Our beautiful bull terrier Kitty died last Thursday.
I hate that sentence.
She meant more to me than words can tell. I just want to pin this to the page before memories slip away. Even they aren’t enough.
She saved me, but that’s not it. That’s a selfish reason to love anything. She was cheeky, tough, stubborn, funny, giving, protective, loving, playful, brave, fun, smarter than she’d let most people know.
My sister and I sometimes get on really well, and sometimes barely at all. We’ve both been outsiders of sorts. But she’ll always be the one who brought Kitty into my life. I’ll always appreciate her for that.
Visiting Robyn’s place near Xmas back in 2008, I overheard her telling a friend that there was an English Bull Terrier puppy on death row at the pound, with maybe just 2 days left.
Thanks to our Dad we grew up with bull terriers, but I’d never had my own dog.
She’d been found wandering a street on the north shore of Sydney with half a leash attached to her, chewed. Anybody wanting to find her could have. Pure white bull terrier puppies don’t usually turn up at the pound. She would always walk away from a situation she didn’t like, so I’d guessed some people or their intentions were lousy.
Once the vet knew she was being homed, they desexed her. During the operation her last puppy tooth fell out, so counting back about 5 months I figured she was an August baby. August 8 2008 – 8/8/08 seemed the easiest birthday to remember.
Kitty was amazing – bouncy, full strength. Total badass Eartha Kitt had just died, plus in the Inner West her name later worked to shift expectations. Idiots seeing a bull terrier and expecting the dog would be called Death Machine or Testicle would be discouraged from talking further. Labradoodle owners ferrying their babies to safety would question their reaction.
Her first ride in the back of the car, in a cardboard box lined with towels and a cushion took her from Thornleigh in Sydney’s north to a rock pool near Tamarama on the eastern beaches, over an hour’s drive.
She didn’t make a single unhappy sound the whole way. I just wanted to help her wash off the pound stink and let her know a better life was starting. Living in a 2-bedroom flat I still wasn’t committed to being her fulltime human. I just wanted to get her safe and into a good home.
She strutted around the rockpool to a couple of girls who were sharing a long neck. She knocked the bottle over and started lapping up the beer. She was awesome.
It was another long drive home to Petersham. Another drive across town the next night to introduce her to Dad, thinking he might want to have a bull terrier again and knowing that she’d be in a good home. He was delighted to meet a bullie pup, but 70-something-year-olds aren’t necessarily looking to take on a puppy. She was mine for good now.
Kitty saved me from myself. It was 8 months since I’d had to start managing type 1, maybe 12 months since I’d quit smoking and started running. Studies had taken a sideline. Then this furry little life changed mine.
The first time Kitty made even a whimper was maybe two weeks later, at the dog park next to Café Bones. She knocked my coffee over on her foot and gave a short whine. This would be her way in life – never complaining, never easily bothered, never weak.
Bull terriers are like this, stoic. It takes a lot to upset them, and a lot more to put them off their food.
Food aggression was the only thing I ever made sure to train her about. Like Michael at the Café said, any big dog like a bull terrier or a shepherd is going to get the blame for anything that happens in a social situation, unless they’re running the other way yelping with their tail between their legs. That would never be her, and I would never let anything happen to her because of other people’s perceptions. I would stand over her and hold my hand on her chest until she was comfortable eating like that. She was so quick to learn, this took two feeds to unlearn whatever she’d brought home from the pound and her previous situation.
The following Xmas she survived a gnarly health scare. At any vet practice you can find practitioners from opposite ends of the spectrum. Some just seem to want to increase your bill even though they haven’t solved anything. But at the same place there’ll also be a vet who lives to save animals.
That’s the kind of vet who took care of Kitty on her second visit to Erskineville Animal Hospital. After diagnosing pancreatitis and related complications, and using some creative diagnostics so I wouldn’t have to sell my car to be able to afford next steps, Bas saved Kitty. He would be her vet for the next 9 years, wherever I had to drive from for her to see him.
One time when she was young, I didn’t know any better and let her chew on corn cobs a couple of times. Stupid, right? She got through them fine, but then one day she got so sick from one that didn’t pass through. I stayed home with her for four days until she seemed better. When I finally went out, she was sick again. She could have exploded anywhere in the flat – she jumped into the bathtub.
A young bull terrier, home alone, jumped into the bathtub to be sick so she wouldn’t mess up the carpet or the rest of the house.
So Bas had to take care of a stoic bull terrier who’d rarely hint that anything was wrong, and a first-time owner eager to learn but still making some stupid mistakes.
Thank you Bas.
When she was young she’d eat a frozen chicken carcass whole in about 30 seconds flat.
She loved lakes and oceans. One of the first times I took her to the beach, there happened to be a bull terrier cross cattle dog swimming in the waves. He looked just like her and even though he was built lighter and much more buoyant, I think she decided then that she could swim too.
She’d often swim out as far as I went, wherever I was, her feet sometimes not touching sand for an hour, her butt floating up behind her like a buoyancy device.
When I ran in Japan, a bull terrier silhouette facing the Aussie kangaroo was like a crest, a connection to home, a reminder to be brave and stubborn.
