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Roto, Rooter, and the Drainy Day

Cry of the Kitten

Mama and Kittens

For most, it was Mother's Day weekend, but for us, it became something Rod Serling dreamed up. “Twilight Zone Day”? No name could be more appropriate after what was supposed to be a dull weekend with Ginny grading final exams and me alternating between tinkering on the internet, a typical, if wet Saturday. Luckily, the rain had gone before Ginny heard the mewling outside the living room window about 3 in the afternoon. Ginny passed the distress call to me, and I headed out as soon as I could put on shoes and grab a flashlight, suspecting that one of the assorted animals that pass through here had found the kittens while mama calico was gone.

We knew that the calico had moved her litter beneath the covered part of our deck, making use of the unusual circumstances that provided good shelter and hiding places, and we were happy about it since our plan was to socialize the kittens and at least do spay/neuter release once they were old enough, hoping to trap mama as well. Outdoor cats are essential to the eco system, but this was her second litter, so she had done her part.

When I shined the light under the deck, I was surprised to discover that mama was present with some kittens visible, and no interlopers to be seen, but there was still a crying kitten somewhere. I circled to check another corner, hearing plenty but seeing nothing. I added up the information, and came to a bad conclusion. This house has had numerous, sometimes odd renovations since it was built in the 50s, and one resulted in a living room window where there had once been a door. Although the door was gone, the concrete pad of a small porch on cinder block walls remained, and whoever added the deck had simply built over the pad, using it as a support with a pile of concrete beneath one deck joist.

The pad had long been a favorite spot for the various cats who have come and gone in the last 15 years, a cool and defensible spot surrounded by rocks with the ground sloping down to the much lower yard level. After I had listened from several angles several times, the results were the same. The mewling was coming from inside the cinder block wall, under the concrete pad. It wasn’t something we had paid much attention to given the number of household projects that had priority, but there was a downspout at that corner, a downspout that should have gone down into a drain pipe, a downspout that was instead off to the side, revealing a 3” opening. It wasn't much, but it would do. The kitten had gone down the drain.

The Drain

I suggested that Ginny post a call for help on our Facebook pages, although at that point, we didn’t know just what help we might need other than diggers and maybe a chisel and short-handled sledge. We didn’t account for Mother’s Day weekend. There was no rush of shovel-wielding aid, which at least meant that I was still in charge, although in control would be an exaggeration. Yes, I have control issues and some obsessive tendencies that sometimes keep me from doing things the easy way, even when I think I'm taking the easy way.

Under many circumstances, this would be no great problem, but aside from going through concrete and then surrounded by cinder blocks, this drain had no other open end. Like many downspouts in this area, it eventually feeds into the main sewer line down at the street, but there are various drains, and we had no idea how they all connected. While we now knew about where the kitten was, we didn’t know what direction the drain ran. It might go straight out into the yard, or it might join up with other drains to the east, either going straight east to join at the shortest distance or angling to join part way into the yard. There was probably a right place to dig and several wrong ones.

Between the digging, ripping up some deckboards, and maybe hammering concrete, we were about to make a lot more noise, so I thought it would be a good idea if we could catch the remaining two kittens that we knew about before we sent them into a panic. The theory was good, but the application was bad. I hadn’t thought things out before asking Ginny if she would be able to get far enough under the deck to grab the kittens. After all, at only about 3 weeks old, they weren’t overly agile as yet.

Ginny snagged one kitten, but there was a burst of fur in different spots moving in assorted directions, including near the drain. Had I caught just a glimpse of the kitten managing to pop up out of the drain, perhaps having been just below the edge? Ginny was sure she had accounted briefly for three kittens, the most I had ever spotted in previous days. Had we achieved a quick, if somewhat anti climatic success? We tried a count and came up with two, the one Ginny was holding plus the bright white spot with its head shoved into a crevice in the farthest corner under the deck. I hadn't exactly avoided that panic attack.

