Author’s Life

Surviving Radiocat

Amber The Conscious Cat

When a friend’s cat was recently diagnosed with hyperthyroidism, it brought me back to the year 2005, when Amber was diagnosed and treated for this disease.

Hyperthyroidism is a common disease that typically affects middle-aged and older cats.  It is caused by an excess production of thyroid hormones, which are produced by the thyroid gland, located inside the cat’s neck.  Thyroid hormones affect nearly all organs, which is why thyroid disease can sometimes cause secondary problems such as hypertension, heart and kidney disease.

There are currently three treatment options:  lifelong medication, surgery, and the gold standard, radioactive iodine therapy. A single injection of Radioiodine (I-131) cures 98-99% of feline hyperthyroidism cases without any adverse side effects. There aren’t many diseases that have that simple a cure and such a high cure rate.

Living in a major urban area, I had several choices for the radioactive iodine treatment, and I choose Radiocat. It’s a simple treatment, it’s easy on the cat – but it can be really hard for the cat’s human.

One of the requirements of the treatment is that the cat has to be hospitalized for 3-5 days, until she has reached the safe and legal level of radiation release. The length of the stay varies by state and is governed by Nuclear Regulatory Commission guidelines. These guidelines also prohibit clients from visiting cats while in the hospital.

The three days Amber spent at Radiocat were the longest three days of my life. Amber was my only cat at the time. I couldn’t imagine my  house without her in it. I still worked at the animal hospital, so at least that took care of taking me away from home for about nine hours for each of the three days. I didn’t want to go home at the end of the day – coming home to an empty house was incredibly hard. One night I went to a movie, the next night I went to the mall (and I hate shopping!), and the last night of her stay friends and I went to see U2, which worked out great, because it kept me out until very late.

Knowing that Amber was just a few miles away from me, but that I couldn’t even visit her, was very difficult. From the time she came home with me five years earlier, she had only been separated from me for a few days here and there when I traveled, and then she got to stay in her familiar home, with a pet sitter she loved coming to spend time with her twice a day. I hated wondering what she was thinking. Why had I dropped her off in a strange place to live in a cage? What had she done to deserve this?

Daily phonecalls from the wonderful technician who took care of her reassured me that she was doing fine. The only slight problem was that she wasn’t eating well the first day. I had sent her regular, healthy grain-free canned food with her, which she usually inhaled. In order to tempt her, they broke out the stinky stuff, and she dug in. For the rest of her stay, she dined on FancyFeast. Personally, I think she played them, deciding that if she was stuck in a cage for three days, she was going to eat junk food, thank you very much.

I didn’t want to be “that client,” so I didn’t call more than once a day, but it was hard not to. I didn’t sleep well at night. I was used to having Amber curled up in my arms. The first night, I broke out in a rash – something that hadn’t happened to me since I was a child. It went away once I got to work the following morning, so I have to believe it was psychosomatic.

The day she was finally allowed to come home, I wasn’t supposed to pick her up until 11. I couldn’t help myself: I was there by 10. Thankfully, Radiocat apparently allows for overly anxious cat moms, and Amber was cleared and ready to go home. I had never been so happy to see my girl.

For a couple of weeks following the treatment, her thyroid values were below normal and she was a bit sluggish. A very small percentage of cats becomes hypothyroid following the I-131 treatment, but thankfully, Amber’s thyroid regulated back to normal levels very quickly, and she was completely cured.

So what is my advice to any of you whose cats may be going through the radioactive iodine treatment? Keep busy, and, especially if the cat being treated is your one and only, stay away from home as much as you can during your cat’s hospital stay. Expect to be stressed, and expect to worry. But know that once you pick up your baby, she’s going to be cured. And that makes the three to five longest days of your life well worth it.

Photo of Amber lounging on her perch, a couple of months before her Radiocat treatment

Related reading:

Hyperthyroidism in cats

Chronic renal disease in cats

When two cats are better than one

Allegra and Ruby on the stairs

As regular readers of The Conscious Cat, you’ve been hearing directly from Allegra (and Ruby, too) how much fun it’s been for her since Ruby joined our family. It’s been an absolute joy to watch the two of them together, but what has been particularly wonderful for me is the transformation Allegra has gone through in the last six weeks. She has gained confidence, the behavioral challenges we’ve been working with for the past year have improved considerably to the point of being almost non-existent, and she continues to blossom and come into her own in ways I never expected.