She’d drag sticks twice her size.
She’d roll around with other dogs on hot days until she was too exhausted to stand.
She’d always squish herself into hilarious positions in the car just to be close to you.
She’d sleep anywhere, like she was boneless, her head and neck dangling straight down from chairs or beds or twisted under her at impossible angles.
As she got older she never stopped being playful, and loving, and always being there. For fun she’d walk past the screen door in our home, winding up the outside dogs, acting like she didn’t know what she was doing, then waggling her body at them with her shoulders down and chest on the ground, barking and spinning away from them.
Lately I’d been taking Kitty to a vet near us, Rachel at Sylvania. She was awesome enough for Kitty, which says a lot. We hadn’t been talking palliative care, we hadn’t been thinking about end of life. We’d been thinking about quality of life.
Early in the year, Rachel took off a nipple that had been repeatedly infected. The surgery was clean and neat. Kitty was better off without a piece of skin that had been chewed on and got gristly and kept catching on her claw whenever she gave herself a really good scratch. She was a dog who had long ago let a prematurely weened dog repeatedly chomp on her nipple until it was deformed.
Then came the curveball. A couple of months ago Kitty had digestive troubles that weren’t resolving from any of the usual approaches. Rachel recommended a scan. We expected to find a cancer near Kitty’s spleen or stomach. The scan showed a mass and Rachel’s team operated to take out Kitty’s spleen, hoping to keep her safe from the risk of it erupting and spreading.
But the news was good. The mass was a non-cancerous infarct, essentially a blood clot on the spleen. And while Rachel was operating she felt something strange in Kitty’s stomach and investigated.
This was a dog who at separate times in her life had eaten – without any physical consequence – the crotch from a pair of Levi’s, the heel leather out of a pair of boots, half a pillow case, a wallet, and pooped an entire intact dressing gown cord.
And she got brought undone by 3 inches of bright yellow canvas she swallowed when she ate the strap off my HOKA duffel bag.
This had gone missing from my bag in late October. Here we were in late November and Rachel had found what had been bouncing around in Kitty’s stomach causing her upset for the last month.
I’d been talking with Rachel about how to help Kitty’s eyes. She literally couldn’t cry – her eyes didn’t produce enough fluid to clean themselves properly. This had been an issue for years, even after we’d tried the ointments and the drops and everything that ought to help. The one thing that would really clear her eyes up had been antibiotics, usually taken for other things, like her infected nipple. But we would gently clean her eyes out daily with a wet gauze pad.
When she could see really well, she’d do the bullie run around the bedroom, or kitchen or house. When she couldn’t see so well because of gunk in her eye, she’d just move slower. She’d walk straight into things – which is almost what bullies are built for – but then she’d just reorient and get where she was going. She was already a dog who’d use her face to knock on doors when she wanted in or out.
This was where we were with Kitty when the conversation was paused by having her spleen out. When she came home post-op on Fentanyl I felt horrid for her. Even perfectly performed surgeries are brutal on the body. For about three days I felt like I’d killed her.
But she really came back to herself, cheeky, playful, always against your legs in the kitchen, always ready for a snack to drop from our 16-month-old baby Joanie during one of her feedings.
She’d lost weight in a healthy way, she was more active, she was loving it in the garden, doing the bullie trance under bushes.
Then on Thursday afternoon she just locked up, her hips were up, her legs were shaking, her shoulders were down. Her front feet had slid forward under her mat and her head was off-centre, tipped to the right and she couldn’t right it.
She lives mostly in the room where I work. We’re there together a lot. As soon as I saw her in this posture I realized I hadn’t heard her heavy snoring or deep breathing for the last five minutes. She must have been prone like this just wanting help, but made no sound, just struggled on.
After trying to help her back up straight I lay down with her on her side and her back to my chest with my arms around her and just told her everything was ok and to relax. I felt for her heart and stroked her gently to help soothe her. I told her everything would be ok.
I called out to Hailey who came running from the other end of the house. I tried to sound calm. I told her what was happening. Hailey rallied and prepped the van with towels and a cushion for Kitty and strapped Joanie in to her baby seat. I didn’t want to go. I didn’t think she’d make it. I didn’t want her last moments to feel like surgical steel and the shock of life being forced on her. I didn’t want to move her. She was lying here at home.
Hailey saved the moment, saying if anything could help her we had to try.
I’d seen a big beautiful old German Shepherd go through this a month ago at the vet when I went there on a Sunday to get meds for Kitty and an emergency call came in. It was like some kind of stroke, with potential to be immediately catastrophic or improve over days. That dog did not make it.
I sat in the back with Joanie and Kitty. I didn’t see anything of the drive, just Kitty and Hailey racing to save her, Joanie being a bundle of love without any idea what was happening next to her.
Fortunately at the vet, Rachel happened to be there. I think she was working late after finishing her shift. She took over from the admitting vet. I could not have supported anything that came later from anyone but Rachel. We talked about what it might be while I held Kitty close to me. Kitty’s heart rate was high. Her eyes were tracking rapidly and repeatedly from a low position upward and back again. It was like another key sense had been disrupted and her body or brain was now looking for other senses to orientate. A clot disrupting brain function or mini stroke or similar seemed most likely.
