The strange medical odyssey of Tiny Cat

As regular readers know, I had to pay USD$600 in shady cat-graft to get my two, dime-a-dozen Singapore drain cats, Tiny and Xiao Xiong, out of Chinese kitty Stalag when they first arrived in China. (How’s that for your Foreign Corrupt Practices? I appear to be some kind of recidivist.)  My reward for this demonstration of heartwarming, “pets are for life” commitment was four months of complaints about the lack of wildlife available for murdering. Then Tiny got sick, and my wife and I spent every day of the Spring Festival, China’s biggest holiday, at the vet.

The first symptom was the complete evaporation of his appetite. To know Tiny is to know how alarming this was. He’s not so much a cat as a fuzzy, ironically named jet engine that ingests all loose objects in his path, and, perforce, emits a noxious stream of pollutants and gas from the rear. This cat can hear the workmen at Goldfields open their tins of luncheon meat seventeen floors below us. He never met a meal he didn’t like.

Appetite loss turned into vomiting. Finally, we awoke one morning just before the Spring holiday to find cat puke meticulously arranged on every fabric surface in the house (couch, living room rug and hallway runner), and thought it might, perhaps, be time to go to the vet.

We hoisted Tiny off to the Beijing KPK Veterinary World Hospital, in the vet and pet shop ghetto on Gongtibeilu, west of the Worker’s Gymnasium. It didn’t take long for Dr. Xiang to make a diagnosis: liver failure.

My cat has liver failure? From what? His late night Maotai benders?

Brought on by obesity, you see. She pointed to a simple silhouette chart on her office wall, apparently designed for dullards like me, which showed a thin cat shape, normal cat shape, and obese cat shape. “He is like this,” she said, pointing at “obese cat”. A highly scientific assessment of his prognosis followed. “Maybe he’ll live, maybe he’ll die in the next week.” All hope lay in an aggressive program of intravenous medication to be administered every day until he recovered or expired.

Well, that’s settled then. We’ll just leave him here. Phone us up when he’s better or dead.

Not so fast. The Beijing KPK Veterinary World Hospital does not board animals. We would have to bring him in every day. My fantasies of a well deserved, indolent Spring Festival crumbled. I don’t want to seem callous, but it kills your vacation to go to the vet every day. It’s the immovable scheduling object that everything else must be scheduled around. Shall we go to Longqingxia to look at the ice sculptures? Sure, after the vet. Shall we have a long, indulgent breakfast at Steak and Eggs? You bet, but remember, we have to go the vet. Shall we go to Chaoyang Park and have a snowball fight? Absolutely. Right after we go to the goddamned vet!

We began a daily schlep of dragging Tiny out from under the couch, cramming him into his cat carrier, wrapping it in a jacket to insulate him from the wintry, Siberian blast ripping through Beijing, and taxiing up to the vet for his fix.

Under the People’s Olympic Beautification Plan, line item 857, Beijing is upgrading its fleet of disintegrating, rattletrap Xiali taxis to swish, new Hyundai Sonatas. This has three consequences. First, it is increasing the bottom-end taxi-fare from 1.2 yuan (14 cents) a kilometer to 1.6 yuan (19 cents) a kilometer. A scandalous outrage.

Second, it is killing off a singular Beijing experience. Xialis (and many of the equally dire Citroens) are grungy and cramped beyond compare. Your average adult American has to break his own legs to sit behind the driver’s cage of a Xiali. During the sweaty summer, when I was going for job interviews, Xiali seatbelts often left broad, diagonal black stripes on my white business shirts. I learned to forgo the belts even though there are few experiences as nakedly terrifying as bombing through Beijing traffic at high speed in a car with the build and ride of a Radio Flyer wagon.

The third consequence of the upgrade is that it has made taxi drivers choosy about what they will carry in their elegant, new cars. A Xiali driver will take your camel, if you can find a way to squeeze it in. (Hint: break its legs.) But Hyundais? No cats, please. One Hyundai taxi driver, after refusing to take us, kindly warned the driver of the next taxi in line (also a Hyundai) not to take us, as we were carrying a cat. Another Hyundai driver thoughtfully offered to put Tiny in the boot (trunk, Bob).

I think this is all part of the great, Beijing double standard. As I have noted before, this is a dog town. My apartment building is infested with little dogs, and at least two large enough to be officially illegal inside the fourth ring road. Every evening the courtyard is a riot of minuscule dogs in precious winter outfits: checked coats, little dog sweaters, and such. I bet dogs get to ride in the swish taxis. But cat people are viewed with suspicion:

What? You don’t have a dog? Didn’t you get the memo?

(Of course, they also eat dog in Beijing, but there is clearly a mental separation between eatin’ dogs and huggin’ dogs. However, a few days ago we had lunch in one of our favorite cheap and cheerful jia chang cai joints, just across from the vet, and we noticed both a dog-meat special on the menu and an assortment of conspicuously doggy noises drifting out of the kitchen. Maybe the chef was feeding scraps to his pet…)

Through cajolery, charm and luck we managed to taxi to the vet every day. And every day we would go through the same routine. We would take Tiny into the examination room and decant him from his box. Dr. Xiang would ask us if he was eating (yeah, some). She would gravely inspect the color of his skin and eyes (still yellow). Her eyes would narrow; did he poop? Then she would tsk a bit, write a daily prescription and send us to the treatment room. There we would pay 100 yuan, the nurses would greet Tiny with the usual exclamations of “Aiyohhh, so fat!” and he would be wired up for his cocktail of meds.

The IV drip is Beijing’s catchall approach to veterinary medication. Whatever your pet, whatever its problem, the Beijing KPK Veterinary World Hospital has an IV for it. Cat, dog, parakeet, hamster, goldfish, whatever, they’ll needle it up for you. And every animal gets the same thing: a straw-colored concoction that looks like piss.

From the crowd in the treatment room, winter was scything through the little pets of Beijing. Large, bullet-headed Chinese men, who would have owned ridgebacks or rottweilers in any other city, fussed over comically tiny, bug-eyed puppies wheezing and hacking their way through various ailments. One man tried to control three diarrhea-ridden husky puppies. Another miserable, palm-sized pup vomited onto its owner’s lap with mechanical regularity. Every animal was getting a drip. There was a sense of solidarity at the Beijing KPK Veterinary World, all of us spending the biggest holiday of the year cradling our pets, surrounded by the bunting of the IV lines.

After a few days, Tiny began to recover. The vet commented on his rude glow. We started having to wrap him in a towel to restrain him during his drip. The bottle runs slowly when your re-invigorated cat is struggling to escape. Over three weeks we graduated from IVs to daily shots, to home treatment, to the ol’ jet engine. Tiny has had his second narrow escape in Beijing. I am out another 1500 kuai, grudging taxi rides included. And I am reminded, once again, of the folly of carrying cats to Beijing.

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