Things have been quiet around here lately. There has been a lot of sadness in our house. To fully understand, let’s start from the beginning. Today I bring you a love story. Not just any love story. It’s a love story for the ages.
A local animal shelter that I volunteer with heard about a shelter in northern Maine that was really struggling. They were in a rural area with not enough homes to go around and not enough resources for a spay/ neuter program. While the staff did their best to keep up, they would have cardboard boxes of kittens sitting by the door when they arrived in the morning. Their capacity was 50 cats, but their population soon topped 130.
Since I live in Massachusetts and we have very strong laws about spaying and neutering, our shelters were actually quite empty, especially in the winter months. I began taking trips up to the shelter to load my car up with animals and drive them back to our local shelter where they would get scooped up in a matter of days.
On one of these trips, I asked to see their leukemia room. I have always had a soft spot for cats with leukemia, because it seems that people just don’t know what to do with them. Most shelters will put them down straight away. At no-kill shelters, they can end up sitting in a small cage their whole life. People are afraid to adopt a “sick” animal. But cats with leukemia can live perfectly healthy lives. You would never know anything was wrong with them. Just because their lives are shorter, doesn’t mean that they shouldn’t live that life to the fullest.
There is also something about leukemia cats that make them the friendliest cats in the world. It is literally called the “lovers disease” because they get it from grooming, sharing dishes and all around loving on each other.
Walking up to that room, I was not prepared for what I saw. There were 13 cats in a small room, each in a different stage of illness. Almost immediately, a grey cat came over to me and climbed up my legs, wrapped his arms around my neck and hugged me. His name was Bruiser. Instantaneously, I fell and I fell hard. I held him for as long as I could until it was time to leave. It actually took 2 people to pry him off of me.
I left there heavy-hearted, knowing that those animals would live and die in that room, never knowing what the love of a family felt like. Here’s the thing… adopters wouldn’t enter that room because they were afraid that they could somehow get leukemia (eye roll). Only one staff member would go in the room, because every one else thought it was too sad. So they were basically just being warehoused there until they died. They couldn’t come on the transports because they weren’t allowed to cross state lines without a health certificate. I felt helpless.
That grey cat. I just couldn’t get him out of my head. The desperation he had for attention. I knew I couldn’t adopt him, because I had 2 cats. Since he couldn’t go into the shelter system, his only hope was a direct adoption. I posted his picture and asked if anyone would adopt him, but nobody wants to set themselves up for the kind of heartbreak that leukemia brings.
A couple of weeks went by, and he was still on my mind. If I didn’t help him, nobody else would. So I asked my husband if I could take him in as my office cat. He adamantly said no, so called the shelter and told them to put him on the next transport. I mean, if I was going to end up divorced, I may as well leave my husband for another man as good looking as Bruiser.
When he arrived, I kept telling myself that I was just going to get him healthy and find him a home. I even brought him straight to the vet hoping that he would test negative. He had never even had an IFA test for diagnosis. The joke was on me when he came back double positive for leukemia AND FIV, basically the two things you don’t want your cat to have.
Just a few days after being in my home, he began yowling and falling over. My heart dropped. I was convinced that he was dying. I couldn’t believe he was only with me for a few days. I sat with him, just glad that he wasn’t alone. But suddenly, he started purring and head butting me. I was so confused. Maybe it was just a fluke?
A few days later, I noticed that one pupil was huge and the other was tiny and the yowling happened again. He was disoriented and peed all over himself. I rushed him to my vet, but when he stepped out of the carrier, he was purring and went to head butt the vet. I swore to them that I am wasn’t crazy… he was literally just dying. This is how I learned that cats could get epilepsy.
It seemed that each vet visit, he would be diagnosed with something else. He quickly added IBD and Horner’s Disease to his resume. My vet explained that his brain just wasn’t firing the way it should be.
Bruiser’s medical regimen took some time to work out. He was put on phenobarbital twice a day to control the seizures. It broke my heart to think that he must have been having seizures in that room for years without anyone noticing. He also hated other cats.
He had vet visits every 2 weeks for B12 injections and weight checks. It took a long time to heal his gut. He used to leave Hershey kisses on the stairs… as if my husband didn’t hate me enough already. A probiotic and healthy diet really helped cure him but it took a long time, a bit of patience and a gallon of carpet cleaner.
Through all of this, Bruiser was a champ. He continued to be the most loving and affectionate cat I have ever known. He also refused to be an office cat. And really what is the point if he wasn’t a fully integrated member of the family? We ended up sectioning off the house so that Bruiser had the upstairs of the house as well as the living room and an outdoor enclosure. The girls had the down stairs and the kitchen. It took some training with the kids to keep doors closed all the time and the other cats were vaccinated for leukemia just to be safe.
I worried a bit about how my children would deal with having a kitty who may not be around that long. I explained that his life, no matter how short, deserved to be happy and full of love. That losing him would hurt, but not as much as not helping him at all. They responded by asking if we could adopt another sick cat so that he could have a friend. It was a lesson in empathy.
