Four Generations of Cat Lovers & a Tough Lessonby Mandy Willis DVM on 01/12/19
But ask the animals, and they will teach you, or the birds in the sky, and they will tell you;...In his hand is the life of every creature and the breath of all mankind. Job 12:7-10
Animals are a gift from God that are entrusted in our care while here on this earth. They teach us. Sometimes the lessons they teach are not always as heartwarming as their presence in our lives, but nevertheless important. A special kitty named Jennifer and her kittens taught me my first tough lesson of dealing with the feelings of heartache. Looking back, I did not deal with those feelings in the healthiest way. Bearing those feelings over and over again as an animal owner, later as a veterinarian/business owner, and now as a working mom, I reached the point I could no longer bear the burden of those feelings on my own, like my introverted, perfectionist, type A personality and pride told me I could. In a vulnerable time, God showed me healthier ways to deal with those feelings and stress. He reminded me that it does not all depend on me.
I grew up on a small farm in Kentucky loving animals. When I was a little girl, you could find me following along with our pigs and cows in the field all day. I named them (names like One Ear, Crooked Eye, and Susie). I petted them. I played with them. I knew their ultimate purpose however, but I loved them up until the time they had to go. I knew they would leave the farm when they were the right size to harvest. I had high respect for them, their purpose, and thankfully enjoyed their contribution to our family’s meals. Because I knew their destiny, I guarded my heart and did not get too attached. Although it was hard to choose, cats, especially kittens, were my favorite animals. We didn't spay and neuter back then like we should have, so cats and kittens were plentiful at our farm house. They were not the house cats like many we see today, but farm cats that contributed their share by catching mice. Growing up, my cats were my friends and playmates. I would bring them in the house and dress them up in my dolls' clothes. Much fun for me, not so much for the cats. You can tell how much they enjoyed those excursions by their facial expression in a couple of pictures I own, such as the one posted here. This kitty love can be traced back to my Grandmother. She loved cats and when she lived in an apartment, unable to have pets, she always displayed a cat calendar that I made a habit of looking through every time we visited. My mom inherited this love of cats and as a little girl, could be found wagging a cat around with her everywhere she went. This love has now passed to the fourth farming generation. My son Hagan loves animals and also adores cats and kittens the most. He sleeps with three stuffed kitties every night. He wrangles our cats and kittens at home and on the farm-a little more than they would like. Hagan showed his true heart for cats a couple of times when he was just over a year old. Our Australian Shepherd liked to “play” with the barn cats by mouthing them around their neck. One day when she demonstrated this gesture, Hagan saw her attempt and screamed in such a shrill voice, with a face of utter fright and welled up tears, that you could vividly sense his deep hearted connection. He also uttered this same distress while watching the movie Homeward Bound when Sassy the cat went over the waterfall. I, like my son, gave my heart to my kitties.
When I was eleven years old, I had a cat that was one of my all-time favorites. Her name was Jennifer. She was a black and grey striped cat with white points. She had four of the cutest kittens I had ever seen, including a pretty calico that I adored the most. The weather was dreary; therefore, I was not spending much time outside playing with the cats and kittens. I was basically putting food and water out for them daily. One day while washing dishes and looking out the kitchen window, I noticed the kittens laying in the shed. I realized I hadn’t seen Jennifer for a couple of days and I headed out to take the kittens some biscuit scraps. They weren’t eating hard cat food yet. Approaching, I noticed they didn’t move. I bent down and touched one of the fluffy kittens. Much to my surprise, it was stiff as a board. Come to find out, my Dad had found Jennifer in the field, shredded by the hay mower and her kittens had starved to death. I was horrified and very disappointed in myself that I hadn’t been paying closer attention in order to save the kittens. This was the first lesson I can remember with the feelings of heartache, loss, disappointment, guilt, and failure. I don’t think I loved another cat with all my heart for a long while, but eventually a cute kitten wormed its way back in to my heart. I am different than my son in the sense that I do not show my emotions like he does. I bottle everything up inside and sometimes appear as I’m not disturbed at all by such situations. My introverted, perfectionist, type A personality and pride keep me from showing how deeply I care. I bear the burden of the feelings of hurt, disappointment, guilt, and failure for long after such events and try to not let my heart get as close in order to not elicit those feelings again. I am a “strong” person that can handle much on my own, without the help of others. These coping mechanisms would later in life prove to not be the healthiest.