I wrote about this topic for Pet Connection, and I thought you’d enjoy this slightly different vantage point. Click here to read the article.

The Conscious Cat got a facelift

cat with computer, The Conscious Cat

Since Ruby already has her own column, Ruby’s Reflections, here on The Conscious Cat, it was time to incorporate her into the design of the site as well. Allegra and Ruby wanted to redesign the header themselves, but having both of them on the computer at the same time did not seem like a good idea to me. It was much safer to ask our fabulous web designer Nathan Landis to help us out.

Amber, the inspiration behind The Conscious Cat, remains, and always will remain, front and center. Allegra and Ruby obliged with perfect poses on Amber’s left and right. In the interest of symmetry and balance, we made the decision to take Buckley out of the header. Since she has a special place on the site, smiling at us from her book cover just below the header, I think she would approve.

Allegra and Ruby give the new header design four paws up. What do you think?

Photo credit: istockphoto

In loving memory of Amber, one year later

Amber The Conscious Cat

A year ago today, I had to say good-bye to Amber after a very sudden, brief illness. I was devastated. Nothing ever prepares you for unexpected loss. In hindsight, I’m grateful that she got to spend her final few hours at home with me, and that she died peacefully in my arms. At the time, those things did not bring much comfort.

A year later, the pain of losing her has dulled a little, but I still miss my beautiful girl every day. She was in my life for ten years, and they were some of the best of my life so far.

My love for Amber grew slowly. Unlike all of my other cats, it was not love at first sight with her. I had lost my first cat, Feebee, to his battle with lymphoma in April of 2000. He had been with me for almost sixteen years. I didn’t think it was possible to hurt as much as I did after he died. I had had other (human) losses in my life before, but nothing was as painful as losing him. There were days when I wasn’t sure I’d make it through.

What saved me during those dark days was my work at the animal hospital, my office cat Virginia, and the daily contact with all the feline patients we saw every day. But coming home to an empty house night after night was becoming increasingly difficult. 

A few weeks after Feebee died, Amber and her five kittens were brought to the animal hospital by a client who had found the little family in her barn.  Despite being emaciated and scrawny-looking, Amber’s eventual beauty was evident even then.  She was a dark tortoiseshell color, with an amber-colored heart-shaped spot on top of her head, which became the reason for her name.  Her kittens found new homes in fairly rapid succession. 

However, nobody was interested in the beautiful mommy cat.  She spent her days in the big adoption cage in the hospital’s waiting area, but with the constant inflow of homeless kittens that is typical for spring and summer, nobody wanted to adopt an adult cat. 

One weekend in July, I decided to take Amber home, “just for the weekend”.  I thought it would be a good way to try and see what it would feel like to me to have a cat who wasn’t Feebee at my house. I also wanted to give her a break from the abandoned feral kitten we had placed with her after her own kittens had all found homes.  The kitten was a rambunctious six-week old grey tabby, and Amber was becoming increasingly exasperated with his constant need for attention.  As far as she was concerned, she had done her mommy duty with her own kittens. 

After living in a cage for all these months, Amber was initially a little overwhelmed by having access to an entire house, and she spent most of that first weekend near or under my bed.  By Sunday evening, she had relaxed a little and started exploring her new environment.  I liked having her gentle and peaceful energy around the house, and I decided that she could stay a little longer. 

The wound from Feebee’s passing was still raw. I wasn’t quite ready to acknowledge that she was home with me to stay, so I told everyone that I was “just fostering her”. I had flyers all ready to go to advertise that she was available for adoption. Remember flyers? This was in the dark days before social media!

Somehow the flyers never got distributed. Three months later, I finally realized that she wasn’t going anywhere. 

My love for her grew over the years in ways that I never would have thought possible. She was my heart and soul. She reflected back to me the limitless possibilities my life could hold if I opened my heart and allowed things to unfold. She was my inspiration for so many things, including this site. She was the original Conscious Cat.

