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A cat’s life

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Spring 2007: Our recently adopted tabby-Siamese cross cat has his first ear infection (at least, with us as his owners). Symptoms are a weird smell from his ears and dark discharge. It’s handled with ear drops (that he is not thrilled about).

2008 to 2014: McSteamy continues to periodically get ear infections, with the usual treatment. (That he remains not thrilled about.)

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Our handsome Mr. McSteamy

2015: The vet starts to wonder if McSteamy’s ear infections are due to an allergy. We trial him on this fairly awful food made with “hydrolized chicken”—and the other two cats, who definitely don’t have allergies, have to go along. None of them starve, but there’s absolutely no improvement to McSteamy’s ears, either. Finally an oral antibiotic clears those up.

And the cats return to their previous diet.

2016: The vet notes that McSteamy seems to have ear polyps—small purple growths in the ear canal. “That’s a chronic problem,” he notes, though that McSteamy’s ear issues might be chronic doesn’t seem like news, at this point.

August 2018: We’re away for the weekend. Instead of the usual “Everything went well with the cats” report, the catsitter emails that McSteamy’s eye “has rolled up into his head.”

Huh. That doesn’t sound good.

We get home to find that the inner eyelid on McSteamy’s left eye is staying shut, giving him something of a one-eyed zombie cat look. He seems OK otherwise, though.

“Is your cat missing an eye?” asks one of the guys working on our bathroom renovation.

Our local vet visit diagnoses it as Horner’s syndrome, wherein the pupil of one eye contracts more than the other, making that inner eyelid think it’s time for sleep, or whatever. The cause of Horner’s is varied: It’s a response by the nerve that runs from the eye to the ear and down the chest, and the issue could originate anywhere along it.

But with McSteamy, the guess is an ear problem, and he’s back on ear drops.

September 2018: The drops have improved the situation enough that the left eye is now just slightly more shut than the right, its pupil just slightly more contracted. But the root cause might be those polyps. These are not overly common in cats, and our vet isn’t well equipped to deal with them. She suggests a referral to a specialist—a dermatologist.

There are cat dermatologists? (“Must be a very smart cat!” says a friend.)

There are, albeit not in Waterloo. When I get the referral, I find that I have to drive him to Guelph, home of a Veterinary College, about 45 minutes away.

The doctor, whom I’ll call Dr. S, is very nice, though. He suggests laser surgery to remove the polyps. But first, McSteamy needs to take medication to reduce the swelling as much as possible. And, just in case allergies are involved, he’s put an rabbit food diet. (No, I don’t mean vegetarian—cats are obligate carnivores. I mean rabbit meat cat food. Which is not cheap.)

I mention the ineffectuality of the hydrolized chicken food trial, but Dr. S says that subsequent studies have it’s not always an effective test for cats with chicken allergies.

At least the cats (now we have only two) seem to like the rabbit food.

We remember that we didn’t get an estimate on the cost of the surgery. We ask for one and… Yowsa. And here I thought the rabbit food and consultation was expensive.

October 2018: Due to our vacation and Dr. S being away at conferences, the surgery isn’t scheduled til November 1. The week before it, McSteamy doesn’t seem great. He’s isolating himself more, and seems to have developed a sneeze. Is he even up for surgery?

But it seems hard to back out now.

November 1: McSteamy had to fast Halloween night, and I have to get him to Guelph for 9:00 AM, which means driving there in rush hour. (I’m able to get some time off work for this; Jean is not.) Both cat and human are stressed on arrival.

I’m told that they will call with how it went. But the hours tick by… 10:00, back home; 11:00, no call; 12:00, nothing; 1:00, 2:00, no call, no call… At 2:30 I call them; no answer, leave message. At 2:45 I call again to say that I’m leaving to go pick him up.

On my way, the phone rings. I don’t have hands-free set up, so when possible, I pull over to listen to voice mail. He’s fine, they say. It went well.

On arrival, they apologize for not calling sooner. Short of staff. And also, unexpectedly, the surgery took three hours. Three!

They put me in a waiting room with McSteamy, who’s bouncing around like crazy cat, still under the effect of the painkillers and anesthetic. Dr. S comes in to go over what was done. The surprise was a very large polyp, deep in the left ear. Somewhat complex to remove, apparently.

I’m sent home with pills to give him daily, things to watch out for, and a plan to bring him for a recheck in about 8 weeks.

November 3 to 4: After initially seeming fine, McSteamy is slowing down. Moving very slowly, sleeping a lot (even for him). Is this normal? I resolve to call and ask about it, if he’s not better by mid-week.

November 5: Home from work to find that McSteamy has been bleeding all over the bed he was sleeping on. We clean up his ear, requiring an alarming number of ear wipes to do so.

