I walked into the veterinarian’s office with my disgruntled cat. I’d been worried about my cat for a week already. Her health was steadily declining and I knew something was seriously wrong when the 4 a.m. Kitty Alarm stopped going off — that feline screeching that takes place outside the door to our bedroom every morning announcing the start of the day. In our house, if that cat’s up, we’re all up.
It was just before the bon holiday and I didn’t want to risk having to take her into emergency during the busy holiday period.
As soon as I entered the clinic, however, I realized that perhaps we had come to the wrong place. This hospital was obviously for the rich and famous pets, not the orphaned and rescued island cats of Japan who may have had ear mites at one time in their lives.
The waiting room was luxurious compared to the clinics in the farming communities in the U.S. where I was from, where the vets wore checkered flannel shirts and jeans and whispered in the animals’ ears to cure them. In this hospital, vets and assistants hurried back and forth between examining rooms in pressed white lab coats.
I chuckled at a poster on the wall advertising an upcoming hamigaki kyoshitsu (tooth-brushing clinic) for pet owners. Another poster showed a cartoon cat on a surgery table with an IV in its forearm. Another chuckle. What is the pet world coming to?
As I waited, I watched the most adorable educational DVD on a big screen, featuring an animated dog news anchor who opened his canine news show by saying, “Mina-san, konichi-wan.” The breaking news was the alarming number of non-immunized cats and dogs these days and the possible effects on society. Pet hotels were encouraged to crack down on animals without proper proof of immunization in order to quell the spread of disease among pets.
When it was our turn to go in to see the vet, we were ushered into a private consultation room. I told him that Frank was not chewing her dry food and wasn’t keeping it down. She only licked at the soft food I gave her. She didn’t seem to be in any pain, but she was surviving solely on a small handful of katsuo fish flakes a day.
The vet ran a blood test, a urine test and a whisker test. He looked at her white and red blood cell count and checked for leukemia and AIDS. He checked her gluten levels, calcium intake and cholesterol — three pages of test results, all negative. He checked for strep throat, measles, and wooping cough and after examining her mouth, he confirmed that there was nothing stuck in her teeth. He did say, however, that she might have inflammation of the gums, a case which would make eating difficult. I felt shame at having chuckled at the poster announcing the pet tooth-brushing clinic.
The vet suggested I leave Frank overnight so they could put her under local anesthesia and really clean her teeth well, right up into the gums. They’d have to put her on an IV.
The next day, my husband had to go to the mainland so he agreed to pick up the cat and bring her home on the ferry. I called the animal clinic to tell them that he’d be there shortly. “Oh,” the nurse seemed disappointed. “Actually, we were really hoping to talk to Frank’s mother.”
Frank’s mother? I was flummoxed. Surely they didn’t mean me, I thought, while checking my hands to see if I was growing claws. I even touched my face — no whiskers either.
“I’m sorry, but he is the only one who has time today to pick up the cat. He is not Frank’s feline father, but I think he’ll do.”
“But we have some instructions to give for the medicine.”
My husband does not speak Japanese. However, he is extremely fluent in gesturing. You’d be surprised how seamlessly he communicates with people. And, he smiles a lot. In truth, he often understands what people are saying before I do because while I depend on the words for meaning, he depends on body language and mental cognition, which is often faster and more intuitive. He can listen to people and understand exactly what they are saying while I am often left stumped by a specialized vocabulary word. I have the utmost confidence that this man can pick up our cat from the vet.
“Well, you can always write down the instructions in Japanese and I’ll read them when he gets home,” I suggested. They consented, albeit not very enthusiastically.
When my husband brought Frank home, there were no written instructions and he showed me the medicine she was supposed to take, and we administered it twice a day. For the first two days back home, Frank was like a new cat, eating voraciously. Then the same thing started happening again. She stopped eating and laid around the house most of the time. She became despondent and appeared to be getting weaker. I knew I should take her back to the vet, but he had already run all kinds of tests and had found nothing. He’d even cleaned her teeth.
Then, about a week after the bon holiday, a strange thing happened. The temperature dropped a few degrees, and Frank took a turn for the better. She started eating a little more each day and her mood improved. Before long, she was back to normal. Even the Kitty Alarm went off at 4 a.m. sharp.
That’s when I realized that my cat had not been sick at all. She had simply been afflicted with feline natsubate. Natsubate is something many Japanese people deal with too: a mild depression or lethargy that usually hits in mid-summer when the weather is hottest and takes away your appetite and zest for life.
I sat down with my cat and whispered into her ear: good kitty! She rolled over while expelling a light mew and said, “Wake me up when it’s dinner time.”
Follow Amy Chavez on Twitter @JapanLite