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Death Sentence?


  Written by: Tracy Vogel, Staff Writer

Dotty was a cat that loved the car.

When her owner drove, she was there with her, the permanent passenger. If the car window was rolled down, she would jump in.

"'My little road dog,' we called her," remembered Christina Barnes. "That was just her thing." The adventurous kitty even went on bass fishing trips.

Today Dot is confined to an apartment and shows no inclination to venture outside. Her owner's goal is to keep her cat safe, warm, and free of pain for as long as possible.

"It's hard to think that she's going to die," she said. "But I'm not in denial. You can't ignore it and think it'll go away. We keep her warm and safe and love her as much as we can. And when the time comes, we know what we have to do."

Dot has feline leukemia, one of two diseases that cripples the feline immune system, opening the patient up to death from causes that usually fall by the wayside-pneumonia, opportunistic infections. The other is feline immunodeficiency virus, or FIV.

The disease has stolen not only Dot's health but also her freedom. Feline leukemia is highly contagious. It spreads through contact with bodily fluids-two cats that share a food bowl, or groom each other, or just touch noses through a screen door can infect each other. To prevent Dot from infecting other cats, Ms. Barnes has to keep her inside. FIV is a bit more difficult to spread-it's usually transmitted through saliva in bite wounds. Transmission through sexual contact is also theoretically possible.

When a cat has either disease, pet owners need to make a difficult decision. They can euthanize the cat, cutting off any suffering before it begins and sparing themselves the medical expenses. Or they can hope for a few months or years of good health, treat the symptoms and let the disease progress until the point where they have to euthanize. If they opt for the second choice, they must keep the pet isolated from other cats to avoid passing the disease on.

The decision becomes more difficult when the household has more than one cat. No vaccine exists for FIV. Feline leukemia has a vaccine, given commonly as a booster shot to kittens, but it's effective only about 80 to 85 percent of the time. (Indoors-only cats, considered to be at a very low-risk for feline leukemia, may not need this vaccine.)

That's better than nothing. Dr. Robert Upholt of Cats Only Veterinary Hospital, Fayetteville, N.Y., recalled a client who had upwards of 100 cats. When she found that one had feline leukemia, she had them all tested. Only one other cat had contracted the disease. Dr. Upholt estimated that some years ago, before the vaccine, about 40 percent would have come down with the disease.

But Ms. Barnes' cat was up to date on her vaccinations when she came in contact with a neighbor's feline leukemia-positive cat. "I thought because she'd had her shots, she would be okay."

After the neighbor mentioned that the cat-which she'd been letting out to play with the other cats in the area-had feline leukemia, Ms. Barnes did some research online. She found out that the vaccinations sometimes weren't enough protection.

"I was so upset with her," she said. "I couldn't stress the importance enough to her that what she was doing was wrong. I don't think she realized how important it was-she didn't understand how it was transferred to another cat."

Ms. Barnes started trying to keep her cat inside, though Dot occasionally managed to escape. Shortly afterwards, the neighbor had her cat euthanized for lymphoma.

Ms. Barnes moved to a new apartment. Dot started behaving strangely, lethargically. Her usual friendliness vanished-she started hiding from people in the apartment. She'd always been a talker; now she was losing her voice. Her eyes were glassy and she began losing weight. When she developed a cough, Ms. Barnes took her to the veterinarian.

The veterinarian confirmed it: Dot had feline leukemia. Ms. Barnes was somewhat familiar with the disease-when she was a child, her family had been forced to put a cat to sleep because of it. She remembered the distress.

The doctor, concerned about Dot passing the disease on to others, recommended euthanasia.

Whether veterinarians suggest euthanasia for a cat with FIV or feline leukemia depends on the situation. First, it's important to retest the cat. The typical FIV test, for example, searches for antibodies-which kittens can get from their mother. It doesn't necessarily mean an infection.

Feline leukemia is highly contagious. It spreads through contact with bodily fluids-two cats that share a food bowl, or groom each other, or just touch noses through a screen door can infect each other.

"You always want to double-check it," said Dr. Eileen Adamo of Cats Exclusively Veterinary Hospital, Pittsford, N.Y. "Always get a secondary test done at a specialty lab."