Excessive bleeding is one of the things to watch for. We take photos and, as it’s after hours, I email the Dr. S’s clinic with what’s been going on.

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That’s a lot of blood…

November 6: McSteamy and I have a ritual: Every morning, he jumps on the bed for a cuddle and purr session. (He’s better at purring than I am.) He’s not Mr. Punctuality, so if I’m already up when he shows up for cuddle time, he insists I get back in bed. Really, not a bad way to start the day.

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It’s so nice, we sometimes do this later in the day as well

But this day, when Jean has to be up early for a work trip, he sees McSteamy start up the stairs for the cuddle… Then give up and head back to his hiding place in the basement.

Uh oh.

I make this a “work from home” day. McSteamy seems miserable. He’s withdrawn, lethargic. I’m thinking he’s dying.

The clinic calls around 10:00 in response to the email. I give the update. They want me to bring him in the next day. In the meantime, he appears to be in pain, so they prescribe opioids, which I can pick up from my local vet. I give him some that evening.

November 7: McSteamy jumps on the bed for a morning cuddle, seeming completely himself. Yay, opioids!

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Terrible picture, but very nice to see him happy that morning!

Jean’s still away, so I’m off to Guelph again. (At least not in rush hour.) On arrival, they take him into the back room. Eventually, the bring him back. “That was much more bleeding than I was expecting.”

But they’ve cleaned him up, and re-cauterized his wounds.

“Can you bring him back Friday?”

November 8 to November 28: With all the trips to and from Guelph, I’ve done more driving this month than I typically do all year. Google seems to suggest a different route each time, so I’m not even really learning the way.

I has to be said, though, that Dr. S has been great, giving up his lunch hours and such, and not charging me for his time, only for materials (and sometimes not even that).

But McSteamy is in a bit of cycle: The wounds heal, dry up, fall into the ear (they call that “necrotic debris”), which gets itchy, so he scratches, thus wounding his ears again. They suggest an e-collar, but I can’t bring myself to make him wear one of those all the time. (How will he eat? How will he groom?)

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Except for this photo op, we didn’t make him wear this

But I’m also fearing he’ll never heal up.

I Google. I find a suggestion: Gluing Soft Claws—little plastic caps—on his back claws. This is no easy task, even with a fairly placid cat like McSteamy, but in the interest of de-stressing his wife, Jean gets it done (while I hold the cat), with tweezers and crazy glue. McSteamy looks pretty cute with his sparkling toes.

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Some other cat in soft claws

These caps are supposed to stay in place for six weeks. I’d say it was more like one week. But, it worked! That seemed just enough time to get the ears to heal.

The visits to Guelph get farther apart. McSteamy seems to be recovering well.

December 6 to 14: Zoë, my other cat, is in for a routine checkup. She seems fine, but she is 14. And the vet notes that she’s been losing weight.

Zoë likes variety, so eating only rabbit meat hasn’t entirely agreed with her. But also, the blood work says, her liver values are “off”. She’s prescribed antibiotics and supplements.

But of course.

I’m expecting more pills, but am handed two liquid antibiotics. When we give the first to Zoë, she starts foaming from the mouth as though poisoned. Then she has to get another. I call the vet.

“Normal”, apparently. Medicine is very bitter, and that’s how cats react to bitter.

She has to get this stuff twice a day, for five days with one, seven with the other (which isn’t quite as bitter but apparently still not a treat).

Oh, and Jean, who was supposed to get a break from work travel in December… Suddenly hHas to go away on work travel. All week.

I am not coping well. But at least Zoë forgives me for poisoning her twice daily. Maybe because, with Dr. S’s blessing, I also expand her food horizons to other low allergen foods: venison, duck, pork, kangaroo (!).

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Zoë will only lie on you if you have a blanket barrier

December 26: Christmas break was excellent, and much needed. On our return, McSteamy seems in great shape, very active and playful and happy to see us. Zoë is also fine; well done her with meds now and enjoying the food variety.

December 27: “Don’t mean to alarm you,” says Jean. “But feel this lump on McSteamy’s jaw.”

December 28: I bring McSteamy to the local vet. She notes that the lump is exactly where a lymph node is, but that none of his other lymph nodes seem affected. She does a needle aspiration to send to the lab. But with the holidays, we won’t get results for four days. McSteamy is put on antiobiotics—just pills, not nasty liquid.

January 4, 2019: McSteamy still seems fine, but the antiobiotics have had no effect on the lump—in fact, it seems to be spreading. The lab results are that it’s a “reactive lymph node”, but what is it reacting to? We see a different vet at the local clinic, who says to consider that this could be cancer. We’d have to get a biopsy done to find out more. That’s an expensive surgical procedure—also painful.