There are so many things I miss about her: the way she would curl up in my arms each night and sleep there for most of the night. The way she’d purr if you so much as looked at her. The way her tail would twitch when she got excited about something. I miss her gentle presence and peaceful energy.

Allegra came to live with us about five weeks before Amber died, and she was a great comfort to me during this past year. Her joyful, kittenish presence and her quiet love helped my heart heal. Now that Ruby has joined our family, my heart, and my life, are expanding once again.

And Amber’s gentle spirit and eternal love are never far from me.

Buckley’s Story honored as Finalist in the 2011 International Book Awards

Buckley's Story: Lessons from a Feline Master Teacher

I am very excited to share the news that Buckley’s Story is an Award-Winning Finalist in the “Animals/Pets: General” category of the 2011 International Book Awards!

The International Book Awards honor knowledge, creativity, wisdom and global cooperation through the written word. Over 300 winners and finalists were announced in 140 categories. “The 2011 results represent a phenomenal mix of books from a wide array of publishers throughout the world,” says Jeffrey Keen, President and CEO of JPX Media Group. “Finalists and winners were chosen by a distinguished panel of industry judges who bring to the table their extensive editorial, PR, marketing, and design expertise.”

What makes awards like this one, and the 2010 Merial Human Animal Bond Award, which was awarded to Buckley’s Story last November by the International Cat Writers Association, so special is not just the recognition of all the hard work that went into writing the book.

It also means that even more people will hear about my little cat, and the way she changed my life in ways I never could have imagined. It means that her lessons will be shared with an even wider audience. It means that perhaps, somewhere out there, someone will find comfort in reading about my personal story of navigating through the devastating grief that comes with losing a beloved cat.

The spirit that was Buckley was endless love and joy. I can feel my little cat smiling now.

New Family Member: Introducing Ruby

Ruby The Conscious Cat

The Conscious Cat has a new family member! Allegra and I are excited to welcome Ruby into our hearts and home. Well, right now, I might be a little more excited than Allegra, but considering that Ruby only came home yesterday morning, things have been going really well. Initially, Allegra was really mad at me for bringing this little intruder into her house, and she watched suspiciously as Ruby began to explore her new home. Whenever Ruby came too close for comfort, she made sure Ruby knew that Allegra was in charge!

By late afternoon, both cats were exhausted, and ready for a companionable nap in our sunny living room. I was amazed, and thrilled, that after less than six hours, they were that comfortable being in each others’ company. And yes, it’s almost uncanny how much alike they look. In the photo below, Ruby is on the floor, Allegra on the loveseat. On some of the photos I took yesterday, I actually had to look for identifying marks to tell them apart. Even though at eight pounds, Allegra is bigger than Ruby, depending on the camera angle, it was sometimes hard to tell!

Ruby and Allegra

I met Ruby on March 31 (coincidentally – or maybe no so coincidentally! – the same day I met Allegra a year ago). She was fostered through the SPCA of Northern Virginia, and lived with a lovely young couple and two big male cats. Her foster parents named her Cinnamon. The SPCA’s vet estimated her to be between six months and a year old – I’m leaning toward the lower end of that range, she’s tiny! She’s a total lovebug, in fact, her name in her initial vet record is Lovebug. She was found in someone’s backyard literally “asking” to be rescued. When the kind woman heard the little kitten crying, she opened the door and Ruby ran right up to her without any hesitation.

When I met her, her foster parents had just gotten home from work, so she was all wound up and eager to play. I spent about half an hour with her, and even though she was mostly focused on playing, she still occasionally jumped up on my lap. I just knew she was “the one.”

Everyone deals with loss at their own pace, and almost a year after losing Amber, I was finally ready to open my heart, and my home, to a new baby. I could have taken her home sooner, but wanted to wait until I had a few days in a row with few outside appointments so I could help Ruby settle into her new home and help her and Allegra adjust to each other.

