This is a very personal post in hopes that telling my story may save a few lives and no one has to go through what I recently did. It hurts to write this, but I know that another day means another beloved pet may suffer and I don’t want anyone to experience what I have. My heart is broken. This is my story of Tessa and her allergies and what happened with Atopica.
A little history first. It was 8 years ago and I had recently lost my cat, Monster. It was dead of winter in Michigan when my father called me to say a very nice cat had wondered onto the farm and I should take her. “She looks like a cheetah”, was my only description. “She talks a lot”, he explained, watching her walk up the long driveway and into his live trap. No food, just curiosity took her there. That action actually saved her life.
I said I would get back to him and after 20 minutes, I knew that she needed a home and had literally walked into my life just when I had the home for her. It was one of those things where you say yes and don’t overthink it. I flew to Michigan and in 2 seconds I knew she was mine and she knew I was hers. I named her Tessa. It took us 16 hours of travel time through Chicago to get home that February and she took it like a champ, in a First Class upgrade.
The next couple of years with her were delightful. She was so unique. I could look at her and she’d do this head bob move and make a hmm type noise. I’d sit on the sofa and in minutes she’d find my lap from wherever she may have been. Gone for 5 minutes or 15 days, she would be waiting at the door for me with her charming meow. She was my little buddy and while I could go on about her for days, suffice it to say, there was nothing I would not do for her. Ever.
At around the age of 3 she developed allergies.
There was no way of knowing her history for those first 4ish months. She was missing an ear tip from frost bite and half her tail for a reason I’m probably glad I don’t know. But every day she woke with the attitude of “carpe diem”. Every, single day. But this tough start was not to be the end of the road. After pulling out a bit of belly fur we went to the vet because this was something certainly new to me.
This began years of trial and error with recommended options. Food, fleas, allergy tests, food tests, allergy shots, different food…it was a never ending game of what next. The poor girl was sometimes in a cone for months because she could create a sore on her naked belly, fore arms and inner thighs in seconds and they could take forever to heal. It was awful and that girl was a contortionist with that cone. She would always figure out a way just to get the spot she wanted so alas, always a bigger and bigger cone.
This went on for years. I felt so bad for her. I knew the allergies bothered her, but she didn’t seem consumed with them and just went about her day as usual. On occasion, I’d see more hair pulled out. The 1.5 years of allergy shots every 2 weeks did absolutely nothing. She was amazing and from day one knew I was there to help her and just let me do what I had to do.
It was in July 2015 that I went to a specialist in dermatology to see what else could possibly be done for Tessa. I didn’t want her in a cone every day of her life. It wasn’t fair and it wasn’t right. We spoke of options and basically they were down to Atopica and a steroid. I had heard this before, but always put it off. I’m not in the medical field but I know steroids are a problem and certainly doesn’t take a genius IQ to realize that an immunity suppressant like Atopica was a scary thing.
It turned out to be absolutely the worst thing.
In the first month, the fur started to come back. No cone, no pulling and a happy cat. We had found the fix. It was a great three months, but I hated giving her this stuff. It was a battle as she didn’t want to take it and every other day wasn’t working, so it was every day. But for me it was working and for her she was doing well, seemingly anyway. The allergies were corrected, but those unknown beginnings came back to haunt us. At least to my understanding.
She crashed and she crashed quickly. The Sunday of Thanksgiving week 2015, I noticed Tessa had lost a lot of weight. While I would pick her up onto my lap, I never really picked her up into my arms. But it was a lot of weight. She was Maine Coon mix with lots of hair, so visually I never saw a thing. I took her to the vet on Monday and she was down 25% of her normal weight of about 12 pounds. Nothing was specific as to what was wrong and testing for worms and usual, standard tests didn’t show anything.
At this time, there was nothing else visually wrong with Tessa’s behavior. She was eating, playing and loving, and just being her usual and normal self. On Tuesday, she stopped eating. On Wednesday, I took her into the vet again and they said that a sonogram or some x-rays should be done; however, they couldn’t do them on site. I then drove straight from there to the dermatology/emergency center where I took her initially for the allergies.