McSteamy has an appointment with Dr. S the following week, but this vet seems doubtful the ear has anything to do with this. She suggests postponing that appointment.

Dr S’s office is closed til Monday, but I email them about the situation and ask if it makes sense to bring him in, and that if not, that we’ll cancel (and give Dr. S his lunch break back).

January 9: We decide against putting McSteamy through another surgical procedure (the biopsy), and instead try upping the dose of the steroid he’s been on since his ear surgery. No reply to my email so I call Dr. S’s office, but I just get the machine.

I don’t bring McSteamy to his appointment.

January 10: By email, I hear from Dr. S’s office, a day late, that it would have been good to bring him in for a check. That’s unfortunate to find out now, I reply. When I get a new appointment?

Not til January 23.

January 11 to 12: McSteamy is slowing down, the swelling spreading. The steroids haven’t really helped; the local vets seem out of ideas. I’m thinking it’s cancer, he’s dying. (The cancer treatment options for cats aren’t great.) We’re wondering how long we can keep him comfortable. Every time I suspect he’s nearing that point, I fall apart.

Just in case, I pick up more cat opioids from the vet. Maybe that will buy more time.

January 13: McSteamy’s behavior on opioids is odd this time. He seems skittish, hyper, confused.

January 14: I talk to the vet. McSteamy seems to be experiencing “euphoria”. Try him on half a dose of the opioid, she suggests. We do, and that’s better, but then we figure… Perhaps he doesn’t need a painkiller at all (yet). True. That is good.

However, now he’s having trouble eating dry food, and he’s starting to lose weight. His left ear has developed a weird smell, and some bleeding, possibly from him scratching at it again.

January 15: Bring both cats to the original vet. Zoë seems great, gaining weight. McSteamy… not so much. The vet doesn’t know what else to suggest. She says she’ll write up a full report for Dr. S, and see what his advice is. She hopes to hear back in a day or two.

Thinking comfort, I ask for ear drops and for high-fat “recovery” can food typically given to sick cats. The drops (which McSteamy remains unimpressed with) do seem to help the ear somewhat, and both cats like the food.

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McSteamy, hanging in there

January 21: No word from Dr. S’s office still, but Jean suggests that I bring McSteamy there anyway. I contact them to confirm the appointment, and they say they haven’t heard from my vet, but will ask her to send the report again.

January 23: Weather is dodgy, so I take an Uber to Guelph. The driver is very friendly; turns out his wife is a catsitter! The driver wants the job of driving me back to Waterloo, but Uber doesn’t make this easy to arrange. We eventually figure it out, and he waits around at the clinic while I take McSteamy in to be seen.

Turns out the local vet did send the report on January 15, but due to a fax malfunction (fax?!?), they didn’t get it until the following week.

McSteamy has lost over 1 kg of weight. And the swelling in his jaw is… significant.

They take him into a back room to scope his ear and do a needle aspiration. The results:

  • There is new polyp in his left ear, where the lymph node reacted.
  • It seems to have caused an abscess (the swelling) that can be treated with an injectable antiobiotic.
  • While not definitive, the needle aspiration showed no sign of cancer.
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Texting Jean from Dr. S’s clinic

January 25 to 27: Planning to be away for the weekend, and I’m beside myself on how to get McSteamy to eat enough given that he’s only eating can food, which dries up quickly once left out. We arrange to leave later on Friday, and get back earlier on Sunday. I hire not one by two catsitters so he can get three visits a day, and I leave them crazy complex instructions on how to encourage eating.

Both catsitters assure me that he eats at every visit.

January 27: Back home, McSteamy’s jaw swelling seems to have shrunk somewhat, though certainly not gone. I Google “Best dry food to get cats to gain weight”. The suggestion is Iams kitten food. High fat, high protein, with little tiny kibbles (“for tiny mouths!”). That might work.

And hey, they sell it at Walmart, which is open Sunday night.

January 28 to February 1: It’s a relief when McSteamy takes to the kitten food (and Zoë likes it, too). I can happily refill their dishes at will, with food that will stay fresh all day. McSteamy still seems awfully thin, but has regained some energy and resumed imperiously walking around the house, meowing for attention.

And continues jumping on the bed for cuddles.

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Zoë, meanwhile, continues to gain weight, and a new blood test shows that her liver values have improved. Who would have thought that a liver condition is so much easier to deal with than ear polyps?

Up next: McSteamy gets a repeat of the injectable antibiotic and an ear treatment next week.

The week after that, another consult with Dr. S. One decision to make: Whether to do more ear surgery, to remove the new polyp.

(What could go wrong…?)

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