Ruby is a very self-assured little kitten. She’s super affectionate – she likes to rub up against legs so affectionately that she tumbles over! I don’t think she knows how to play with other cats yet, the two big boys in her foster home were a little intimidating to her, but she’s able to endlessly entertain herself. Yesterday, she spent most of the day in my family room, which is really the kitty playroom. There’s no furniture, just cat trees, scratching posts, and toys everywhere. Allegra watched her every move, but didn’t participate in any play (although at times, it really seemed like she wanted to, but then she remembered that she was mad at me and the little intruder). After a while, they chased each other occasionally, and I’m hoping that as they get used to each other, they’ll learn to play with each other. In the meantime, I’m working on my hand-eye coordination so I can play with interactive toys with both of them at the same time!

She also had fun exploring stairs – her foster parents live in an apartment, so this was new territory for her. After the first few, somewhat klutzy, attempts, she now flies up and down both sets of stairs as if she had done it all her life.

Allegra is still withholding judgment as to whether all of this was really a good idea, but I’m sure you’ll hear from her in her own words in just a few days. And you never know, once Ruby settles in, you just might find her blogging here, too.

You can see wonderful “baby pictures” of Ruby (formerly Cinna), along with photos of her two foster “brothers,” on her foster parents’ photo blog.

Torties, Friendship, and a Very Special Book Signing

tortoiseshell-cats

This has to be one of the more unique post titles I’ve ever come up with – but what transpired earlier this week was one of the most unique, and special, experiences of my life. Let me explain.

It all began on August 17, 2009, when I wrote a post titled Tortitude – the Unique Personality of Tortoiseshell Cats. It rapidly became one of the most popular posts on this blog. When you google “tortoiseshell cat,” “tortie cat,” “tortitude” and any number of other combination of these terms, the post pops up in the first three results on Google’s results page. Readers started leaving comments sharing stories about their torties. It rapidly became so much more than just a blog post. With more than 3500 comments to date, it has turned into a real community of tortie lovers. (Editor’s note: as of April 2012, the post had more than 9500 comments.)

About a year ago, a core group of tortie lovers began to post almost daily, and what started as an exchange of tortie stories turned into online friendships. We not only continued to share tortie stories (and anyone owned by one of these cats knows there’s always plenty of new material!), but we supported each other through life’s ups and downs.

ingrid-king-buckleys-story

There is Harry in Virginia, who, along with his wife Julie and daughter Rachel, volunteers and saves untold feline lives with Lost Dog and Cat Rescue Foundation, and his tortie Brooke. There is Bernie in Western Pennsylvania, who had never had a cat in her life until a determined tortie named Steeler decided that she wanted to live with her. There is Jay in Eastern Pennsylvania, who taught his tortie Stirfry to trust humans again. There is Bernadette in Western Pennsylvania, whose two senior torties Kelly and Cookie grace some of her artwork. And there are many more: Glen in Canada, who rescued his tortie Kasey from a rough life outside a mechanical plant. Shannah in New York and her tortie Emma. Michael in Arizona and his tortie Honey. The list goes on and on.

With two exceptions, none of us had ever met in person. I had met Bernadette at the Cat Writers Association conference in November of 2009, and I had met Harry and his family at the National Capital Cat Show in Chantilly, VA in September of 2010. I had never met any of the others, and I never really expected to. Then Bernie, Jay and Bernadette decided that they would make the trip down from PA to come to my book signing at the Stray Cat Café, to benefit Lost Dog and Cat Rescue Foundation, on April 10. As Bernadette put it in her write-up of the event, “On Sunday I took off for Falls Church, Virginia with a person I’d never met before to get together with a bunch of other people I’d met on the internet. Sounds like the sort of thing they tell you not to do, but I happened to know that each of these persons, including myself, owned at least one tortoiseshell cat, so I knew the worst we’d do is talk about what our cats did in the litterbox or deposited on the floor.”

ingrid-king-bernadette-kazmarski

Finally, we would all meet in person, after talking to each other on the blog for over a year. When Bernie, Jay and Bernadette arrived at the Stray Cat Café, it was like being reunited with old friends. The evening flew by. Harry and his wife Julie graciously invited us to their home for brunch the following morning so we could continue our gathering before the PA contingent headed home again. We spent a delightful spring day on Harry’s screened in porch, enjoying a delicious brunch, with five of his seven cats, including the lovely Brooke who started it all, hanging out with us.

