When Elizabeth Sanchez learned her local animal shelter, Dumb Friends League in Denver, Colorado, needed someone to foster Merida, a five-month-old kitten with a grade 5/6 heart murmur, she and her family agreed to help the young special needs cat.
“My fourteen-year-old daughter has been fostering as a ‘junior foster parent’ for the past sixteen months,” explains Elizabeth, but it was her 12-year-old daughter Sarah who was eager to bring the tabby kitten home. “She turns thirteen in May and will be eligible to foster as well.”
Initially, Sarah wanted to foster one of the healthy adult cats at Dumb Friends League who simply needed a break from living at the shelter, but the only available feline was Merida, who needed a foster home for three weeks while she waited for an appointment to see an outside vet for a second opinion. When Elizabeth went to collect Merida from the shelter on November 29, 2020, she learned the kitten also had a severe upper respiratory infection and needed to continue to be quarantined for a few days due to exposure to ringworm and panleukopenia.
“We’ve never shied away from any foster before — we took one who passed twelve hours after we got her, knowing she might not survive the night — and we’d already gotten our kitten space prepped so we went ahead and took Merida,” remembers Elizabeth.
Merida quickly adjusted to her foster home, but her upper respiratory ended up being much more severe than initially thought. In fact, it was so virulent, Merida ultimately required three courses of oral antibiotics — and an injection of antibiotics — to recover from the infection. “At first it was kind of gross to be with Merida because she sneezed a lot,” remembers Elizabeth. “We had to wear special clothes and change when we came out so we wouldn’t spread the infection to our house cats.”
Despite being very sick, the young special needs cat was incredibly affectionate, and her foster family definitely didn’t mind when her veterinary appointment had to be delayed a week because of her illness. “She rubbed all over my legs and stretched up to nuzzle my cheek and chin,” says Elizabeth. “I told my daughters that I wish we had space for one more cat, but I wanted to ensure we had enough attention to continue fostering, so we’d still be moving along Merida when the time came.”
A month after arriving at her foster home, Merida was finally healthy enough to go to the vet for a second opinion. Unfortunately, the doctor confirmed the original diagnosis and gave Merida a maximum life expectancy of two years. “The vet told me that Merida was born with a congenital condition in which all four chambers of her heart are malformed,” explains Elizabeth. “This means that blood trickles into her lungs, causing her to breathe heavier.”
Over time, more and more blood will accumulate in Merida’s lungs, eventually causing her to suffer heart failure, which would require her to be euthanized, or a fatal heart attack. “Until that time, she is a happy, active kitten with a great quality of life,”says Elizabeth, “but there is nothing medically they can do for her because the damage is too extensive.”
Despite knowing Merida almost certainly wouldn’t live past her second birthday, when the shelter asked Elizabeth if she and her family would like to adopt the special needs cat, she readily agreed. In fact, on her way home from dropping Merida off for her vet visit, Elizabeth had told her daughter that if they had room for another cat, she would be happy to keep her. “She just fit,” explains Elizabeth. “She got along with my house cats. She knew how to play but she knew how to relax.”
A few months after she was officially adopted, Merida is doing extremely well, and she’s just as happy, active, and playful as any other cat her age. She likes playing with her adoptive sisters Mittens and Luna, she adores chasing after balls, and she loves being groomed, whether it’s by her human family members or her fellow cats. “She loves baths — from baby wipes and from Luna,” says Elizabeth. “She was brought in with 17 other cats so we think that grooming is soothing to her because she was groomed by the colony.”
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While Elizabeth considers herself fortunate to be able to care for Merida for the rest of her life — however long that may be — not everyone understands her decision to adopt a cat with a terminal medical condition. Some people assume caring for Merida must be expensive, but Elizabeth hasn’t had to spend very much on this adorable girl. “The only cost is the normal stuff — kitten food, extra litter, another litter box,” explains Elizabeth.
She’s also encountered people who are concerned about the emotional cost of caring for a pet with a terminal heart condition. While it’s not a responsibility everyone would be able to bear, Elizabeth is confident it’s a challenge she and her family can endure. “Having lost six fosters in our first year for various reasons, I can say, ‘Yes, I can handle it,’ ” says Elizabeth. “You have to. You don’t have a choice.”
Because she knows Merida’s time is limited, Elizabeth is making sure she has the best possible life, which includes lots of quality time with Luna, her adoptive sister and best friend. While Elizabeth feels a sense of peace about Merida’s inevitable passing, seeing the two of them together — playing, cuddling, and grooming one another — brings the reality of the situation into sharp relief.
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“It’s crazy to think that Luna will be three when Merida passes and will live long after we lose this precious girl,” explains Elizabeth. “It’s this juxtaposition of life and death and how wonderful taking risks and opening your heart can be even when you know it will hurt.”
Elizabeth hopes other people will consider fostering and adopting animals with special needs, including those with terminal conditions and illnesses, because she believes this vulnerability has allowed her to form a deep and meaningful bond with Merida that will endure long after she passes away. “We can’t go through life avoiding love because we are afraid we are going to lose it,” says Elizabeth. “It is by forming these connections with other living beings that we discover a richer life.”
When Merida’s life ends, she will leave behind a remarkable legacy, and this special girl — whose name has many meanings, including “beloved” and “wished-for child” — will live on through the lives of all the people who love her wholeheartedly and without reservation. “I did wish for her, and she is beloved,” says Elizabeth. “I am glad I get the chance to provide her with the best life she can have until it is her time to transition to the other side.”
To learn more about this adorable cat, you can follow Merida on Instagram.