Saturday Night, the hole

Mama calico was not overly happy with us, and Ginny let her have the one captured kitten, which mama immediately began leading elsewhere. Following a cat is not normally an easy task, but following a 3 week old kitten is significantly less challenging. With every obstacle, Mama had to come back to help her stumbling child. Ginny followed until she saw that Mama had set up either a new home or new staging area under the deck of the duplex next door. In the meantime, I had pulled up some deck boards and managed to pull an unhappy fluffball from the corner. We turned the kitten over to the "proper authorities," and Mama and kitten number two headed for the new home next door.

Still, the numbers weren’t adding up. Ginny was sure she had accounted for three kittens during the flurry, but now we were only counting the two that mama had led away. Had she led another we didn’t see, so all three kittens were safe? Had the kitten popped out of the drain long enough to be seen and then fallen back in again, or were there four kittens to begin with, so that Ginny had seen three while number four had never gotten out of the drain? There were certainly more than enough kitten-sized hiding places within 20 feet to make matters uncertain. We then got a very clear verbal notice that there was absolutely still a kitten in the drain, a very unhappy kitten down a very small drain, a kitten not at all impressed with his would-be rescuers. We had to dig. Somewhere.

The drain opening is close enough to the house to make getting both eyes lined up to see down the drain impossible. With one eye looking down the drain, there was still little room to angle the flashlight down for a good look, but I was eventually able to make out the bottom, the point at which the pipe angled away. Unfortunately, I couldn’t tell which way it headed, and I didn’t want to spend my time digging random holes. Going down through the concrete or through the cinder block wall were options, but we didn’t have the right tools for either, and I was worried about the vibrations causing not only extra fright but even perhaps collapsing the pipe. We simply didn’t know what was down there other than a very vocal kitten who couldn’t just click his heels to get home.

Think simple. The simple choice would be to run the pipe straight out into the yard. That was also convenient since it meant digging where I wasn’t under the deck with nothing more troublesome than ivy roots to get through. Digging there would be a bit of a root-nuisance but fast. Still, I kept thinking about the joke where the guy loses his keys on a dark part of the street but does his searching under the streetlight because the light’s better. Was picking where the digging was easier the same kind of choice? I needed to do something since I was being closely watched as Calico Mama alternated between the kittens next door and her missing but vocal child. She paced and watched, not interfering, not hiding.

I went back to the drain to try spotting clues, but this time what I spotted was a pair of blue eyes, a whole kitten face staring up, seeming so very, very close and filling the very small pipe. It was like a side show I saw as a kid back about 1968. This team would travel to different areas, and one of them would get buried alive while the other hawked tickets. Pay the price, and you could look down a tube, and talk to the person below, seeming very, very close and very disconcerting.

Deck Approach

Wait. Kitten face is attached to kitten body, so maybe the angle of the face will tell me which way the pipe goes. Trace the angle of the nose....and the kitten moved. Like the movies where the police don't get quite enough time to trace the call, all I had was a bit more than before. I was able to determine that the pipe was going either east or northeast, and I had been digging to the straight north. Logic can be flawless and still wrong if it’s based on a false assumption.

East, of course east. after all, there was a drain in the sidewalk over there, so they simply ran this pipe, over to meet that drain and send it all down together. Straight east would take it over rather nicely. It meant pulling up more deck boards and cutting two joists to make room to move while digging, but one hole and done. Still in control, still sounded easy. Dig the hole wide enough, and I’d find the pipe even if it went off at a bit of an angle.

About then, someone called to offer digging help or to go buy tools, but the job was in hand, just one step away. One hole and done. Thanks for the offer, but it's under control. Several Facebook friends not close enough to help directly suggested seeing if the fire department could help, and there is a station just down the street, but we were just one step away now, and I wasn’t sure how the fire department would feel about the situation anyway. Oh, and this way, I was still in charge and even thinking that I was in control. I cut the deck, and I dug.

The drain went down close to three feet before turning, and it wasn’t hard dirt below a single layer of rocks and plastic. Despite the small work area, the task wasn’t daunting, and we at least had a plan. However, a fair amoutn of time had passed, and it would still take a while to reach the pipe. Given that air might be an issue, I told Ginny where to find the foot pump (more or less), and in addition to watching the drain in case the kitten popped out, she pumped in air from time to time. As I dug, we had stretches of heartbreaking mewling and stretches of worrisome silence that made us ask for the cries.

