What My Cat’s Mysterious Death Taught Me About Life

Dr. Ernie Ward's late cat, Pellie
Courtesy of Dr. Ernie Ward
Dr. Ernie Ward's late cat, Pellie.

Pellie was the greatest cat whom I’ve ever known. By knowing, I mean sharing a few years with a spectacular species that’s hard to fully understand.

But that’s not what this post is about. It’s about how Pellie left — and how little there was to know about that.

My Ingmar Bergman Kitty, Pellie

During my four years of veterinary school, I didn’t have pets. Well, I tried my first quarter, but a roommate put a quick end to that. (I’m eternally grateful to the rescue organization that allowed me to return the two kittens I’d adopted.)

After that fiasco, I decided that pets, roommates and an 18-hour-a day vet school habit weren’t the best combo. It wasn’t until my first week as a veterinarian that I met Pellie, who’d been abandoned at the door of the veterinary clinic where I was working.

She looked like cotton candy, with enormous emerald eyes. To say it was love at first sight is an understatement. It was divine intervention.

At the time, I was seriously into the films of Ingmar Bergman. As far-fetched as it may sound, on our first night together, I rented Torment. One of the female characters makes the lead male, Jan-Erik, promise to return to her and her cat, Pelle, after he deals with an existential crisis and searches for the meaning of life. I didn’t know Bergman's spelling of Pelle, but I knew the promise. And that is how Pellie got her name.

Life was about to get very busy. Within the next eight months, I’d marry my long-time girlfriend, move twice and start a veterinary practice. Pellie was our first child and anchor during some stormy seas.

Fast-forward seven years. Life was even busier, and Pellie had been joined by another inspirational, furry family member: Willie.

All our pets get a thorough physical examination at least once a year, including blood and urine tests. We were approaching Memorial Day weekend, so I’d run Pellie’s tests the week before summer madness began. They came back perfect, as they should for a pampered vet’s pet.

That was the last time anything would be perfect for a long time.

An Inexplicable Death

Each night, Pellie and Willie staked out their spots on our bed. Pellie was a light sleeper, while Willie snored away in oblivion. That Saturday night, we had a thunderstorm that awoke both Pellie and me. As I turned to go back to sleep, I noticed that Pellie popped off the bed.

That was the last time I ever saw her alive.

The next morning, I was awakened by a sound that I don’t ever want to hear again: My wife was screaming hysterically downstairs. At the base of our kitchen counter laid Pellie, still and stiff. She was dead.

I checked for a heartbeat and breathing. Nothing. She was slightly warm, so I knew that she couldn’t have been dead for more than a few hours. I checked her carefully for signs of trauma. Again nothing. My mind frantically searched her recent test for something, anything that could give me a clue as to what had caused her inexplicable death. Nothing.

I took the lifeless body to my clinic and arranged for the state pathology lab to perform a necropsy (animal autopsy). I reviewed every detail of Pellie’s medical history with the head pathologist, and then waited for an answer from the lab the following day.

I was in a bad way, but I had a busy practice to run, so there was no time to grieve. I tried to push the painful feelings into the recesses of my mind —not an ideal strategy for dealing with loss, but this was real life.

Friends and family couldn’t understand the depth of my feelings, much less my grief. “Just get another cat” was a common refrain. If it wasn’t for my wife’s loving support, I don’t know how I would have managed. It would be over three years before we got another cat.

The day after Pellie’s necropsy came and went without word from the state lab. I waited until that Friday to finally call. No one had contacted me because they still couldn’t find anything. No heart disease, obstruction, stroke, trauma or poisoning.

Although they were running additional tests, they doubted that anything would turn up. They were right. Pellie’s official cause of death: natural causes. In other words, she just died.

Lessons Learned

I share my story because we don’t always understand the “how” of death, much less the “why.” By all accounts, she should be here with me now. But she’s not — and I’ve made peace with it.

For years after Pellie’s death, my wife was convinced that a toilet bowl cleaner was to blame, that she was to blame. Despite no evidence whatsoever to support this, she will not keep toilet bowl cleaner in our house.

Being a vet is a tough gig. I can’t predict when a patient will die, even under my own care. When this happens, I often get blamed. It hurts to lose a patient — even more so when I’m wrongly accused of causing it.

I guess what I’m trying to say is that, if it ever happens to you, I hope you’ll remember my Pellie. Her life taught me a lot, but her death taught me a lot more. Although I'll never know how she died, I now understand why she died.

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