Just over 12 years ago, a beautiful, lean and well-muscled orange tabby boy skulked and slinked low to the ground into our back yard—and started visiting our home. He was hungry and living outside during an exceptionally cold, wet winter when we were visited with constant storms and pelting rain. For three nights in a row, this orange beauty slinked across our patio to where our feral food bowls were located, right in front of our French doors, and scarfed up as much food as possible, before pivoting and discreetly walking away as quickly and quietly as he came. My first thought was that this orange tabby was a new feral joining our small band of neighborhood feral cats that I had taken responsibility to feed outside every night. These cats had come to depend on us for their nightly repast for many years now. But on second thought, I knew it was even more likely that this adult orange boy had probably been callously dumped and abandoned by some thoughtless person who decided to move away with one less belonging—tossing this helpless creature to fend for himself, while she or he went on their merry way. It was evident that he had been living outside for some time, as the tips of his ears were well chewed on—healed scars and wounds from cat fights that left him tattered, but alive. He was extremely fearful of seeing us in the window—so his physical contact with humans appeared to be long forgotten and now we were something to be feared. We were enemy number one for this boy.
For this handsome orange fellow who I named Marcello (after a handsome Italian man who visited my cat adoption site bringing rescued kittens), his timing could not have been better, because in two days I was volunteering to work at our local Spay-Neuter-Impact-Program (SNIP) clinic at our local county animal shelter in Martinez, California. Every year, my husband and I worked the 4-5 clinics since their inception, running transport and managing recovery after the cats’ surgeries. So, the next day, during a torrential rain storm, I dusted off my trusted trap and trapped this homeless boy when he came for his supper. When I heard the magic sound of the trap snapping abruptly shut I knew I had him. To a cat rescuer, the loud clang of a trap door slamming shut is pure music to our ears!
When we brought this wild boy inside, he was busy doing backflips, somersaults, and every gymnastic contortion possible inside the trap trying to escape his confinement. Little did Marcello know that this would be his last day of scavenging for food, fending off cat attacks, running from people, and surviving the out-of-doors. But Marcello still gave it the college try to escape and went ballistic on us. We carried this heavy boy up our stairs, placed him on our bathroom floor, and covered his trap with a large towel—and left him in the quiet of our bathroom until the early morning, when my husband and I would leave with him for the SNIP Clinic in Martinez and his days of being a hormonal tomcat would be over. That cold day in 2008 would change Marcello’s life forever—he was to be neutered, de-flead, de-wormed, vaccinated with the FVRCP upper-respiratory vaccine, and microchipped. Then after a long, hard day for all of us with some 125 homeless and feral cat spay and neuter surgeries, Marcello came home with us. He was tired too, and it was a long, hard day for him as well. So we fed him a good meal, gave him a cold bowl of water, and said good-night to him leaving him again in the dark letting him recover with some New Age music on low.
As Marcello slowly lost his testosterone (it takes about 1-2 months) and realized that he was safe from all the threats outside, he slowly blossomed into the sweet, fearful, timid, and most affectionate cat that I would come to know in a long time. Marcello’s affection was on another level, it was on steroids, and he would wrap and writhe around my body, purring loudly, and pushing into me. He would head-butt me over and over again, obsessively. Then after these passionate expressions of love, when it was time for me to leave, he would let me know it was not OK for me to go—and charge my ankles every chance he would get as I walked out the door. He would bite me hard, leaving his mark that he did not appreciate my leaving him—alone again. This experience has become a familiar one now with many rescue cats that have been abandoned and are afraid they will be abandoned again. So, after two long months of having my shins, ankles and calves be a chew-toy every day, hole-punched and bleeding—it stopped. Marcello felt safe now. I became his love object, and Marcello came to love only me for the next 11 years. I was his “it” person for the rest of his life. He was deathly afraid of my husband, and even more deathly afraid of any other human that came to our house including his pet sitters. But the love and devotion he had for me was profound and he expressed it at every opportunity, brushing my sides, butting his head into my body while lying on the bed, lying with me under the covers pressed hard against my body, and loving the moment each night when I came to bed to read and he would gallop to my side—mommy I’m here! He was my “lover boy” extraordinaire, my handsome hunk, my love bug—his affection was on steroids every single day. So you can imagine the pain I felt when I received an unexpected, shocking-even, terminal diagnosis last month, when Marcello was somewhere between the age of 15 to 20 years old (he’s a rescue cat, but at least 15 years of age).