This day will forever remain in my heart as one of life’s special memories. The time went by much too fast, and we all reluctantly said our good-byes.

stray-cat-cafe

All of us continue to marvel at how all of this came about. We couldn’t come from more diverse backgrounds. Our interests vary widely. Our love for our torties brought us together.

This day will forever remain in my heart as one of life’s special memories. The time went by much too fast, and we all reluctantly said our good-byes and sent the PA contingent on their way home.

Friendships can start in the most unexpected ways if you open yourself to the possibilities. In our case, we have Brooke, Steeler, Stirfry, Kelly, Cookie, Amber, Buckley, Allegra and all the others to thank for opening our hearts, and our lives, to new friends. I, for one, will be forever grateful for these wonderful cats, and the wonderful new friends they’ve brought into my life.

Photos, top to bottom:

Amber and Buckley, photo by Ingrid King
Julie, Ingrid and Harry, photo by Bernadette Kazmarski
Bernadette Kazmarski with me, photo by Renee Austin
Jay and Bernie, photo by Bernadette Kazmarski

The Truth About Dry Cat Food wins Petlitzer Prize

Pet writer award

I’m honored that my article The Truth About Dry Cat Food won a Petlitzer Prize! The article won in the category for persuasive essay.

The Petlitzer Prize contest was created by Sid Korpi, the award winning author of  Good Grief: Finding Peace After Pet Loss and a professional writer and editor with more than 20 years’ experience, to recognize quality literary works for writers who specialize in writing about animals/pets. “It’s the pet writers’ Pulitzer,” says Korpi.

A panel of pet experts judges each entry, and winners are chosen by majority vote. Winners receive a certificate of award and first place receives a beautiful medal.

Judging was difficult, and for this category, the judges were tied, resulting in two first place winners. Congratulations to fellow winner Sara Henderson. For more on the Pelitzers, and to read the winning entries, please visit Sid Korpi’s website.

Photo credit: dreamstime.com

You may also enjoy reading:

Buckley’s Story wins 2010 Merial Human Animal Bond Award

Book review: Good Grief: Finding Peace After Pet Loss by Sid Korpi

Another Furball? It Might Be Feline Asthma

Guest post by Andrea Tasi, VMD

Has your cat been coughing? Watch the video below and you may recognize that sound. Many people assume that the cat is trying to cough up a hairball and don’t realize that their cat could have asthma. Untreated, asthma can progress and even be fatal. But, like human asthmatics, cats can be treated and the disease can be managed.

It is estimated that about 1% of cats suffer from asthma. Siamese, Burmese and other Oriental breeds show a greater incidence, but any breed can have asthma. It usually first occurs in young to middle-aged cats between the ages of two and eight.

It is widely recognized that asthma attacks can be triggered by allergens in the environment such as pollens, dust, smoke, fumes, mold, fragrances and aerosols. Heat, cold, stress and exertion can also trigger attacks.

What is Feline Asthma?

Feline asthma is a disorder of the lower airways, called bronchi and bronchioles, in which inflammation causes increased production of mucus, spasms of the airways and difficulty moving air out of the airways. It is considered to be an immune-mediated condition, which means that the inflammation is triggered by some allergic or over-active response of the cat’s own immune system.

What are the Symptoms of Feline Asthma?

Different cats may be affected in different ways, but the most common symptom is a wheezing or gagging cough, often called a hairball-type cough. In my professional experience however, hairballs do not cause coughing, as they are gastrointestinal and not respiratory in origin. Hairballs can cause retching, gagging and vomiting. With an asthmatic cough, most cats will stretch their necks out, get in a hunkered down posture and then cough in either a dry or moist sounding fashion. They may stick their tongues out a bit when coughing. Often it sounds and seems as if they are coughing some mucus up and then swallowing it.

Other symptoms may include decreased activity, becoming winded by normal activity, increased rate and effort of breathing and even open-mouth breathing in severely affected patients who are having trouble moving air out of their lungs.

Feline asthma in its most severe form can cause death by asphyxiation: the cat simply can’t breathe.

How is Feline Asthma Diagnosed?

A cat presenting with a history of coughing, wheezing and/or respiratory difficulty will usually need the following tests to determine what is going on:

• A thorough physical examination, including listening carefully to the lungs and heart.