Kitty had walked in the front yard at our home before she got in the car, timid but capable. We put her on to the ground in the back of the vet practice and she seemed to walk and try to inspect her surroundings as though function was almost returning. I felt hope. I felt like she’d be ok. We talked about a low dose blood thinner, something to help her be ok.
Something so that we could take her to the beach one last time, so that we could make sure the last week of her life wouldn’t have any other health complications, so that we could get her through this. The risk of horrible outcomes would be there if clots formed again, depending where. They could wreck her brain function, paralyse her back legs, damage organs. But she seemed to be almost ok, like she was rallying.
We put her back on a different table in one of the surgical rooms to take her blood pressure. At least this was more peaceful than the rest of the rooms. I was holding her while the machine beeped erratically. She was tense but relaxing into me. I kept telling her it was alright.
Then she tensed again. The practitioner assisting Rachel could see from the front that Kitty’s head had tilted hard back off centre, her eyes were tracking rapidly again. I don’t even know if she was seeing anything or anymore. I tried to stay calm for Kitty. I told her she would be ok.
Rachel asked if she should get Hailey and Joanie in from the front room. I’d raced in with Kitty from the car while Hails parked. Yes please, thanks Rachel.
We were all together, Hailey and Joanie and Kitty. Rachel gave us all the space we needed. This was my best friend of over 12 years. She’d slept in the same bed as me for almost half her life. The last thing she’d ever eaten was a piece of cheese that fell behind Joanie’s nursing chair. She’d made my life more than it could have ever been.
I have never felt the ache of a harder decision. I’d given the nod but I think Hailey had to back me up.
Scans, drugs, whatever, nothing was going to make this better.
I’d buried my face in her fur as soon as the needle went in and kept talking to her.
I was holding Kitty close against me, her arm in my hand, my face against her neck, telling her that everything was going to be ok, that there would be sunshine and bacon and beaches and love and that everything would be fine and she would always be loved, that she was the best bull terrier ever.
My hand felt for her heartbeat but it had gone. Rachel checked without moving me away at all, working around me. I just kept holding Kitty, just lost in her weight. When I lifted my head the three large vials of bright green fluid that had been brought in however long ago were now empty. After the first had started to be administered I had no idea the others had already followed.
I don’t know how long Kitty could still hear or feel us there with her after the anaesthetic started, but all she got from us was love and thanks.
It feels like I regret so many moments now that weren’t spent holding her or throwing frisbee for her, or at the beach together, or not giving her one last piece of bacon, not brushing her one last time, chewing one last big stick, wrestling one last time, tugging on a rope with her one last time. We travelled a lot and sometimes she’d come with us, to a pet friendly Air b’n’b. Usually she’d stay home. Our neighbours loved her too. They’d take care of her.
Hailey lifted our spirits in the moment saying she’d always be with us, meaning that her fur is everywhere and in everything and yes it is, and yes she will.
Joanie killed me with a moment of innocent wisdom. It was like she knew what this was, like she was seeing beyond, but not weighed down by the drama we were in. Most times she ever went to say Kitty, it was a two-syllable nasal thing, the same ‘kngh-ngh’ every time. Held in Hailey’s arms, upright against her shoulder, looking at Kitty, saying ‘kngh-ngh, buh-bye’ with a stiff-armed wave of her little hand. Killed me.
She was such a big soul in life. I keep coming back to that, however devastated I’m feeling. It will be enough, it will have to be enough. Because now, that’s all there is. It’s that sudden. My beloved friend is just gone.
All I’d wanted was for her to be here when we had our first child, so she could meet the new life, so Joanie would know Kitty. And now I wanted her to see Joanie grow up, and now she never will, not any more.
I stayed awake most of the night. Did I choose right for her? Did she need help and instead I put her to sleep? Would anything I could have said or done differently had a better ending? Would everything else have been death by a thousand cuts?
It all happened on my first day at home for the week. We wondered if she’d held on, if she’d waited. I don’t think she knew it was coming. This would be more unbearable if I hadn’t been here for her, if Hailey had been forced to make a horrible decision.
This was just meant to be about Kitty, about an incredible dog, a unique bull terrier, a ball of energy who inspired the guy 3 doors down from us one time to get himself a bull terrier too, who helped friends’ kids with their dog anxieties, dog who loved to play with others, who was submissive but only up to a point. She loved rumbling with dogs twice her size and probably thought she was bigger than them.
I remember her going to my Dad’s favourite chair at home and looking for him a few years ago after he passed.
Ages before that, when she was much younger, I threw the frisbee for her while we were playing in the water at Yarra Bay, part of Botany Bay. The wind grabbed it and took it high, out to deep water. She swam for it instantly. All I was picturing were sharks and a drowned dog. I clenched my arms around her waist to save her from her own bravery. She dragged me until I was chest deep, trailing my feet across sea urchins, their spines breaking off in my toes.
I held her that tightly.
I wish I could hold her that tightly just one more time.
We love you Kitty, more than you loved sunshine.
You shaped our lives. You will never be equaled.
We miss you so much.