By 8PM, I hadn’t found the pipe and decided that it was time to invest in a chisel and short sledge plus batteries for the flashlight and more caffeine for me. I was also changing plans again, going through the cinder blocks on their west side to try and reach the pipe where it curved, where I had seen the kitten. It seemed like a good idea at the time. It was also fortunate that Ginny had put off grading during the morning and made some high-power muffins instead. Before I left for tools and coffee, it occurred to me that being the only two on site was wearing in its own way, so I called Betsy, friend and cat-person, and she came to keep Ginny company despite being very short on sleep herself. Three doesn't make a Scooby gang, but it helps.

This might have been another good time to call the fire department, but the tools worked well, and despite the cramped conditions, I quickly had enough wall down to reveal that the vertical portion of the pipe was visible on one side and well within reach. A little scraping of dirt, a little cutting of plastic, and we should be there. I scraped and cut, scraped and cut, but scraping only a little and cutting only a little because of the space and angle issues. Short of knocking out the corner of the house's foundation, I couldn't do much about that, but we were close. After a few more hours, I had about 3-4” more pipe to cut to be close enough to reach the curve, close enough for a willing kitten to perhaps come out. Instead of more soft dirt, I hit concrete. The drain was embedded in concrete just the way it should be. The West Approach got close but not close enough.

I went back to the East Approach. Even if we didn’t reach the kitten that way, it would at least allow an extra air flow, and that would allow me to be more aggressive on the West Approach, knocking out more cinder block and digging out more sand, things that I feared would send sand and rock down the pipe. We couldn’t risk blocking the west end unless we had opened West Approachthe west end. Meanwhile, Ginny moved down to watch the cut pipe for kitten signs, continuing to pump air, and working and scooping around the concrete. With luck, maybe it was only a shallow ring. (No, a proper cone.) Somewhere in these hours, Ginny declared that if the kitten survived, it would be named Roto. Shortly after, she first said the kitten calls sounded like two different voices. Did we have one kitten with a broad vocal range or two kittens down the drain? I didn’t even want to consider it.

I dug and figured angles, dug and figured angles. Somewhere in the night, I thought, “I’m within spitting distance of 57 years old, was once within spitting distance of a Ph.D., and right now the one thing I’m most glad for is that Dad taught me to dig. I dug. Digging deep requires a wider hole as well, but we didn’t have that luxury without cutting out a lot more deck. By now, I was working with angles that made it necessary to stand on the shovel with both feet, just as I’d done when I was too young to use a shovel properly. Whatever worked. Besides, we just had to be close.

Convinced now that I had not figured a strong enough angle, I risked undercutting the side of the hole, and just a few inches farther over, I hit pipe. The pipe had switched from plastic to clay at this point, which was actually an advantage since cracking the pipe open with the sledge was easier and safer than cutting blindly with a saw. At 4AM, we opened the Eastern Approach and waited for signs of a kitten. The cries were louder, but the kitten was unable or willing to come out, or both.

Ginny and I switched places, and I started more aggressive work on the West Approach. Ginny’s work had defined the size of the concrete cone, and there was no way we were going to crack it without hurting the pipe, so I decided to aim for the pipe just past the elbow. If I knocked out more cinder block under the stoop, I could get the spade in to work faster. Even though I still took measures to prevent dirt and rocks from going down the pipe, a collapse on that end was no longer a death sentence. I just had to hope the pad or walls didn't collapse.

Around dawn, the pipe was cleared, and I cracked it open. Still no kitten and still no way to get a view into the pipe. Ginny attached a plush toy to the end of a sewer snake, and sent it down carefully from the east end. With the toy on the end, it should be soft enough to prod or push the kitten without doing harm no matter which end of the kitten it found. It found no kitten. On the off chance that there was enough room for the toy to slide past the kitten, Ginny made the plush plunger larger. No kitten.