• Chest radiographs, commonly known as x-rays. These help rule out other causes of respiratory symptoms like heart enlargement, fluid in or around the lungs, tumors or pneumonia. Many cats with feline asthma have prominent airways and hyperinflated lungs, which means too much air is trapped in the lungs. It is important to note that cats can be severely asthmatic and have normal chest radiographs.

 • A complete blood count: a blood test which looks at red and white blood cell numbers and helps determine if a patient is responding to inflammation or infection. Many cats with feline asthma have an increased number of eosinophils, a white blood cell type that responds to allergic and parasitic inflammation.

• A heartworm test. Heartworm disease can mimic the symptoms of feline asthma.

• A fecal test for intestinal parasites. Some intestinal parasites have life stages that migrate through the lungs and can cause inflammation and respiratory symptoms.

In general, the diagnosis of asthma is made by ruling out other causes of coughing and respiratory difficulty, as there is no one test that determines with 100% assurance that a cat has asthma or not.

How is Feline Asthma Treated?

Conventional medical treatment of feline asthma is based upon two main drug types:

• Corticosteroids: This class of drugs is anti-inflammatory in nature. Oral prednisone or prednisolone, and/or inhaled forms of corticosteroids are used to reduce the inflammation in the airways. Side effects of corticosteroids can include increased thirst and urination, increased appetite, weight gain, diabetes, lowered resistance to infection, and even behavioral changes.

• Bronchodilators: This class of drugs helps open up the airways. Both oral and inhaled forms of bronchodilators are used. Side effects are generally minimal with bronchodilators, but these drugs should never be used alone, as that can actually worsen the condition. Special inhalant masks are available for cats to administer these medications.

• Several other drugs, such as antihistamines and anti-leukotrienes, are also used by some veterinarians. Holistic veterinarians may use alternative medical therapies to treat some asthmatic cats.

If a cat is in an emergency situation in a veterinary clinic, oxygen therapy will also be used.

How Does Diet Relate to Feline Asthma?

In over two decades of feline practice, I have attended many continuing education seminars on feline asthma and rarely heard diet discussed as a potential cause or trigger for the condition.

However, I have had several clients who, on their own initiative, changed what they fed their cats and found that the symptoms of asthma were either greatly reduced or eliminated. What was the change they all made? They removed all dry food and all grain-based products from their cat’s diet.

Most did this by simply switching to grain-free canned cat foods. Some used balanced commercially prepared or home-made grain-free, raw meat cat foods, either as the only food fed or in combination with some grain-free canned foods. After observing this effect, I incorporated diet changes into my case management of cats with asthma. I began to see many cases where my patients no longer needed medication — or much reduced doses — to control their asthma symptoms. It is important to note that not all cases of asthma will improve with the elimination of dry food and grains. But it is worth considering this change as a much less intrusive method of reducing or controlling symptoms. I have never observed a worsening of a cat’s asthma from a gradual and nutritionally balanced diet change.

Why does this diet change help some cats? It is my opinion that the processed and fractionated grain products in many cat foods are strong triggers for allergic or overactive inflammatory responses in some cats. Remove these triggers, and these cats get better or are even cured.

If you have an asthmatic cat on medication and are interested in this approach, you must do this in consultation with your veterinarian. Do not, under any circumstances, simply stop giving your cat his/her medications.

If your cat is on high doses of corticosteroid drugs, it is also important to remember that these drugs can be suppressive to the immune system, rendering a cat more susceptible to infection. In these cases, I would advocate using either a canned or home cooked grain-free, nutritionally balanced food, not a raw diet.

httpv://youtu.be/NuNy_WubRrI

Andrea Tasi, VMD owns and operates Just Cats, Naturally, a housecall based, feline-exclusive practice dedicated to the holistic, individualized approach to each cat. Dr. Tasi uses classical  homeopathy, nutritional therapy, and behavior/environment-related techniques to help healthy cats stay well and help ill cats regain their health.

This article originally appeared on the Feline Nutrition website, and is re-posted here with their permission. The Feline Nutrition is dedicated to providing thoroughly researched information on feline health and nutrition. If you care about cats and their health, please consider joining the society. Membership is free, and a growing membership base will help the organization spread the word about species-appropriate nutrition for cats.

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