Saturday, June 28, 2014

Suffering in silence

I actually thought about writing this story down in my blog a couple years ago.  The topic is pretty emotional for me and sometimes it's hard for me to sit down and write about those kinds of topics.  My office manager came to me the beginning of June and wanted me to write a blog post for cat month.  Since this story is about a cat and since it illustrates a problem a lot of cat owners don't know about, I thought now would be the time to tackle writing this.  
This is Archie's story.

The story actually begins several years before Archie came into my life.  I had a client who had two barn cats.  Actually he had quite a few cats.  There were maybe three or four that lived full time in his house and like most of us who a.) love cats and b.) live in the country, there were a collection of stray cats that lived outside in the barn.  The barn cats were well cared for and loved.  They were spayed and neutered and vaccinated.  One day he brought in two of the barn cats because he noticed they were drooling and having trouble eating.  Both cats had severe dental and mouth disease.  You could smell the rottenness in their mouths.  When I would try and open their mouths to look inside, the cats would cry and wince in pain.   The disease is called stomatitis and unfortunately, no one really knows what causes this.  As in this case, it is not uncommon for me to see this in multiple cats in a household (or barnhold (?) as in this case) and often the cats are related to each other.  It is thought there is a combination of viral and genetic factors that trigger stomatitis.  Or at least that is what I think is going on.   The only treatment that seems to work is extracting all the teeth in the mouth.  Steroids and antibiotics will calm down the inflammation, but does not cure it and the swelling and pain come back when the medicine is stopped.  Although full mouth tooth extractions will cure some cats of this painful disease, it does not cure them all.  If it works, it works well.  If it doesn't work, then the cat is still in pain.  There is a lot of expense and time involved in trying to treat this disease.   I started the cats on antibiotics and discussed treatment and cost with the client.  He took the cats home to think about what he wanted to do.

This is a picture of a cat with inflamed gums caused by ordinary dental disease.  Multiply the redness and inflammation by at least 100 fold and that is stomatitis.

The following week he called me with his decision.  These were stray cats that just showed up at his barn.  And while he truly cared for these cats, he had many other cats to care for and he was retired with limited finances.  But this man had such empathy for the plight of these two cats.  He could not justify spending the money to treat these two stray cats when treatment was far from guaranteed at being successful and he had many more mouths to feed.  He could not see them living their lives in pain either.  So in the end, he asked me to euthanize the cats.  He truly loved all his cats and was holding back tears the day he brought them to the clinic.  The decision was not easy.  To this day, I think he is one of the bravest people I have ever met.   I have such great respect for him for not letting these cats live out their lives in excruciating pain.  Little did I know at the time how I would be faced with a similar decision in my own life.


I live on a farm and like most of my rural neighbors, I too have a collection of barn cats.  Years ago, I had a three legged house cat, but for reasons I won't get into here, I haven't had a house cat since then.  I do like cats though and because there are so many unwanted cats out there, I am OK with a few of them living in my barn and working to keep the rat and mouse population in check in my chicken coop.  They all get fed, spayed or neutered and vaccinated and get month flea prevention.  I make sure they get treated regularly for worms and that each of them gets a little attention and scratch under the chin every day.

One winter day a few years back, a new cat showed up at the feeding station in the barn.  This is not all that unusual.  This cat was particularly scared and would run anytime I would enter the barn.  It took 6 months, but by summer I was able to approach him at the feeding station and stand next to him while he ate.  I knew that he was an intact tom cat.  As with all feral or semi-feral cats that show up on my farm, I am always concocting plans as to how I will catch them.  Some are live trapped, but if I can get near them, I prefer to just pick them up.  And so it was with this cat.  One day I got my cat carrier ready.  I fed the cats and when this latest stray was happily eating, I very gracefully slid my hand to the back of his neck to hold his scruff and in one motion  my other hand reached underneath him to pick him up and put him in the carrier.  Smooth as silk.  I'm good at this.  Unfortunately I'm not perfect.  It did not go as gracefully on the other end.

