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I Was Never a Cat Person … Until I Met Whitney

Posted by at 5:48 AM | Permalink | Comments (34)


whitney1“You’re a vet, and you’ve never lived with a cat?” Until I graduated veterinary school, I had to plead, “Yes,” whenever this question crossed my path (although I didn’t think it was a very big deal). I grew up with numerous wonderful dogs, whose love and companionship inspired me to become a veterinarian. As almost all my interactions with cats took place in an animal hospital, I have to say that for the most part, I didn’t think I was missing much. All the cats who hissed at me or scratched me–even if they were simply acting out of fear–only cemented my somewhat negative impression of the species … until I met Whitney.

I was a new vet, working about 100 hours per week and wrapping up my internship year at the prestigious Animal Medical Center in New York City. I had just been accepted into a teaching residency at U.C. Davis, and I was looking forward to my first trip to California. Despite spending so many hours at the hospital, I had managed to deflect all possible matchmaking efforts; I didn’t have an animal companion and intended to keep it that way until I got out West.

One eventful day, a black-and-white 3-year-old male cat who decided to chew on an electric cord ended up in our intensive care unit with lung congestion and some nasty burns on his lips. The rumor was that he had been “dumped” once his bill exceeded $1,000, even though his recovery was complete. Certain guardians (in this case, a term used loosely) elected to simply “disappear” and abandon their companions if the bill or nature of the animal’s recovery did not meet their satisfaction. This was a rude awakening at the start of my internship, but by the time Whitney was left behind, I had already seen it happen many times to many wonderful animals.

One of my colleagues started to play animal “yenta” (a Yiddish phrase for matchmaker), parading me in front of his cage on a daily basis. I resisted for a while, but I finally acquiesced and schlepped a 12-pound cat up to my third-story walk-up apartment. The first thing he did upon seeing my place was to try and go out the window–not the best beginning to my experiment as a “cat person.” I proceeded to spend the rest of the summer with the windows cracked open ever so slightly (there were no screens or AC!).

whitney2By the time we moved to California, the transition was easing for both of us. I recall making a rookie mistake in placing my precious record albums on the bottom shelf in the living room. I arrived home that evening to find Whit had used the album sleeves as a scratching post, rendering the names of the artists unintelligible. The next day, I got him (us?) a scratching post. Whitney and I moved together from Davis to Pasadena, to Ohio, and then finally to the Bay area, where we lived for the next 10 years.

After Whit’s 15th birthday, I noted that he seemed to be losing weight. I took him in to my hospital for a checkup and confirmed a 1-pound drop in weight. Basic tests, including ultrasound, were all normal. I performed an endoscopy the next day, and biopsies confirmed low-grade intestinal cancer. Although I had seen this dozens of times before, my name had never appeared as the client on those other biopsy reports. After crying, I decided we would grit our teeth and pursue aggressive medications with an expected 12-month survival time.

Shortly after starting treatment, I spoke to a group of about 20 veterinarians and presented Whitney as the case example, showing off a recent picture to make the point that the subject of our discussion was my best friend. After providing the history and handing out copies of the normal testing, I asked if they would have advised Whitney’s caretaker to pursue additional testing. No one raised a hand. I was stunned as I proceeded to hand out the results of the biopsies.

At the end of the discussion, one colleague approached me and said, “Look, I mean the cat is 15 years old–he’s gonna be dead soon. I’m glad your cat is well, but I’m not going to recommend intervention.” The lack of consideration that Whitney (and I) received from my colleagues hit me hard. This lecture subsequently inspired me to write articles and lead panel discussions regarding the role of veterinarians as animal advocates. As a result, I’m honored to be invited to speak to the veterinary students at U.C. Davis each year on the topic of animal advocacy.

Whitney and I were together more than 14 years and said goodbye when he was almost 18. Although I had lots of time to prepare, we’re never ready for the end, and I was no exception. Coming home after work with no one to greet me or to look after left me as empty as I’ve ever felt in my life. I’ve shared my life with cats ever since. Whit’s illness has made me more empathetic toward my clients as they go through similar experiences with their beloved cats. I was never a “cat person” … until I met Whitney.

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    Cat Scratching Posts says...

    December 28th, 2008, 1:13 pm

    Sorry to hear about your cat.

    Laura says...

    December 28th, 2008, 2:06 pm

    Hi Dr. Barry,

    What a sweet story. So glad you were there with Whitney throughout his whole life and at the end when he really needed you the most. And I love hearing that Whitney inspired you to write articles and give speeches on animal advocacy for veterinarians. I wish you were my vet!

    Myshkin says...