Fast forward 12 years with Marcello being a very healthy cat up until this time. Except for this past year, when Marcello had started peeing inappropriately on our upstairs rugs (where he lives with three other rescue cats), peeing outside the litter box, pooping on the floor, and doing this routinely. Of course, I took him to our wonderful vet, Four Corners Veterinary Hospital in Concord, three times during the year for blood and urine tests to determine if he had a urinary-tract infection. But they always came back negative. But Marcello’s inappropriate urination and defecation continued, even after I tried every possible solution to address this problem—drops of Rescue Remedy rubbed into his ears, using the pheromone Feliway plug-ins in every room, changing litter box locations, adding two more litter boxes, adding new toys for enrichment—but nothing worked. It all failed. I finally reluctantly resorted to trying a couple of anti-anxiety medications, but after two months, even those did not make a difference. To Marcello’s chagrin, I did the only thing I could think of as a last resort—I transitioned him to live in our cottage with three other rescue cats. But he was miserable with his new kitty roommates—he was not happy with the change of scenery one single bit. This was just too much for Marcello, he acted depressed, dejected, and stressed, and every time I would leave the cottage he would jump into the open carrier (I had left it there for his comfort) and wait for me to take him with me, back upstairs. This was when I noticed he had started peeing in all of his cat beds. So once again, I loaded him up and off we went for another doctor checkup, this time I needed to get to the bottom of what was causing this chronic problem. Something physical was causing this I felt, I sensed it was not behavioral.
On February 10, 2019, I took Marcello to our veterinarian again Dr. Laura Becker, to run diagnostic tests once again for his inappropriate urination, excessive belly licking, prepuce licking, and the growing dilation of his prepuce that was raw from his neurotic licking. During his exam, Dr. Becker noticed with great concern how his prepuce had significantly thickened in circumference, and he had a slight but distinguishable blue/black discoloration on part of the prepuce skin. She was concerned that the discoloration was a possible tumor or cancer. I was stunned. This comment was so out of left field for me. This was not the outcome or diagnosis I anticipated at all, and cancer could not have been further from my mind. I never had a cancer cat. In fact, cancer had not even entered my mind, once. She sedated Marcello and took several tissue biopsies and sent them to a lab in Davis for a diagnosis. While at the vet’s office, Marcello was given a steroid injection to reduce the size of the tumor and we went home with some medications. The biopsy results came back several days later and revealed the worst possible outcome for Marcello—Malignant Amelanotic Melanoma. Followed by Neuro-endocrine Carcinoma or poorly differentiated carcinoma inside his prepuce, which would eventually grow to cause him to be unable to urinate. At Davis, a Fontana Masson stain was conducted to further support and verify the diagnosis of malignant melanoma. Confirmed. The results of his blood and urine test came back perfectly normal and healthy. My Marcello was dying.
Hoping for the best, I started Marcello on Gabapentin—a pain-killer—every day, along with Meloxicam, a non-steroidal anti-inflammatory every other day, and applied an antibiotic ointment to his prepuce morning and night, which I switched to Lidocaine later to numb any pain or discomfort he was feeling in that sensitive area. In addition, I gave Marcello fluids every other day to keep his urine clear and dilute to avoid pain while urinating. Surgery was not recommended for him due to the vulnerable, sensitive location of his cancerous tumor; radiation was out for the same reason; and chemotherapy would not target the cancerous growth, so would not be effective without the targeted radiation. The fear, and it was true, was that it had already spread. Malignant melanoma in cats and dogs is considered one of the fastest spreading cancers a pet can possibly have. And Marcello’s melanoma was located in a most unusual and rare place, almost unheard of according to his oncologist and vet. Most cats and dogs get melanomas on their head, in their eyes, or mouth, or on their lower legs. Malignant melanomas are extremely rare in cats, and melanomas in general, comprise less than 3% of all skin tumors in cats with approximately half of those being malignant. And malignant melanomas account for less than 1% of all oral tumors in cats.(1) So Marcello had like the rarest but most aggressive cancer he could have. Just devastating.
