Stanley the cat was on the last of his nine lives — at 17 years old, he was in end-stage kidney failure and the veterinarian said the only way to save the black-and-white feline was a kidney transplant, if he even qualified for the surgery.
Though Betsy Boyd earns just $46,000 annually as a part-time writing professor, she didn’t hesitate to pay about $19,000 in transplant-related costs, even as friends tried talking her out of spending money they said could have gone toward college savings for her 3-year-old twins, Texas and Miner.
Another condition: Stanley’s owner would be required to adopt the donor cat as well.
“Stanley loves me as much as any human being has ever loved me and I love him the same way,” she tells PEOPLE. “I want him around.”
Stanley underwent the procedure in November and is now back home in Baltimore, along with Jay, a formerly homeless 2-year-old cat who served as the kidney donor.
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“Stan is thriving and I’m relieved that this pet, who means at least as much to me as my siblings, still has a pulse,” Boyd says. “There’s a great chance Stan will now live to 20 at the very least.”
Kitty’s Behavior Became Alarming
Boyd, 44, adopted Stanley as an eight-week-old kitten and he’s been by her side through ups and downs including breakups, marriage to husband Michael (a freelance journalist and stay-at-home dad), fertility struggles and pregnancy. He even was the inspiration for the cat character in her new book.
“Stanley is like my spirit animal,” she says. “He’s the friend who has witnessed my trials and tribulations.”
In November 2016, however, Boyd noticed that, “he didn’t have as much of that Stanley spark,” losing interest in eating, chasing other kitty friends or going outside for walks on his purple leash. Boyd’s regular vet suspected kidney disease, a diagnosis confirmed by a specialist who gave Stanley three months to live.
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“I started sobbing,” Boyd says. “I freaked out.”
Transplant Program Requires Adoption of Donor
But instead of preparing to lose her furry best friend, Boyd contacted the feline renal transplant program at the University of Pennsylvania’s Ryan Veterinary Hospital, one of only three in the country performing such procedures.
Like other potential patients, Stanley first had to be evaluated to ensure he didn’t have other significant medical conditions, says Dr. Lillian Aronson, a surgery professor at the university’s Veterinary Medicine school who started the transplant program in 1998.
“Clinically, he looked great,” Aronson tells PEOPLE.
Donor cats suffer no ill effects from giving up one of their two kidneys and their life expectancy is not impacted, she says. Indoor cats live on average about 14 to 16 years.
“We are just as concerned with the life of the donor as the recipient,” Aronson says, adding that patients’ families must agree to adopt the donor. “They are saving another animal’s life and we owe it to them to save their life and give them a good home.”
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The procedure costs about $12,000 to $16,000 for surgeries on both cats, hospital recovery, testing, medications and monitoring, a cost well worth it for some, she says.
“For many people, their pets are truly part of the family,” Aronson says. “This is what they’re passionate about.”
Boyd’s total out-of-pocket cost was around $19,000, which included the transplant fees and weekly post-op blood tests, as well as payment to a local emergency vet after Stanley suffered a complication, she says.
New Car or Healthy Cat? Answer is Obvious
Though the price tag was hefty, Boyd says she’s built up savings through frugal living and is compensating by cutting back on expenses, including forgoing a new car to replace her 2009 Toyota. Boyd has no regrets; Jay — who came from a shelter, as do many other kitty donors — has already become a beloved member of the family with his “friendly, happy-go-lucky” personality, while the spring has returned to Stanley’s step.
“He’s my muse and my best friend,” Boyd says. “He’s here purring. I know I did the right thing.”