Smokey the $1000 housecat: A Hemobart story

Monday, November 19, 2007

This 1500-word post is all about our pet cats, Smokey and Eli. Yes, that’s right. 1500 words. About our cats. Welcome to a rare break from posts about popular culture and random Internet nonsense. This story is mostly about Smokey’s near-death experience and, more generally, about the housekitties.

I had been waiting to write about this topic until we were sure that Smokey was either going to live or . . . become cremated. Didn’t want to risk some kind of blog-karma jinx. Luckily, it has turned out well. Here are a couple of cat photos taken this past June (when Eli was still a kitten):

Eli and Smokey photo Eli and Smokey photo

I’m going to organize this narrative timeline-style.

It all started during the second to last weekend of October.

Sunday, October 21
Smokey became very noticeably weak/ill Sunday night and seems to be having difficulty breathing. We had noticed he was gradually getting less interested in playing or socializing in the weeks and days prior to this, but since he was never a super-energetic cat, it was difficult to determine whether something was wrong or whether he had just gotten tired of being annoyed by playful Eli. He also might not have been eating as much, but it’s hard to tell with two cats in the house. (Though we had noticed him eating litter more often recently, which we later learned anemic cats do sometimes.)

Monday, October 22
Smokey was admitted to the vet in the morning and was tested for a number of things. He was hospitalized for about a day and a half during which they gave him fluids and ran tests. Here are some of the line items from the resulting vet bill:

  • Antech T540 Coombs Direct
  • LRS with Dextrose 1 liter bag
  • Fluid Pump
  • Intravenous Catheter Placement
  • FIV / FELV Cite Test
  • Vetstat Electrolyte Na+, Cl-, and K+
  • General Chemistry Dx Health Check
  • LaserCyte CBC

Smokey the cat Ultimately, Smokey was diagnosed as having symptoms of severe anemia and a probable blood parasite. He was prescribed Pet Tinic (a dietary supplement) and doxycycline antibiotics (to treat the Hemobart parasite, if present). According to the vet, the Hemobart parasite (AKA Hemobartonellosis, Hemobartonella felis, or Feline Infectious Anemia) was the only treatable illness of the possible problems he could have been having. The other possibilities were basically terminal: an autoimmune disorder and/or bone marrow cancer (since feline leukemia/AIDS had been ruled out, among other things).

So, Smokey was released to us on Tuesday night. But he would not eat much on his own; we had to force-feed him and he acted like we killed him every time we tried to give him his pill (he is extremely stubborn and stressed himself out trying to avoid his medication, resulting in him collapsing weakly from lack of oxygen). Throughout the week, it became clear that Smokey was continuing to get worse/dying, so we brought him back to the vet on Saturday morning, pretty much emotionally prepared to put him to sleep, since we figured he had bone cancer or an autoimmune disorder instead of Hemobart. The antibiotics were apparently not working and he was losing weight quickly.

Saturday, October 27
When Smokey arrived back at the vet he was critically anemic and lacking oxygen. His red blood cell count (hematocrit or PCV) was 9% (meaning: his red blood cells were about 1/5 of normal blood volume). Things were looking grim.

Smokey the cat But the vet had one more idea, which he prefaced with: “I am going to be honest with you. The prognosis on this kid isn’t good.” (He calls all the animals he treats “kids.”) He estimated maybe a 20-30% chance of success for his last-ditch plan. But we were guaranteed of being able to claim him as a $1000 cat, if Smokey survived. How could we resist?

We definitely contemplated putting (a pathetically weak) Smokey to sleep, but decided — low chances of recovery be damned — we were going to roll the dice with another few hundred dollars. The additional treatment included a blood transfusion (from the vet’s own cat) and another couple of days of hospital care with IV fluids and doxycycline injections (notice Smokey’s shaved legs and neck in the photo at right). On top of the new blood in his system, prednisone steroids were added to his prescribed medications. The prednisone was to inhibit his possibly overactive immune system that might be attacking his own normal red blood cells, due to the presumed presence of the Hemobart parasite (AKA AutoImmune Hemolytic Anemia or AIHA).

