How an eleven-pound cat precipitated domestic chaos and delayed surgery

Termites are endemic in southern California, and we’ve had spot treatments several times over the years at various sites in our house where little piles of sawdust have appeared as evidence of termite activity. Finally, it became clear that the termites were winning, and more aggressive treatment was in order: tenting. This is the process of hoisting a big, brightly-colored tent over the whole house and putting an end to the termites with a poisonous gas called Vikane, or sulfuryl fluoride.

Tenting is a major project. All food and medicine has to be put in special non-porous plastic bags, sealed tightly with tape. All the people, animals, and plants have to be evacuated. Natural gas must be turned off. The house is sealed in the tent for 24 hours, then aired out with big industrial fans. On the third day, you can go home.

The fumigation was scheduled to begin on Monday. Over the weekend, we put the food and medicines in bags, or most of it anyway. I arranged for our three tabby cats to be boarded at the vet. Our dog-walker agreed to board Milo, our 100 lb. Rottweiler-mix dog, at her house. My husband Steve complained continuously, as though I had bought bags of termites and sprinkled them around the house on purpose to annoy him.

On Monday morning, Steve and I both went to work, to our day jobs as anesthesiologists, and I came home at 11:30 to take the cats to the vet and hand off the dog. The exterminators were expected to arrive between 1:30 and 3:30 p.m. I had the presence of mind to lock all three cats in the family room before I went to work. Now my task was to get all three into their carriers and off to the vet.

I decided to tackle Tigger, the five-year-old male, first. He is strong, sinewy and sleek, and we’ve nicknamed him the “stealth cat” because he is very good at eluding capture. I thought he would be the biggest challenge to put in the carrier, and I was right.

Round 1. I caught Tigger, shoved him into his carrier, and tried to hold him down while I zipped it up. He turned into a writhing yowling clawing dervish and fought his way out.

Round 2. I think he got out even faster that time.

Round 3. Met the definition of insanity, as I hoped for a different outcome from the same sequence of actions. Same cat, same outcome.

I considered my options, and decided to get Joe and Tabitha into their carriers and drive them to the vet. This, I thought, would give Tigger time to calm down. Joe is a placid 17-year-old senior cat, and while he doesn’t like to go anywhere, he can’t be bothered to put up much fuss. Tabitha is a 10-month old kitten. It took some doing to catch her, and she was very unhappy, but she was still too small to win the contest. I drove Joe and Tabitha to the vet and came back home. As I came in the house, I caught a brief glimpse of Tigger, still locked in the family room. I put some more food in bags and waited for Krys, the dog-walker, to arrive and help me with Tigger.

1 p.m.: Krys arrived. We discussed the plan to put Tigger in his carrier. Only problem: we couldn’t find Tigger. We looked all over the family room and kitchen. We searched in the coat closet, under furniture, and behind the washing machine and dryer. No Tigger. It was as if he had evaporated. Milo (the dog) at this point was becoming anxious, trotting around after me and panting, sensing a disturbance in the force. I decided it would be best to let Krys and Milo leave.

1:30 p.m.: A fair amount of stuff still needed to be put in bags, but I couldn’t find the cat anywhere. Rising anxiety. I called my husband. A veteran of married life, he recognized the tone of desperation in my voice, and promised to come home as soon as he could arrange coverage. Cat clearly more important (for the moment) than heart surgery.

2 p.m.: Steve got home at exactly the same moment that the exterminators arrived. Now there was pounding and noise as the tent started to go up. Steve and I began systematically searching every corner of the house and every closet, looking under mattresses and behind furniture. Still no cat. The supervisor of the exterminating crew wanted to know if we were done with our packing and ready to leave. Actually, no. Haven’t found cat.

The supervisor joined the search. Flashlights. More moving stuff out of closets. The supervisor explained that I should have secured the cat before they arrived. I stifled the urge to choke him.

4 p.m.: Three adults have been searching for the cat for two hours. No cat. We concluded that he must have somehow gotten outside. This has happened before. Once he was gone for two nights, and we thought he had probably become coyote chow, but he was in the neighbor’s backyard, and we heard him meowing. So he made it back home.