They decided to do a sonogram. It was a lot of waiting at the vet and while there I felt horribly for a man and his dog who was obviously on her last leg. His pain killed me. I got on the floor with them to try and help while he was in utter tears. I saw a woman pick up her pet’s ashes. Little did I know that it wouldn’t be long before I was just like them.
When I got the word she was going in, I went to get something to eat. One block away upon my return they called and I said I would be in shortly. It was much quicker than what they indicated. I sat down and was chatting with a woman about the ferals that I feed when they came to get me. She looked at me and said “let’s go in the back”. My heart sunk the moment she finished that sentence.
The results showed a possibility of lymphoma. I was devastated because I just knew it was the Atopica and I was the one who put it down her throat. I was responsible for what was going to kill my cat. The vet tried to reassure me that yes, it could be a side effect, but there was no way to be sure without the test results. They did an x-ray after giving her a bit of a break and said that she really should stay overnight. It broke my heart and I’m crying as I write this all over again.
I went in the back to see her in the little cage and after a few seconds she recognized me through her drugged fog. I picked her up and all the beautiful belly fur that had come back was now shaved clean. I held her, spoke to her, stroked her, and struggled with myself to put her back in as I knew she needed to rest. I took off my sweater and put it in with her so at least she could have me near in some small way. I cried all the way home.
It was hard not to have her that night and I had planned to drive to The Gentle Barn and see my friend’s band play that day but my heart was just waiting for the moment I could bring her home. I got the call that I could get her at noon. She was waiting for me and her usual chatty self. Oh, that girl could talk, and how I loved it. I got her home and set up a heating pad on the sofa to let her rest in peace and quiet. I stayed on the sofa the whole day with her, reaching over often to reassure us both.
We had a good Friday and a good Saturday as well. She was eating and walking around; maybe a little slower paced, but my intelligent girl was there.
Saturday morning when I awoke and called her name she came and did her usual jump on the bed, just inches from my face for a pet. She even let me know later in the day that she wanted to go outside. This was a great sign to me. “Outside” consists of the tar and gravel space between my building and my neighbor’s, but she loved to sit out there and do nothing or chase the occasional fly. She ate quite a bit and slept, but all was good. When I came home that night after photographing a band for just an hour, she walked into my lap. I sat on the floor and pet for a good 20 minutes. It would be the last time of the hundreds of times of this routine. I didn’t want to leave her but the fact that I was given that moment just made leaving all the more worth it.
Sunday morning was completely different – she stopped eating. We drove up to the vet and they did a blood test and a basic check. Everything showed ok. The goal was to keep her comfortable until the test results came back. Because it was a holiday, they were going to take longer and while I did not at all like that, I knew there was nothing I could do.
We came home and she slept a bit on the sofa but then broke into my closet and hung out in there. This too was not totally unusual. I could never figure out why she had to go in there but on occasion, she just did. After a bit she went under my bed. I was on the phone with my friend at this time trying to deal with all this when she came out and kind of howled. She went by the window on the floor and she seemed dazed. Something had definitely changed, but I had no idea of what in a matter of just a few hours. I laid with her on the floor for probably an hour, just talking, petting, and keeping her safe. She then got up and walked away a bit. I picked her up and put her on the bed, got her cat bed, and just tried to make her comfortable.
Then the howling started again, but consistently. I got some water for her and she drank very slowly. It was at first like she didn’t have the energy for it or as if she’d never had water before and didn’t know what to do. It was slow but I held the dish for her until she was done. A few minutes later she walked onto my lap and I thought she had a fever as I got very warm, but she was urinating. She had never not used the box in her life. I got her in the cat bed and changed and ripped off the comforter. I had no idea what to do or what was going on, but that my Tessa was just not right.
I called the emergency vet and they said I should bring her in. I asked are you sure? We had just been there and what could change in just a few hours? Was it worth it for her discomfort? They nicely insisted. I said I would be there shortly. I got dressed and her box ready. I placed her into it and she was in a sort of pain or just disoriented and completely limp. I had no idea what was going on now, but I ran out the door as fast as I could. The change in that last hour was hard and fast. I felt so utterly confused and useless.