    December 29th, 2008, 12:33 pm

    Dr. Barry,
    This brought tears to my eyes. It should be required reading for not only all vet students, but anyone considering adopting an animal! Thanks for writing it.

    Tove PisaRelle Reese says...

    December 30th, 2008, 6:26 pm

    I think what you’re doing at U.C. Davis is fantastic and should be mandatory at all vet schools. I also believe that the hypocratic oath for doctors should be the same for animals,”First do no harm.” I’ve always been a cat person and when I married my husband he was ambiguous to them, certainly didn’t dislike them, but I had a rescue persian who would basically “approve” of anyone who came over and he definitely approved of my husband to be. He fell in love with my cat over the 9 years we had him and when we finally had to euthanize him due to kidney failure you’ve never seen two people cry so hard. He really grew attached to our Austin. Now my husband wouldn’t have any other animals than cats, they rock! Keep up the great work at the vet schools.

    carolyn craft says...

    January 1st, 2009, 9:06 pm

    Well done Doctor!!

    Friends like Whiteney and Paco will be with us forever….and maybe give us rise to persue things we might have not done if we had not been lucky enough to be their best friends…..

    Sandy Cull says...

    January 2nd, 2009, 5:38 pm

    Dr.Barry,
    Thank you for your beautiful story, and even more so for your truly compassionate spirit. Whether talking about cats (my personal favourite!!) or any other living being, I wish everyone realized the genuine honour and privilege involved in going the extra mile to do ease suffering and provide joy and comfort.

    I hope you continue to share your insights and also your stories about your love for Whitney with other veterinarians for years to come. Thank you!!

    Nancy Ehrlich Lapid says...

    January 2nd, 2009, 5:45 pm

    A lovely story, Barry.

    Pattie Gallo says...

    January 2nd, 2009, 5:55 pm

    Hello Doc,

    What a great story showing who truly amazing animals in our life are. The best part of your story is that you hadIthree addtional years with him due to your love and compassion. Bravo! I love all animals and find myself saving them wherever I go. I travel 2-3 weeks a month and I am always finding and helping animals. My husband and I are both animal lovers and with our lifesyle, cats fit much better. We have no children of the human kind though our 7 (yes, I said 7) cats are our children. They each come when their name is called, they sleep with us every night and they allow us to live in their home. We seem to be unable to get away from the number seven. As one passes on through illness another seems to adopt us. I wish more vets were like you. If your goal is not to save and prolong their lives……..why be a vet?

    Christina says...

    January 2nd, 2009, 7:28 pm

    Hi Dr. Barry,

    Thank you for writing this article. I know exactly how you feel – I had always been a dog person as well, until my sister brought home a stray black cat who we named Bazooka. On Christmas night, we had to take Bazooka to the emergency vet. It turned out he had a urinary blockage, and we could not afford the treatment. We had to have him euthanized. He wasn’t even 3 years old yet. It’s been just over a week, and it’s still very hard for me emotionally. Bazooka was such a sweet, loving cat, and I feel that there will never be another cat like him. I am in the process of applying to vet school, and I definitely agree with you that experiences like this will make me more empathetic toward clients. It’s a shame that Bazooka did not have a full life like Whitney, but it’s important to remember the love our pets gave us, and how they showed us what’s really important in life.

    cat_mom says...

    January 2nd, 2009, 8:21 pm

    This was a most wonderful story to read. Animals seem to have a way of wheedling into our hearts. They are much better friends than most people.
    It just shows that with extra intervention he had 3 more years with this beautiful cat. So, it is worth it. But he had the advantage of access to all the equipment and meds, unlike most of us. And he knew what he was doing.

    Evelyn Vaughn says...

    January 2nd, 2009, 10:31 pm

    I have always been a cat person. Cats are wonderful and your story of Whitney was a tear jerker. I too, wish you were my vet. I have five cats and they all found my husband and I. In fact my last two just moved in about a month ago, both very skinny but they’re looking better each day. I
    can’t say my other three are to happy yet. Thank you for your loving story.
    My cats are Blue, Blaze, Smoke, Cleo and Little Boo.

    Kim says...

    January 2nd, 2009, 10:44 pm

    “Whitney” was in your life to give you love and “show you the way” – and how fortunate for the many cats to follow that Whitney chose you.

    Wishing you every success with your caring and compassionate role.

    Rosie Descalsote says...

    January 3rd, 2009, 12:31 am

    Very nice. I just wish we have a very dedicated Vets like you in our country. Whitney is very lucky. Kudos!

    Lillian Marie A. Laruan says...