Click to see the boys meet him for the first time and prepare to have your heart melted!
My love for Bruiser was a constant reminder of the 12 other cats that were left behind. Since they couldn’t come to Massachusetts, I found a shelter in Maine that was about 4 hours away. They agreed to take in 2 leukemia cats per month until they were all adopted. The day the last cat left that room, we celebrated.
By the end of the year, we had moved over 100 cats to local shelters where they found loving homes and best of all, the shelter who helped with the leukemia cats became partners with them and continue to help each and every month.
Bruiser was 4 years old when I adopted him. I didn’t know if I would have a month or even a week with him. Because of that, I never took a moment for granted. We treated every day as if it were his last. He was physically attached to me at all times. If I sat down, he was in my lap. If I was running around getting the kids ready for school, he would be riding around on my shoulders. If I got up to pee in the night, he would escort me to the bathroom, then settle back down in bed, under the covers, head on the pillow.
The start of Bruiser’s decline
My boy, who was given two months to live, had made it four years. Isn’t it amazing what love can do? Still, I lived in fear of the day he would start his decline. I noticed he had been losing some weight, so during his next vet check, Dr. Moss suggested that he stay over night for some blood work. It was Wednesday and I was going away that weekend, so I convinced her to let me bring him home and then drop him off on Friday on my way out of town. She agreed, but as she was pulling his blood, she said it felt hot. She took his temp. 104. She looked up at me and said he wasn’t going anywhere. Little did I know at that time, Bruiser would never come home again.
He had been hospitalized in the past, but bounced back with some antibiotics and fluids. The next day, she said they were just waiting on some bloodwork. By Friday, I think I knew deep down that it wasn’t good. His 104 temp hadn’t budged. He wasn’t eating and was becoming more and more lethargic.
The family was packing up to leave on vacation, but I couldn’t leave town not knowing what was going to happen. I will never forget that Harry stayed behind with me. He loved Bruiser, but he also hated to see his mom sad and alone. We went to the vet to visit with Bruiser and he lit up when he saw us. I tried to be strong, but when the tears came, he stood up in my lap and wiped them away. And that was Bruiser, comforting me as he was dying.
We came again the next morning and he was still the same. Sunday was awful, because they were closed and I couldn’t even get an update on him. By Monday, they had diagnosed him with pancreatitis. That’s the disease dogs get from eating a ham. It’s really rare in cats and only happens to less than 2% of the cat population, but if anyone was going to get a rare disease, it was Bruiser. The leukemia just made him so susceptible to infections.
On Monday, Dr. Moss said she was going to try a different antibiotic and give him 24 hours. If nothing changed in that time, she was going to call it. The following day, I was prepared for the worst, which is why I was so surprised when she called to say that his temp went down a tiny bit and he finally ate. They had a specialist coming in to Friday to do an ultrasound, so she had set him up for diagnostic testing to see what was really going on.
But Wednesday morning, I got the call. The fever was back to 104 and she thought it was unfair to keep him going. I agreed. In fact, I would have called it on Monday.
I promised him I would be with him until the end, so I left work and asked to have some time with him first. It was a beautiful night and the sun was setting. I brought him outside so he could get some fresh air and look up at the sky one last time. When it was time, I held him in my arms and we watched the sun set together. I felt his head slowly fall to my shoulder and I knew he was gone. No more pain. No more needles. No more medications. Just free to leave his worldly body behind and run through the clouds. It couldn’t have been more peaceful.
That is when I had my break from reality. They gave me a few minutes to be alone. But I quickly realized that once I put him down, I would never hold him again. So I didn’t want to put him down. The vet clinic was doing some remodeling and there was a team of men replacing the floors. I am quite sure that after seeing a sobbing woman walking around clutching a dead cat, they won’t be taking any more jobs at veterinary hospitals.
I don’t remember the last time I felt so deeply sad. He was like an appendage. So much of my time and energy was dedicated to keeping him healthy. When that was gone, it felt like this huge void. I didn’t think that I could possibly feel any worse, but little did I know at the time, it was just the start of my heartbreak.
In my grief, all I wanted to do was look at pictures and remember the happy times, so I made a tiktok video. The next morning, I looked at it and had over 20,000 comments. I was confused. Turns out, the whole world fell in love with Bruiser. It has now been seen over 10.4 million times. People have written to me to say that they were inspired to go to their local shelter to adopt the cat that had been there the longest. They were naming their cats Bruiser. People who knew nothing about leukemia were now adopting them. His legacy lives on.
I never expected to be mourning the loss of my cat with millions of complete strangers, but it really did help. I was even interviewed by a big news site and she asked me what I would say to Bruiser if I had the chance. Through the tears, I said “Thank you. I would just say thank you.” He was the greatest gift and I will always be grateful for our time together.