With FIV, the survival chances are better. FIV-positive cats can live long lives, veterinarians said. And as long as they don't fight with the other cats in the house, there's little chance of transmission.

Feline leukemia-positive cats can have episodes, be treated for the symptoms, and recover to live in relative health for lengthy periods of time. But they don't do as well as the FIV cats, and the chance of spreading the disease to other pets is much greater. "You use [the vaccine] to protect against a possible encounter, but it's not for day-to-day contact," Dr. Adamo said. "With leukemia, that positive cat will spread it to others, without question."

Melanie Moore of Muskogee, Okla., has a six year-old cat, Maxwell, that tested positive for feline leukemia when he was just a kitten. At 12 weeks old, he'd been dumped in the country near the home of a woman who already owned several cats. She passed him on to Ms. Moore, who agreed to take him in.

At the time, Ms. Moore had one other cat. Maxwell tested only mildly positive for feline leukemia at first, and the veterinarian doubted the results. Another test six months down the road confirmed the diagnosis, but by that point Maxwell had already been living with the other cat. And the family had become attached to this gentle, peaceful animal that didn't seem to even know how to hiss.

"By then he was part of the household," Ms. Moore said. "I certainly never have regretted that decision. That was never an option, not to keep him."

Today she owns three cats in addition to Maxwell, who remains fairly healthy. He has eye trouble-corneal ulcers and pupils that remain dilated-and he recovered from a liver problem a few years back. Ms. Moore watches him closely, taking him to the veterinarian quickly when health issues crop up.

She keeps the others up to date on their shots and hopes for the best. So far, none have contracted the disease. "The cats I've taken in would not have a home otherwise," she said. "Even if their lives are short, and I hope they're not, they're getting a better life with me than they would be if they stayed in the outside."

People often opt to keep the cat despite the disease. "What are you going to do?" said Dr. Eric Bregman of The Cat Hospital LLP, Williston Park, N.Y. "If you love the cat, you're not going to have it leave the house."

Some animal hospice organizations or rescue groups take in FIV- or feline leukemia-positive cats. Sometimes people who already own an animal with the disease are willing to rescue another that's also positive. Occasionally an owner will try to keep the cats separated within the same house.

People shouldn't feel obligated to euthanize a feline-leukemia positive cat, but they do need to be aware of the risk to other animals, Dr. Adamo said. If your outdoor cat has trouble coping with its new indoor status, you can try to build it an outdoor kennel-but make sure it's enclosed to the point where neighborhood cats won't be able to visit with your pet and become infected. Before visiting a house with another cat, be sure to wash your hands thoroughly, put on new clothing, and slip out the door without having contact with your pet.

If you decide to take in a new animal after the death of your leukemia-positive cat, you should wait about a month, Dr. Adamo said. The virus is highly unstable outside of its host and dies quickly, but you should also take the precaution of cleaning the house well, washing the cat's bedding, its food bowls, and the floor. A solution of four ounces of bleach in a gallon of water does an effective job.

Owners also need to be psychologically braced for their cat's shortened lifespan. The pets' health can decline swiftly with problems such as vomiting, diarrhea, weight loss and difficulty breathing. "Be ready for the emotional damage that will befall you when the cat starts to go downhill," Dr. Adamo said.

When the veterinarian confirmed that Dot had feline leukemia, Ms. Barnes and her mother, who had accompanied her, both broke down in tears. After the office visit, she called a few other veterinarians for a second opinion, and eventually decided against euthanasia. Instead, she would isolate Dot from other pets and care for her as long as she could be made comfortable.

"Be ready for the emotional damage that will befall you when the cat starts to go downhill," Dr. Adamo said.

Dot is doing well now. She takes multi-vitamins and eats a good diet, and she's gained back the weight she lost. "I'm so glad I didn't put her down."

But the knowledge of the impending loss has its effects. Based on her experience, Ms. Barnes urges others to keep cats indoors and updated on their shots. "I used to think it was good to let her outside to run around outside, but if in this day and age, someone is going to be irresponsible as my neighbor was ..." She let the thought trail off.

"All the cats in that neighborhood are probably infected," she said. "I just can't stress enough the importance of keeping them inside."

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