Unfortunately, malignant melanomas tend to be really destructive locally, and even after surgery to remove the tumors (if we could), they metastasize and spread quickly all over the body. I had started researching and reading every publication on the topic, and found the prognosis was extremely poor for him. Long-term survival rates are highly unlikely, what was typical is once the cancer has metastasized, the cat will likely live only 1-2 more months. I was stunned. So our attack, was to slow down the cancer’s progress with first anti-inflammatory Meloxicam, but when that didn’t work, we tried Prednisolone steroid pills. What we didn’t know, is that the cancer had already quickly spread to consume Marcello’s lungs. One month after his diagnosis in February, I took Marcello back to the vet to see if I could find out if his cancer had metastasized and by how much. I wanted to know how much time I had left with him, if any. So four weeks later, on March 15th, I took him in for X-rays and we found his lungs were a cobb web of cancer. I suspected something in his lungs because Marcello had started coughing—uncontrollably, followed by long periods of rapid, shallow breathing where he was stiff and still. These episodes really bothered him, he seemed ashamed at his loss of control, his new cough surely concerned him because he would slink up onto the bed with his head hanging low—like he was saying “I’m sorry mama.” I felt so much guilt for not being able to help him or heal him, or even buy him more time—with less suffering. I just didn’t want him to suffer, or die in agony, and I was tormented about what to do for him. He still had a good appetite, loved being petted, and slept well, but he hated the lidocaine I put on his prepuce. Then a week later he started choking on his pills. That wasn’t good. So I mashed his pills into Gerber’s baby food and syringed them in, one at a time, but that only lasted a few days. His lungs were having difficulty now with swallowing anything that wasn’t soft. And the cancer under his skin around his prepuce was growing–spreading like wildfire, it was like a monster part of his body now. And over time, he became sensitive to these hard masses, whereas he wasn’t before.
By Friday, I could see there was more pain and discomfort, and less pleasure for him. The scales were tipping—fast. Sunday was fast approaching, the day my vet’s office was closed, which is always a scary day for me. I was worried that Marcello’s lungs might quickly become consumed in fluid, suffocating him, and I wanted to avoid taking him to the emergency hospital–a new place. His rate of breathing had increased to double the normal rate, and it was round the clock, so I felt the time had come to let him go. I was struggling so much with this decision, because I have always had cats die of old age, or live so long that their organs were failing—I had never had to let an otherwise healthy cat go. It felt so unfair, so unjust. But I reminded myself he had lived 15-20 long years, and 12 of those years were very comfortable and happy. I thought, what would Marcello want? What would I want if I were him? Or if he were me? Cats live in the present, in the moment—to them, there is no “future” as we know it. They don’t see a future, or long for one, or live for one. Marcello’s life was not going to get better, it was going to get worse—and fast. So, with the help of my wonderful, loving cat friends who rallied for a consultation, and reaching out to a cat communicator, along with my vet—I decided that it was time. I decided to let him go the next day, a day before Sunday. And my trusted, compassionate, skilled veterinarian Dr. Becker was luckily working on Saturday—she saved the last hour for me and Marcello. All for us.
I spent the entire day with Marcello on Saturday, feeding him as much Gerber’s baby food as he would eat, reading my book on the bed with him as he slept, giving him endless pets and hugs and kisses as the hours past, and let him know how very much I loved him. I thanked him for finding us, and for entrusting us with his beautiful soul that so touched our lives. I thanked him for all the affection, head butts, squinted eyes, body presses, nightly purrs, and love that he shared with me every day for 12 beautiful years.
I brought Marcello into our vet the last hour they were open. It was quiet in the office. I carried him in a huge, soft, fluffy red blanket that he had come to know and was familiar with. We sat on the sofa in a quiet room with low-light designated for doing euthanasias. Marcello curled up in my arm pit pressing hard against me, getting as close as he possibly could–crawling into me as best he could. We sat there for a long time, just being. He never even felt the sedation going in so slowly, he had had fluids so he was used to the poke in the same place and fluids going in. To him it was just another day. Slowly, ever so slowly he fell asleep with the sedative, and he never knew what happened after that moment. He fell asleep and died in my arms. That’s how I wanted it for him, him knowing I was loving him till the very end. Marcello is now lying in state in our home upstairs –surrounded by all his kitty friends, and being honored for the beautiful soul he was and will always be to all of us.
We will love you forever Marcello, you will never be forgotten, you are in our hearts for as long as we live. We will see you when it is our time to go, when we will join you on the other side, over the rainbow bridge. Bye my buddy.
(1)Cat Health / Cat Diseases & Conditions A-Z / Malignant Melanomas in Cats, Dr. Mike Paul, DVM
The video is how Marcello loved to lay on his kitty pad next to my computer, and spend hours being the most wonderful company anyone could ask for. He would look up at me with those happy, squinted eyes and my heart would melt.