Cloud is a nine month old striking kitten – all white with one blue and one green eye. She also has an extremely rare, unrepairable congential heart defect known as Tetraology of Fallot (ToF). It’s always fatal in animals. She was found along with her sister were brought by the San Diego County Department of Animal Services to the San Diego Humane Society (SDHS), a no-kill shelter at around 5 weeks of age.
When she was first examined, SDHS found a heart murmur and sent her for an ultrasound exam, where they identified her condition. ToF is a complex condition where the enlargement and weakening of the right ventricular wall is progressive. If nothing else goes wrong first, the right ventricle will continue to enlarge and the wall will thicken (it is muscle, so the hypertrophy is a result of overuse as the right ventricle ends up doing most of the work, rather than the left ventricle as in a normal heart.) That will ultimately cause premature heart failure and death. Another aspect of ToF, which is different in each patient, is how severe is the pulmonary artery stenosis (narrowing) compared to the ventricular septal defect (VSD), which is the hole in the wall between the right and left ventricle.
So who would want a kitten that could die any day?
A Special Volunteer
Michael Mitchell has done rescue work virtually all his life. Even as a little kid he would come home with animals that needed help – including an abandoned duck egg and a “big worm” he had found on the road after sneaking out when he was just four years old. The big worm turned out to be an overheated baby copperhead snake, which Mitchell says perked right up when his mom screamed, causing him to drop it on the cold floor.
Aside from those instances, he says cats, dogs and other critters were okay. And while they kept some, they couldn’t keep them all and when that happened, his parents would drive him and the animal to the shelter. Of course, back then, taking an animal to the shelter was a “death sentence” as he puts it and when he learned this for himself when we started volunteering at the shelter at 13 years old, he quit.
Mitchell says he has rescued over 100 cats, dozens of dogs and lots of wildlife in his lifetime. So what drove him back to a shelter? He was going through a rough patch financially, health-wise and found himself petless for first time in a long time after the passing of his beloved cat Vladimir.
That was when he heard that the San Diego Humane Society’s “kitten nursery” needed volunteers.
“I never knew they had one or that such a place existed,” Mitchell says. “On my first orientation day in the nursery, in late July, I was ecstatic – there were over 200 kittens from just a few days old to ones almost ready for spay or neuter and then adoption. I felt like I was in the one place I needed to be.”
In short order, he ended up adopting to littermates, Sweet Pea and Punkin. That was two years ago.
Cloud Comes To Michael
For some reason, Mitchell felt an a “definite need” to go to the shelter and volunteer one Friday evening – it was Cloud’s two month birthday.
After the cleaning was done, he asked a fellow volunteer which kitten needed some extra attention. She pointed to Cloud and her sister and said, “that little one with the shaved chest doesn’t have much time.”
Curious, Mitchell asked why and Laura explained to him her heart condition and that she was a euthanasia candidate. Another volunteer had thought about a rare “hospice adoption,” but had decided it would be too difficult.
“Once I heard Cloud’s story and saw her for the first time, I knew I had to do whatever I could,” he says. “Cloud looked like a little gourd – small chest and big belly. She climbed up on me and purred and I just held her next to my heart and she purred away.”
Once he made the decision, there was no turning back. People asked him if he was sure, if he was prepared to deal with this. His answer just may restore your faith in humanity:
“I told her ‘No, but It doesn’t matter, she needs me.’ Since I volunteer at the nursery, I felt very strongly that every time I came back into the building, I would look at that spot and think ‘I had a chance to help that little girl and I didn’t.’ For me, that would have been much worse than having Cloud for whatever time she had and then losing her.
At Home And Thriving
When he took her home, no one at the humane society thought she would last a month. No one, that is, except Cloud herself.
“Cloud didn’t know there was anything wrong with her,” Mitchells says. “She was a feisty, loving, outgoing kitten, who just ran out of energy more quickly and took longer to recover.”
He says he older cats have really helped him with her.
“Sweet Pea and Punkin have had a huge role in saving Cloud, because their maternal instincts kicked in and they gave Cloud a lot of baths, love, and a few nudges when she seemed to be sleeping too deeply, just to make sure she was alright,” he explains.
That was 15 months ago. Cloud is doing well and is still feisty, but Mitchell knows that every day is a gift for a cat with ToF. He explains that the mortality estimates are that less than 10% of feline cases survive to one year.
A Gift To Others
Mitchell is hoping to use Cloud’s Facebook page to connect with other owners of cat’s with ToF so they can share information about the condition and management.
But it’s also a story for anyone who has thought about adopting a senior or hospice animal. As Mitchell says, it may be hard knowing they will leave you soon, but not as hard as the regret of leaving them to pass alone in a shelter.
“The gift of Cloud is that each healthy, happy day is a day she wouldn’t have had otherwise, and each day with her is a day with her happiness and love,” Mitchell says. “There really is a great reward with senior or special needs pets. Each day is a life saved and extended and teaches you new lessons in appreciation and compassion.”