    January 3rd, 2009, 9:25 am

    Hi, Dr. Barry your story brought tears to my eyes… I had lots of cats. Some were poisoned by rat poisons left under floors of houses, some mauled by big dogs..and it always broke my heart. The most cat we had at one time were 11 cats… Now we are down to only two… India Ink is a rescued kitten while Samwise was one of the original cats…

    Jackie says...

    January 3rd, 2009, 12:39 pm

    Congrats Dr. Barry.
    Having just rescued a little cat from the big outdoors, I can relate to what you are doing. She was injured and starving,but even though it took 3 mos. to get her into my home I finally succeeded. Now my main problem is to get her used to my 2 other kitties. I’m sure she’ll do this at her own pace. My other two are very curious and are very sweet natured, so they wouldn’t hurt her.

    Elaine says...

    January 3rd, 2009, 3:28 pm

    Your story brought tears to my eyes, as I thought about my four girl cat children and their varying ages, two at 10, one 9 and one 2. I have buried others and always get the same feeling when I think of losing one, tears well up and I think of how lost I will feel. I cannot understand what was wrong with those docs, they should recognize that many animals are part of a human family and as such, their family will do anything they can to save them. My 2 year old became ill last year, we took her to the ER vet and at a cost of almost $2000, took her home the next day. I would do it again in a heartbeat. Thanks for a great story.

    Scott says...

    January 3rd, 2009, 4:18 pm

    What a moving story! I am a cat guy who currently lives with two wonderful rescued cats. I know you will agree that cats provide endless (okay, almost) love and companionship.

    Alan says...

    January 3rd, 2009, 4:40 pm

    My name is Alan & shortly before Christmas , I lost my best friend – my Meow Meow kitty. He was a stray & adopted me in about 1996. I lost another kitty about 6 yrs ago & that was the hardest thing I have ever been through until now. It is impossible to tell anyone who is not an “animal person” how attached a person can be to their furry friend, so I won’t try. I’m sure most of you know. I am not a young man & have no children . I live alone , well except for my four legged friends. Losing Meow was rather sudden & I am still not over it. My last buddy is Gangway kitty, also a stray who came to me in 2000 at about 6 mo. old. She is very depressed too & I’m woried about her. I try to get her to lay in my lap when i watch TV & she will, but I can see ahe is really down & misses her friend, who she was with since comming to live with us 9 yrs ago. I know it is hard for her & she doesn’t understand. I love my kids, as I call them, so much I hate to see her suffer. I also never had much to do with cats until Meow cam into my life, & it took a little getting used to, but once a kitty wraps him or herself around your heart, they are there to stay–forever.Thanks for reading my thoughts & feelings. May God bless all of you & your ” best friends ” . Alan

    Pamela says...

    January 4th, 2009, 9:09 pm

    Thank you for sharing your story. I am sorry for your loss. Whether human or animal, a best friend is a best friend. By using Whitney as a compassionate teaching example, he lives on in legacy.

    Ruth W. says...

    January 6th, 2009, 9:47 am

    I’m giving my 17 year old cat an IV every other day for his kidneys. I opted to do this at home as opposed to paying $300.00 each visit. I found out that you’d be surprised what you are able to do when you need to help a living creature. He’s acting like a kitten again and is so grateful that he has help with his needs. (This is equivalent to a human being on a dialysis machine for treatment.) Animals can’t help themselves when they are ill until we step in and can give them back a quality of life they deserve. I commend Dr. Kipperman for doing what she did with Whitney and fully understand. I am always ignoring people who tell me I’m crazy for doing this, for they don’t see Biscuit playing and running around the house not caring how old or sick he is. Until he is really unable to go on, I’ll take care of his needs.

    Chris Spehert says...

    January 8th, 2009, 4:45 pm

    That was a really great story. Thank you for giving that wonderful cat the love, respect and compassion that all living creatures deserve. I’ve long since realized that we cannot save every animal (from humans on down) but we can do our part to light out little corner of the world!

    April says...

    January 8th, 2009, 5:26 pm

    Thank you for sharing your story. My cat will be 15 this summer and he is my absolute best friend/soul mate. We, as humans, HAVE to take care of our animal friends. I consider him my child and would do whatever it takes to care for him. You make that committment when you make the choice to get a cat.

    MARIELA says...

    January 12th, 2009, 1:09 am

    AW! That`s so sad. I cried.
    I`m living with a female cat and she`s awsome and I love her. I love cats. She`s so smart and cute. Ppl can be really awful sometimes

    Felicity says...

    January 20th, 2009, 10:20 am

    Your story made me cry! I love cats ever since I was a kid through “Hello Kitty” (the cutest feline in the world created by Sanrio) but my rented apartment doesn’t allow us to own any pets (so sad). We will move soon and we will be starting to look an apartment wherein pets are allowed. ^~_~^

    Marcia Mueller says...