Well, no kitten visible, but we were still hearing the cries. Could there be another pipe connecting somewhere in the 8’ between the two openings, or had the kitten who had once been so close to the open end found the noise too frightening and moved far enough along to be east of the East Approach? It was about 16 hours into the operation, and we were right back to a question about where to dig.

Last Hole Dug

A fiber optic camera would have been great right about now, as it would have at the beginning, but it was a pipe dream before and now. However, a stethoscope might help, and one advantage of getting older in the modern age is that we tend to have medical equipment scattered about. I remembered an old blood pressure kit with the stethoscope separate (not sewn in as some are), and for once something in this house was stashed where I thought it was. Once again, we were one step away.

It didn’t work. I went down into the hole on the East approach and alternated putting the stethoscope into the opening east and west, figuring the cries would be distinctly louder in one direction. Ginny and I both tried and both concluded that it sounded the same. However, each time I tried the opening to the east, the crying stopped, and my best guess was that the kitten was seeing the stethoscope and going quiet for protection. I decided to dig further to the east.

Figuring the angle based the drain opening and the opening 8 feet along, I was able to do a sighting to estimate where the pipe came out from under the deck. At last, I’d be digging under reasonable circumstances....just as soon as I tossed aside the brick walk and got through the ever-present ivy vines and roots, but the digging should be easier, success so much closer. I soon hit more roots, small roots, big roots, and giant roots much too big to cut. I made the hole smaller, and I hit more roots. As the hole got deeper and smaller, the roots became steps, but I still wasn’t finding the pipe. The ground sloped down from under the deck, so the depth to the pipe shouldn’t be great, and I was already down 3 feet.

Ginny dropped a line down through the hole in the deck to the hole in the pipe, and then dropped the line over the edge of the deck where I was digging. The result wasn’t even a foot under ground level. Couldn’t be right. Ginny did it again, and I tried it myself. Same result. I cut back into the ground at the right level. No pipe. Were we just one step away, or weren’t we? About to dig again, I slipped on a root, and it became clear that if nothing else, I was one step away from a breaking an ankle. Close or not, it was past time to relinguish control.

Roto and Rooter then and later

“Call the fire department branch down the street, and see how they feel about getting kittens out of drains on private property.”

Ginny went inside to get the number, and I sat and thought, again. In the previous hole, I had underestimated the angle, and I thought I’d covered the options better this time, but if I had overestimated this time, then the pipe might run right past the last post on the deck. I moved more bricks and dug just off to the left. The fire engine came up the street even before Ginny could come out and tell me it was coming, and that’s when I struck pipe once again.

From almost the beginning, I’d been thinking there was no reason to call the fire department since we were only one step away. I’d thought it on Saturday afternoon, Saturday night, and Sunday morning, and 21 hours later, I was finally sort of right, but I wasn’t turning down help, and I certainly wasn’t going to tell 4 firemen to turn around and go home. We explained the situation, and one fireman dug out around the pipe more to improve access, but when it came time to make the opening, I took the hammer on the basis that if anything went wrong, it should be by my hand, not theirs. I cracked the pipe open as gently as I could, creating a hole about 8 inches long and closed off the opening going farther northeast, not wanting a kitten to slip past and farther into the pipe, but there was no kitten visible to the west, auditory only.

Ginny ran the plushy into the drain and hit something about 2 feet short of the new opening. The firemen dug out more pipe, and one of them also took the hammer this time, opening a larger hole more gently and more intelligently than I had before. We weren’t quite to the kitten, but the clay pipe was just a bit wider than the plastic at the far end, just big enough for the fireman to reach in and pull out a very messy black and gray striped kitten. Just about noon, 21 hours after Ginny heard the cries, Roto was reborn (although we don’t know how many of the nine lives were actually used in the drain, and kittens may get a few passes).

However, we had never seen Roto before in all our observations of the kittens before the drain incident. We thanked the firemen, shook hands, and started cleaning Roto to return to Roto, I'm Poopedthe mama who had come calling for him so many times. When I got to the area under the tail, we had an issue. I thought it was a prolapse but couldn’t be sure (and a prolapse is when part of the butt that’s supposed to be inside gets turned inside out....and sticks out). Ginny agreed with the prolapse guess and called Betsy since work with her own special needs kitten had made dealing with prolapse issues all too familiar.

