menace-- don't let cords droop down from one thing to another and loop down to the floor, she'll trip across it or rope her neck into it. Hanging things can be mistaken for large solid objects and this can cause a lot of confusion in how to maneuver around them.
  • The most important thing I think we've all learned is the value of independence on her part. Don't do anything really obvious for her! Guide her through something and let her feel it out every step but don't actually do it for her. The best example I can give of this is when she got the nerve to finally jump up onto the couch yesterday(YAY!!!) and then tried to get back down after a few minutes. She hovered on the edge and squirmed out of fear; she couldn't figure out how far down it was from sighted-memory. So I wrapped my hands around her chest and guided her front paws down to the floor and left her hind paws up on the couch so she could deduce for herself about how far down it was from her own body mass. Worked like a charm. Now she's up on the couch all the time of her own volition.
  • Don't just scoop her up, cuddle her or walk around with her, and then plop her back down again somewhere else. A blind animal needs guide posts to figure out where they wind up. Place the animal beside something they know very well and if there is a sound in the room they can use to figure out where they are then that's even better.
  • Don't call her by her name and expect her to come to you. Rub the carpet or pat the floor so she knows that you want her to go toward the sound, especially if you're trying to lead her out of a difficult situation she's gotten herself into. I've found myself having to do this a few times the past three days and as she's learning so am I, just what works and what doesn't. She's let us know that tapping on the wall doesn't do it for her. I guess the sound travels down the wall too far or it echoes and it confuses her. So now we stick to the method of rubbing or lightly tapping on the floor surface she's on.
  • Use a glass waterbowl so you can tap the side of it to let her know where it is. Otherwise she'll faceplant into the water and then you're left with an extremely embarrased cat with a dripping face who is so peeved she'll walk off rather than deal with the situation(her thirst).
  • Use a mat under the water and food bowl for spills. The one we have is wonderful in that is it literally like a dining room table placemat- big enough to fit everything on it with a bit of room so spare. We learned that she appreciate the way the mat has a softly downward curving ridge around the outer edge. When her paw bumps into it then she knows that she's arrived where she wants to be because the material and curved ridge is unique in the house and then uses her nose to hunt around for what she wants.  
  • Don't shave the fur off a blind animal before they can accept their new reality. Fur is a sensory tool. Our little girl was already shaved three weeks before this downward spiral with her eye sight began but we realized that we have to let her fur grow out some more, no matter how hot she is, before shaving her again. Maybe in two or three weeks she can be shaved again. Fur isn't just a sensory tool for them to figure out where they are, it's also a tool to sense who is around them. It terrified her to have someone just randomly pet her without her realizing they were there. Touching fur first is better than touching peachfuzz and sensitive skin.

Big Mouth is still taking her sweet time opening that loud mouth of hers again and wailing to the world that she Wants Her Daddy NOW or Can You Pay Attention To ME Please, I Am The Princess?! but we have high hopes that one day really soon she'll be living up to her name once again. It may be as soon as next week for all we know. With what I've seen from her the past few days absolutely nothing would surprise me any longer.

I look at her now and her forever fully expanded pupils and it tears at my heart. I have cried so much the past week. It kills me inside. I can't stand to think that I'll never see her looking directly into my eyes again with that imperious glare that is distinctly Siamese. She'll never wink at me again. She'll never say "I love you" with her eyes again. She looks in my general direction but never directly at me. This knowledge hurts. I have to remind myself continually that she is interested in me although she cannot see me. It's ego on my part and quite a bit of selfishness. We're both being forced to adapt and reevaluate things.

She'll probably always walk into certain walls in the house. And then again some of these occurrences are not accidents and never will be. Like blind humans, she uses particular things as guide posts. She'll graze a corner here and curve around something there and then she knows where she is. She gets turned around quite easily still. It's like standing in the woods and no matter where you look all the trees look identical. How do you go about finding your way when you can't even see the sun overhead?

But still like the old Big Mouth, she does show her love and interest in other ways. She still curls up on my lap while watching TV. We watch now and she listens. She may not be able to see the blood and gore she loved so much but she can still hear the screams. She still drools on my clothes while sleeping on me and she still licks my husband's knee raw with her raspy tongue while sitting on him. She treats him like a salt lick. We've never been sure why. 

She still find comfort in the same few blankies, one of which is The Pink Fluffy(AKA my old housecoat which she cuddled with so much it is now nearly an unwashable brown instead of pink). This was one of the first items she recognized positively after losing her sight and it helps her to relax at night with us.

She's becoming a little more sure of herself, and although I cringe when I see her walk into things over and over again, now I jump a foot into the air at times because she's learned to use her stealthy cat senses to scare the living shit out of us. She used to make some sort of noise when walking across a room. Not anymore. Big Mouth carefully places each foot on the floor to judge where she is in the house(carpet, linoleum, tile, or cement) and to keep her balance. In return for this new careful grace she now has the creeping ability of the quietest panther. You turn around and there she is right where you next wanted to place your foot. And so we are now perpetually in Watch Out For The Blind Cat alert mode. She is too stealthy. 

I'll be glad when she starts being more vocal again, then we can always figure out where she is. She never used to shut up. Now the quiet makes us look around for her frantically, in fear that she's gotten herself backed up behind the trashcan yet again or even behind the refrigerator. She used to get lost in our closet even when she had eyesight and now?...egads. We had to start keep our closet door closed now. There is nothing more pitiful than searching the house for your cat only to find her inside your closet and sitting, staring at the back of the closet door. Of course she's not really staring at anything but it is disturbing to watch her just sit there because she feels like she's stuck.

This girl has bumped her face into things more times than I can count the past week but early today when I saw her walk directly out of the room she was in, turn right then left and then right again straight down the hallway without a hitch I nearly had a heart attack. What was she doing, counting her steps? How did she do it? What was she using as a guide? Not the wall. She was walking down the very middle of the hallway. 

It's surreal watching her learn to exist without this sense she lost only a few days ago. The desire to persevere, the persistence, the adaptability of a creature who truly wants to continue to live is a tremendous validation of the strength of her character. She's an old lady who no doubt feels a few aches and pains some days. But otherwise she's healthy as a horse  and she refused to lie down and mope about it longer than she had to. We can learn a lot about intestinal fortitude from such fine examples.

My big male cat, Killer Kitty, doesn't understand yet that she's blind. She walks directly into his side at least a half a dozen times a day and at least a few times he swats at her. It doesn't take much to annoy him, though. He's my little Grumpy Man. But he'll learn through watching her and she'll learn by getting swatted at that when her whiskers graze against another cat's fur she needs to veer off instead of continuing to walk forward until her head butts against him. Live and learn. Adapt. Grow through experience which leads to knowledge. Gnosis.