The needle is less than a quarter of an inch long and laser thin, its point disappears to almost nothing. I gather Cleo’s skin between the thumb and fingers of my left hand and push the needle into her fur, I expect some resistance when it reaches her skin and I expect a reaction from Cleo. But there is none, no pulling away or twitching or growling or hissing, and there is no resistance, no definite moment when the thin point of the needle contacts anything but air.
Cleo is happily eating her evening meal as I pull at her skin and poke the needle into the gray fur at the back of her neck. She is even purring, I realize, and I am sure I am doing it wrong, so I pull back and try again. I am skeptical that the needle has even found her skin, but it must have, so I push the plunger, remove the needle, check her fur for dampness. It is dry, but the amount of insulin is so small, just two units on the tiny syringe that I think perhaps I wouldn’t even notice it in her fur.
The vet was 99% sure it was diabetes when we took Cleo in to figure out why she was walking funny. Her back legs thumped loudly on the floor when she walked, putting her weight on her hocks instead of on her feet where it should be. She became wobbly at times and plodded slowly up and down the stairs, seeming to put a lot of thought in to her next move when she used to run with reckless abandon, and when she tried to jump on to the couch she only made it half way before sliding back to the floor.
This sort of nerve damage is common in diabetic cats, we are told, glucose toxicity and cell starvation. We feel terrible. How long has this been going on? We ask each other. But we can’t remember. It’s not like we haven’t been paying attention, but Cleo has always lived on the periphery of things, her personality, though very distinct and intermittently loud, is constantly overshadowed by the neediness and egocentricities of everyone else in this house.
Cleo has always been somewhat elusive, which is why it took me being away for a couple of weeks to notice what turned out to be the first sign that something was wrong. “What happened to Cleo?” I said when I walked in the door mid-September, after my absence. She had dropped a bunch of weight. The cat who had always taken the shape of a well-inflated balloon, was suddenly half her “normal” size. When she sat down her back feet no longer disappeared beneath her overflowing belly.
But as I stared at this newly slimmed-down cat with concern, Chestnut appeared beside her, huge and round and just about bursting out of his skin. If Cleo hadn’t been right there I would have thought perhaps he’d eaten her.
Oh, I thought, mystery solved. Clearly Chestnut had been eating all the food, pushing Cleo out of the way to stuff his face with not just his own meals, but hers too. I had seen him do it before which is one of the reasons the cats are separated during meal times, though we had become lax about enforcing that over the summer.
I decided to look on the bright side, Cleo needed to lose weight anyway and with her new size as a starting point I began separating the cats again. Cleo ate in the bathroom with the door closed, giving her ample time to eat at her own pace while Chestnut bolted his food in the kitchen then wandered around meowing for more.
Cleo didn’t bulk up again, but I noticed a patch of hair missing from one of her front legs. That, I chalked up to a stress reaction to being starved because the fur seemed to be growing back in again now that she was actually getting something to eat. But I kept a closer eye on her, seeking her out in the house and paying her more attention. I wasn’t completely unworried.
And then the leg thing started and we knew there was definitely something wrong.
“Is she walking funny?” Morgan said one day.
“Maybe,” I said, though I think I was initially in denial.
“She seems awkward on the stairs,” he said another day.
“Yes,” I agreed. “But she’s not losing any more weight and her eyes are bright and she seems like herself.”
I really didn’t want something to be wrong with this cat who has been hardly any trouble her entire life with us. Except for occasionally letting her frustrations be known by peeing on random things, Cleo could mostly be counted on to be low-maintenance.
But, there it is. Diabetes. Insulin shots twice a day and special food, which Cleo eats behind the closed door of the bathroom. I kneel beside her dish and slip the barely there needle in amongst her fur, aim for her skin, hoping for the best, and Cleo just lets me do it.