I never took my hand off her while she was in the car seat. She howled a bit now and again, but I just spoke to her and stroked her as well as I could while driving. About 10 minutes out I felt her head rest on my hand, then fly into the corner and a wail. I had no idea what happened. I turned on the lights and the sight of her in the box just killed me. I just knew she was likely gone. Sitting on a car seat, in a box and not in my arms. It was not what I ever imagined or would have wanted. If I had waited just a few minutes more she could have been in my lap and my arms at home, but it was a lose-lose situation any way you look at it. At least I was with her. Ten minutes earlier and she would have been with strangers in the back at the clinic and I would have never forgiven myself for that.
I got to the vet and ran in just saying, “I think she’s gone”. They took her and put me in a room. Shortly after, it was confirmed. She had had an embolism. They brought her to me on a black blanket and she was so peaceful. I was a wreck. In my mind I had killed my cat. The most wonderful little girl who trusted me the moment she laid eyes on me, 8 years earlier. No one could make me believe any other way. I still feel this way, yet I know we had done everything and for those last 3 months she wasn’t suffering from the allergies that I had spent years just trying to help.
Eventually I handed her back but I could have sat there for hours. I didn’t want to leave the cat who would talk to me and make me smile and awake every single day with her “let’s go” attitude. It’s been two months as of today and hurts just as much as it did then. No more tapping me for play time, no more nose to nose in the morning when I called, no more chatting about nothing, no more wind in her fur, no more giving me the look to make my lap available when she wanted it. Years of those moments gone in four days.
Two days after she died the test results came in. I wasn’t totally sure I wanted to hear them, but ok I thought, let me hear how she had cancer. I was slowly coming to terms that it was just hard and fast and I could have done nothing else.
She did not have cancer. She died of toxoplasmosis.
She could have been cured with a simple antibiotic. Had I noticed the weight loss even maybe a couple weeks earlier, it is possible I’d still have her today. But I didn’t. Had I not decided to do the Atopica, I’d still have her today. But I don’t. Hind sight certainly is 20-20 here for me. There are so many things I wish I had done differently, but at the time all of the choices were what seemed like the best option as explained to me. Without the Atopica, she would have suffered from the allergies. Steroids instead? Same possible outcomes. There was no right answer when everything else had been tried and tested and all failed. Odds are I may simply always feel responsible. I certainly will always feel the loss. She rescued me just as much as I rescued her.
What I want to recommend to any others with a cat and severe allergies is to be diligent. I thought I was but with a limited bit of knowledge on all of this, I failed. I just failed.
- Why didn’t the vet say “Ok, we will have monthly checkups to make sure all is going well”.
- Why didn’t we do a more thorough check and possibly test for toxoplasmosis in her system before starting Atopica?
- How many cats suffered through these trial tests for the drugs approval and a side effect was death? And why are precautions not in place to prevent something so preventable?
- Why not have a system of checks and balances put into place to assure all was well from the first dose and make changes if necessary?
I was told this outcome was very rare. Fine. Fact is though due diligence, maintenance and recommended checkups would mean Tessa was sitting on my lap and I’d not be writing this story. Her allergies would still exist but we’d just tackle that as needed as we had been for 6 years. I cannot help but think this could have been avoided. I cannot help but think I should still have her with me.
I simply hope that my story may prevent this situation for others. Please share this with anyone you may know that has a cat with allergies. I couldn’t save Tessa but if this helps just one other person, then I know her legacy lives on. I donated all of Tessa’s meds to a woman with severe health and income issues who also had a very sick cat. There was a caveat on the handing over the Atopica…buyer beware.
PS. Just as Monster’s leaving opened the door for Tessa, Tessa’s leaving opened the door for Ruby. Maine Coon Adoptions in Oakland, Ca pushed through my application and today I have Ruby. She is her own girl to be sure, but every time she does something that I thought so unique to Tessa, I just have to smile. I know Tessa would want to pay it forward.
All images and story copyright of Misti Layne. No usage without expressed written permission.