My love for cats is still evident today. I care for two cats at home. I rescued Bella from the grips of euthanasia at the last minute and Hallie, a black kitty, one Halloween from a parking lot in Murfreesboro. Although now, the closest I get to practicing feline medicine is vaccinating some barn cats when out on the farm working cattle or horses, I have a heart for the animals I treat and the people I deal with. I am called to the rural lifestyle I lived growing up and the people and animals that live it also. I work with both pets and livestock. With pets, besides the veterinarian’s, there is a heart deeply attached to the animal we treat and sometimes a lost loved one as well. There are many times I have treated and/or euthanized an animal that was the last link to a lost loved one. These situations can intensify feelings. Working in a rural area with livestock, there is a tightrope you walk between economics and being able to help those animals and people. Some do not have the economic means to provide the care needed. Sometimes those animals are their only economic means, therefore there is a financial line that cannot logically be crossed. This reality along with others that go with the job, such as euthanasia, a planned pregnancy not conceived, a sick animal in which treatment fails, or a herd health plan that fails to prevent one hundred percent of disease, led to more feelings of hurt and disappointment like those I felt as a child when I found those cute kittens stiff to the touch. I put my heart and soul into treating the animals, educating the owners, and assisting their farm businesses to make ends meet. When things do not work out as hoped or expected, I take it to heart and struggle with those feelings of hurt, disappointment, guilt, and failure. After years of being a vet, that begins to take a toll on the you, especially when you are handling it all yourself. I started to lose sight of the animals I loved and my passion for large animal medicine. Compassion fatigue-now called traumatic stress disorder and burnout are two things that veterinarians can cope with and I believe I suffered from both off and on, more so in recent years. I devoted my whole life to my career, calling, and passion, sometimes in detriment to myself and my family. Anyone who puts their heart and soul into helping others, animals and/or people, are at risk. Another thing that puts me personally at risk is my tendency to focus on the negative-more on the feelings of disappointment than the positive cases and the animals I love. My personality and upbringing make it easy for me to focus on the negative things of my career and life. I am good at picking out the problems and formulating solutions to those problems. Those characteristics make me a good veterinarian, but mainly focusing on the problems in life can damage health-yours and others. Through a webinar developed to help veterinarians improve their mental health and well-being, I was convicted that I had indeed been too focused on the negative, in all aspects of life, but especially at work. Even though I’ve always been good at finding problems and trying to solve them, I usually enjoyed my job. My negative tendencies were affecting my morale as well as those with which I worked. At this time, God reminded me to think about whatever is true, whatever is noble, whatever is right, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is admirable—if anything is excellent or praiseworthy (Philippians 4:8). I must remind myself of this truth daily. Focusing on the positive things in life and the things you are thankful for can be very helpful for caregivers that deal mainly with fixing or assisting with the problems in life.
The stress of being a caregiver for 14 years, on top of other stressors that come with owning a business, being a wife, and the additional stress of becoming a mom that was now responsible for another life-my fourth-generation cat lover, led to symptoms of chronic stress such as: irritability, anxiety, depression, and insomnia. I’ve dealt with stress on my own for many years and tolerated it well. Although probably at a breaking point, the new little blessing in my life, whose life now also depended on me, put my stress level over the edge. The stressors I have always dealt with became all the more intense; they meant more now that it was not just my life they were affecting, but his. During this time, I sought God and indeed felt His presence very close to me. God restored me and reminded me that it doesn’t all depend on me. I am not ultimately in control and he carries in his hand every living creature and the breath of all mankind (Job 12:10). Not one of them will fall to the ground outside our Father’s care (Matthew 10:29). He urged me to cast my cares on the Lord and he would sustain me; (Psalm 55:22). Through many ways he showed me that He has been and still is in every detail of my life and this world. One of those ways was through the animals I treated. For example, an accident occurred that could negatively affect the outcome of that animal’s status, God intervened, and the outcome was a success, despite the mishap. Also, I followed a nudge in my spirit to treat animals that my medical sense told me that there was nothing I could do to save them. I followed that nudge and treated the animals regardless. I prayed for God to intervene, for I knew what I did was not enough, and he did. I did what I could, and God took care of the rest. I have learned that trusting God and giving my feelings of hurt, disappointment, guilt, and failure to Him is a healthier way to handle those feelings. He is in ultimate control, it does not all depend on me. God also places people in our lives to help bear burdens-like family, friends, doctors, and counselors. Lastly, let us not forget his gift of animals, like a cute cuddly kitten, that restores heartwarming feelings that can replace the negative feelings of heartache and disappointment.