Off to the clinic I went with my new cat and the usual plan.  He would be tested for Feline Leukemia Virus and Feline Immunodeficiency Virus and if negative would be neutered, vaccinated, dewormed, treated for fleas and then re-released back at my barn.  I carefully got him out of the carrier, but somewhere along the way I slipped up and lost my grip.  This terrified barn cat went on a mad dash around the treatment room at the clinic knocking things off shelves and walls.  Somewhere along the way I got bit trying to catch him.  One of my technicians astutely went and retrieved a large fishing net we keep in the closet and on one of the cat's laps around the room, she expertly caught him in the net.  She is good at this too.  

Everything after this was easy.  I cleaned up my blood that was laying around the clinic.  The cat was sedated and tested negative for FeLV and FIV.  He then got neutered and put in a cage to recover.   While it doesn't happen 100% of the time, I am always amazed at how these scared nearly feral stray cats can turn into a happy friendly cat the next day after being snatched up and neutered.  It happens a lot.  And so it was with this cat.  The day after neutering I opened the cage and ran my hand down his back.  He arched up his back as cats often do when they are being stroked and petted.  His back arching was quite pronounced and so I named him Archie.  After a few days of recovery, I took Archie back home to my barn.  He got along well with my other cats and although he was always a little more skittish than the others, if I was quiet and calm, I could always get him to come to me to be petted if only just for a bit.  One of his trademarks was that before he would come to me to be petted, he would rub his face on anything and everything that was nearby: the posts in the barn, a table leg, the leg of a saw horse, etc.

One day in the second year he lived in my barn, I noticed a little drool coming from the side his mouth.  You can see it in the picture above.  When I went to look in his mouth, he resisted quite a bit.  Although it was not full blown yet, I knew immediately he was developing stomatitis.  He acted fine.  He ate fine.  Except for that very subtle spot of drool that I had seen one time, you would never know by looking at him from the outside what horrible disease was brewing in his mouth.  But I knew because I had looked inside his mouth.  I spent the next couple months in denial because even though I knew what was happening, I am human.  One day Archie came up to me to be petted and would not even rub his face on anything along the way.  I could ignore his disease no longer.  Although I could run my hand down his back, he would run if I put my hand anywhere near his face.  I had a hard time being as brave as my client with two barn cats from a few years earlier.  I thought about putting forth the effort to extract all his teeth.  It might work.  It might not.  I thought about how many healthy cats there out there looking for a home.  I thought about how much pain Archie was living with every day.  It thought about a lot of things.  It took me longer than it should have to summon the courage for a decision.  There were many reasons involved in my decision, but I knew I could not bear to watch this cat be in pain.  I chose to euthanize him.

The disease that Archie had in his mouth was extreme.  My main reason for telling his story is to illustrate how much cats can hide pain.  Archie's disease did not suddenly appear overnight.  It was a process that took place over many many months.  In the early months, the signs of his pain were extremely subtle.  And while extreme cases like Archie's occur only occasionally, every day at the clinic I see cats coming in with all sorts of broken teeth, rotten teeth, gum disease, etc and almost across the board none of them are outwardly showing any symptoms.  One thing I can say for sure though is that all of these cats are in pain.  You may ask, if they are not showing any outward symptoms, how am I so sure they are in pain?  I am sure because 99 times out of 100, when I cure a cat of its mouth disease by pulling a bad tooth or other treatment I will get a follow up report from the owner that goes something like this:  "My cat hasn't played with his toy like this in years."  or "Well he was sleeping a lot, but I just thought that was what normal cats do.  Now he is up running around the house like a kitten again."

I want to emphasize again that lots of cats have some sort of dental disease, but very few are as severe as what Archie had.  Most are much more simple to treat and to cure.  But don't think that because your cat is seemingly acting normal that it does not have dental disease or dental pain.  They hide it so well.  They truly do suffer in silence.  This is why annual exams in cats are so important.  We are care takers of our animals and it is our duty to make sure they live as pain-free a life as possible.