    October 30th, 2009, 4:13 pm

    Wonderful story. Sounds as if Whitney taught you the most important lesson you learned as a veterinarian. Keep up the good work!

    Ruth says...

    October 30th, 2009, 10:54 pm

    I was never a cat person until my brother found a tiny kitten in the backyard of my mom and dad’s house.

    My mom named him felix she did everything for him.

    He made everyone in the house happy he was a good cat.

    When my mom passed away felix was so sad he did not eat, drink he would sit in the corner of my mom’s bedroom and look at her bed all day.

    Felix passed away 8 month’s after my mom passed.

    Felix made me come to love cat’s

    MARCIA HANNA says...

    October 31st, 2009, 1:07 am

    I AM CRYING AFTER READING YOUR STORY. I AM SO SORRY.
    I HAVE 4 RESCUED CATS, HOMER, DULCE, LOBO AND LITTLE PUMA. THEY ARE MY BIGGEST HAPPINES IN LIFE. THEY SLEEP WITH ME AND I DO EVERYTHING FOR THEM. THEY ARE THE MOST IMPORTANT CREATURES IN MY LIFE. GOD BLESS ALL ANIMALS IN THE WORLD. GOD BLESS DOCTORS LIKE YOU. GOD BLESS ALL PEOPLE WHO LOVE AND RESPECT ANIMALS.

    Merilyn Phillips says...

    November 1st, 2009, 2:38 pm

    What a wonderful man you are Dr. Kipperman! Your story is a real tear-jerker and here I am at work crying my eyes out. I’m always scared to open PETA stories as I know I will likely cry my eyes out. There is a wonderful vet like you in the Cayman Islands, where I’m from. Dr. Brenda Bush is a God send to the animals of Cayman. She has recently had some health problems with bloodclots. She is originally from the US. Please pray for her. God bless all of you animal care-givers. Wish I’d become a vet.

    Cindy Merrill says...

    January 8th, 2010, 5:59 pm

    My landlady won’t allow cats in the house- there are two semi-domestic cats that live outdoors on the property- and she puts food out and there’s crawl space under the porch & the garage & there’s a horse stable nearby. We live in the basement- there’s a sheltered alcove at the base of our stairs so I fixed up a couple of make shift beds- and they’ve been sleeping there at night. I also feed them kitten chow- it has more calories and easier to digest ( one of the cats is approx. 12, the other 5 years old)

    Constance says...

    January 8th, 2010, 7:05 pm

    after reading this story i know now for sure what i have always felt in my heart. an hour before reading this i was sitting at home in my driveway feeling heavy hearted confused and upset. i had been looking for our outdoor cat who adopted us about 4 years ago as akitten. my husband built him a nice insulated home on our back deck and he has been with us ever since. a few days ago i noticed he was sick. the minuet i opened the door i knew it. i won’t go into too much detail but it seems his insides were comming out of him. when i called the vet he mentioned a few things and also mentioned uthinasia. my heart sank because in my mind i knew that would have to be the option. i could not afford to pay for surgey for him. ( i have 3 golden retreivers and 2 cats in the house) all day i thought how could i go back on everything i believe and have my little fury sweetheart put to sleep because i can’t afford to fix him but i do not want him to suffer?!! he is one of the family! when it came time for his apointment i went to get him and he was gone. i cancelled the appointment and made another. i came back to work sat down and opened my mail and here was this story. i know now this all happened for a reason and i will keep that vet appointment but this time i will find a way to keep our little Peek-A-Boo with us no matter what it takes. having a vet who would be interested in helping us out and saving Peeks would be beyond my prayers. thank you for the right story at the right time.

    Roxy says...

    January 9th, 2010, 6:11 pm

    Thank you so much for sharing your story with us and thank you for being such a wonderful advocate for the animals. There needs to be more vets like you.

    James says...

    March 20th, 2010, 8:07 pm

    I was never a cat person. In fact, I was less than enthusiastic when my wife brought home a 2 month old balls of white and caramel fur. I let her keep it with two conditions: 1) she takes care of the litter box. 2) I get to name him. A year later I can hardly imagine coming home and not being met at the door by my furry buddy, Tony. He certainly has found a place in my heart.

    Cat Scratching Post says...

    June 25th, 2010, 5:59 am

    Thank you for sharing that with everyone, very sad! 14 years is a long time together.

    Susan Navidad says...

    March 25th, 2012, 4:22 am

    Thank you for sharing what has to be a painful story for you. I wish all vets cared like you do. I’ve met so many who don’t.

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