What to do? We really can’t leave the cat to be gassed with the termites. We told the exterminators we weren’t ready to leave, and they would just have to come back in the morning. What were the consequences of this?

  1. Extra night in hotel for us.
  2. Extra night of boarding the other three animals.
  3. At least $500.

And we still had no idea where the damn cat was.

So we sent the exterminators away and sat down on the sofa. The whole interior of the house had a weird red glow from the sun shining through the tent. The only way to get out of the house was a small opening in the tent near the front door. There were signs everywhere warning of toxic gas. And no cat.

We decided on a plan. We would put fresh sand in the cat litter box so that it would be obvious whether or not it had been stepped in and used. Steve took away the cat food bowls and made a neat little pile of kibble so that it would be obvious if it had been disturbed or eaten. We reasoned that this way we would at least be able to figure out if Tigger really was in the house or not. We went out to dinner.

We came back from dinner. No sign of the cat. Litter box pristine; food undisturbed. We tried to reassure each other that the cat was outside and would return in a couple of days after the tent was gone. I went upstairs to finish packing my suitcase so that we could leave for the hotel—there was no hot water and no food, so we really didn’t want to stay in the house.

8:30 p.m.: I started downstairs with my suitcase. Tigger was sitting in the front hall.

For a moment I thought I was imagining a cat in the front hall. But I was not. I summoned Steve. He stood still for a moment in disbelief. This must have been quite a tableau. Cat crouching in hall. Steve at the door of the family room. Me on the stairs. Steve started toward Tigger, and Tigger ran back into the downstairs guest bedroom. Steve and I conferred. We blockaded the cat in the bedroom and paused to consider our options.

The vet’s office was closed. Where could we take the cat? I called a 24-hour emergency vet whose receptionist told me, sounding slightly miffed, that they were an emergency clinic and not an emergency cat boarding service.

We couldn’t take the cat to the hotel.

We decided to keep the cat in the bathroom, with food and water and litter box, and go to the hotel for the night. Which we did.

4:45 a.m.: The next morning, Steve and I (fortified with coffee) got back in the car to drive home. Neither of us was willing to tackle the cat alone. We got out a large bath towel, went into the bedroom, and closed the door. My husband, double-boarded in anesthesiology and internal medicine, a fellow of the American College of Cardiology and the American College of Chest Physicians, crouched at the bathroom door holding the towel in case the cat tried to make a break for it, which he did, but we were ready. We held the line and kept the cat in the bathroom. Between the two of us, with the help of the bath towel, we got him into the carrier.

Only problem: The vet didn’t open until 7:30 a.m., and my first case was supposed to start at 7:15. I called the two thoracic surgeons and explained to them that I couldn’t be at work until 8:30 because of my cat. They took this news with surprising aplomb, apparently realizing that they had kept me waiting any number of times, and I was calling in some chits. (In fairness, both of them are husbands and fathers, married to women who are also physicians, and they’ve faced domestic crisis before.) So an entire operating room, two surgeons, several nurses and surgical techs, and (regrettably) a patient all cooled their heels waiting for me on account of the cat. My husband, of course, arrived at work on time and got his patient off to sleep right on schedule, because that’s just the way life is.

7:30 a.m.: Tigger and I were first in line at the vet’s office, and I very nearly tossed the cat carrier and the yowling cat into the lap of the vet’s assistant. On route to the hospital, I called the exterminators and told them that the prodigal cat was found.

Three days later: Everyone is back at home, the termites presumably are resting in peace, and Tigger now wears a collar with an electronic tracking tag. We have a small controller device, and when we press the button it lights up, going from red to yellow to green as we get closer to the cat’s hiding place. If we’re lucky, Tigger won’t manage to wriggle out of the collar and his days as a stealth cat will be over. We’ll see.

Karen S. Sibert is an associate professor of anesthesiology, Cedars-Sinai Medical Center, Los Angeles, CA.  She blogs at A Penned Point.

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