Thursday, November 1
Earlier in the week, Smokey had been much livelier because of the blood transfusion, but he did not seem to be getting noticeably better. Maybe he was even declining as he approached the half-life of the transfusion, unable to produce his own red blood cells? The outlook was getting dismal again. Could Smokey make healthy red blood cells on his own?

On vet recommendation, we doubled his prednisone dose. After a few more days, it finally seemed promising that Smokey was recovering. And not just because he was all hopped up on steroids. The twice-a-day triple medications actually seemed to be working this time. It appeared he was finally beating the parasite.

Wednesday, November 7
Eli the cat Smokey was acting pretty much normal by the middle of the next week and has continued to get stronger and healthier (and naughtier) since then.

Let’s assume that Hemobart was the primary culprit here. We have no idea how Smokey could have become infected with the Hemobart parasite, since he has been an indoor-only cat since 2004. Fleas and mosquitoes are common parasite carriers (and Hemobart can also apparently lay dormant in an aminal’s blood system). But the only time we’ve ever had fleas in the house was when Eli and his brother were adopted last June, and then we only found two or three fleas total on them and all three cats were treated with Frontline immediately. It’s just not clear how this whole thing came about. The only risk now, it seems, is to Eli, in case Smokey has become a carrier of the parasite himself (which can happen). In addition, Smokey may or may not continue to have an immune system problem that will require ongoing prednisone treatment.

Here are a couple of related articles: “Is AIHA the same thing as FIA (Feline Infectious Anemia)?” and “Feline Parasites You Might Not Know About.”

Now, let’s not make this all about sickly cats. Let’s make my mom happy and tell her about all the cute things our cats do. First I’ll write about the characteristics of Eli the eight-month-cat, then I’ll get to Smokey the seven-year-old cat. Cats are supposed to have nine lives, right, so let’s make two lists of nine.

Eli the cat Nine things about Eli

  1. He is obsessed with stealing the lids/caps from jars/bottles, carrying them in his mouth, and shoving them underneath closet doors to hide them
  2. Is very playful and carries most everything around with his teeth; he’s also a tetherball enthusiast
  3. Loves to chase light from red laser pens and attack moving mouse cursors on monitors/TVs (and, by correlation, is very interested in both metal pens and computer mice); actually, he loves watching TV, regardless
  4. Will pretty much eat anything: meat, dairy, fruits, vegetables (we’ve tested with tiny morsels of various “human” foods just to see what he won’t try to eat); he’s obsessed with cornsilk, among other things
  5. Has extra soft white fur and is getting a bit pudgy in the belly, which makes him a nice pillow; also, the way he carries the white tip of his raccoon-like tail reminds us of a deep sea angler fish’s bioluminescent lure
  6. Generally comes when called; likes being held like a baby
  7. Is known to casually slide off beds and chairs, like pudding (or a ragdoll), onto the floor and continue lying in odd positions wherever he lands
  8. Very easygoing and social, verging on codependent; he always likes to be in the same room as his people
  9. Body shape/coloration and behavior is suggestive of a “raccoon-bunny-weasel”

Smokey the cat Nine things about Smokey

  1. He drinks water via a cupped left paw and eats dry food one piece at a time by knocking it out of his dish onto the floor
  2. Is rarely playful; he will occasionally bat a cellophane wrapper ball a couple of times before losing interest; but he does enjoy chewing on/attacking the leaves of strawberries
  3. Generally refuses to eat chunks of meat or fish; we joke that he’s a vegetarian; he prefers dry cat food over all else
  4. Amusingly walks like a bulldog due to his stocky build and sounds like a horse galloping when he runs
  5. Generally comes when called and rolls onto his back on command; is fairly trainable (he doesn’t set foot on our bed)
  6. When held, he prefers to cling to a shoulder or upper arm like a monkey (with claws)
  7. Likes to be petted roughly on his belly and patted on the butt like a dog
  8. Very skittish and easily agitated; he freaks out at the slightest noise (with huge eyes and often a violent, clawed escape-launch into the other room) and typically prefers lounging alone
  9. Body shape/coloration and behavior has inspired us to call him “monkey-bear-owl” (not to be confused with ManBearPig)

OK, that’s more than enough cat talk.

To wrap things up on a funny note, here’s a brand new cat video on YouTube: “Cat Talking, Translation.”

This is my last post until early to mid-December, as I’ll be on vacation.

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