Ginny and Roto set off for Betsy’s where materials were being prepped for a prolapse correction, and I started looking at the aftermath, looking and thinking. Two voices? Four kittens or three? If we had never seen Roto before (and that coloring would keep him hidden under the deck), then what three kittens had I seen? I ran the plush toy through the pipe, and it went through cleanly. There was no second kitten in there.

Then I went back to the most recent hole in the pipe and removed the piece of pipe blocking the eastern opening, and right there was a white butt and a tail. I had found Rooter, but she had made no sound in a long time, and she fairly well filled what part of the pipe wasn’t filled with roots. I was likely too late, but the body had to be removed anyway. I grabbed and pulled, but she seemed to be stuck. I pulled harder and realized that she wasn’t stuck. She was trying to get away. The bugger was alive. Trying not to hurt her rather than save her, I grasped as tightly as I dared and pulled harder until I had a blue-eyed calico in my hands.

I called Ginny with the news and also got the good news that Roto had no prolapse, just poop, so he was getting a full bath. I cleaned the worst off of Rooter and walked her over to where mama had the family stashed. She made her way through the lattice and over to a curious family, while mama sat and stared at me, willing me to leave. Ginny soon brought Roto, and we added him, vocal as ever, to the family. However, when I tried to get close enough to set Roto a little closer, mama’s scowl became a hiss and swat, not really an attempt to hit me, only a warning that I had messed with her family quite enough. I took that as a sign that she was accepting the kittens, and made an exit. (And be aware that if a cat ever missed hitting you, the miss was intentional. If a cat wants to hit you, you will be hit.)

Rooter says, That would make a cat laugh

A few hours later, I checked under the deck again, but mama and the kittens were gone. Again, Roto Says he's poopedI figured that was a good sign since she had left anyone behind. And so we went back to the old routine. Mama, and some of the other cats come by to eat at various times, and we’re hoping to socialize the kittens, and at least do a spay/neuter and release when they’re old enough, maybe even catch mama and do the same. Pretty as her litters are, two litters is probably quite enough. Besides, this isn’t something I really want to repeat. I’m glad (and surprised) that I was able to get the job done, but it was never on my bucket list.

(For those who wonder, we initially arranged to foster the kittens, but that didn't work out for several reasons, and we took them in on a permanent, welcome to the family basis. We've built a "catio" everyone can access from one bedroom window to reduce the crowding, and so far things are working out as well as we could long as we don't think too much about the food budget or have any vet emergencies.)


We currently have quite a few fur-kin that we care for or help care for. All were strays at one time, and some have extra issues with one asthmatic, one FIV positive, one FeLV positive, and one hyperthyroid. The information and stories are free to all, and that especially applies to the medical material since I don't want to be accused of practicing without a license, but donations are certainly appreciated.

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Semi-Requisite Disclaimer

No, I'm not a vet. I'm a guy who has lived most of his life with cats and who has watched too many die sooner than they should simply because there was something that I didn't know. The information and opinions here are not intended to replace working with a vet, and if you have a hyperthyroid cat (or think you might), I strongly suggest that you join one of the groups listed below. I will sometimes disagree with your vet, but I cannot guarantee that anything here will work for you. What I ask is that you do some real thinking. I'll give references and reasons, but those aren't enough. Check what I say. The vet has a degree, but that isn't enough, either. Check what the vet says. Cats are quirky, something you've probably noticed, and that can make diagnosing and treating them a combination of science, empathy, experimentation, and luck.

For More Help

The two groups listed below are almost certainly the largest accumulations of experience on the subject of feline hyperthyroidism and related problems. Some of the members have been working in the groups for many years, gathering information from many sources in addition to the results seen in the groups themselves. In addition, the people in the groups are largely those who will understand what you're going through, not the type to say, "just a cat". Even if things are going well on your hyperT adventure, I really suggest joining one of the groups. For what it's worth, I spend more time on the Facebook group but try to stay involved with both.

Facebook Hyperthyroid Cats Group Yahoo Feline Hyperthyroid Group