Comprehensive  Ways To Delightful Healthy Pets
FERAL CATS, SNOW LEOPARD TAILS, AND BABY TIGERS
ILOVE CATCHING FOOTBALLS AND JUGGLING PINS. I GUESS IN RETrospect, I should have realized the fractious cat would have landed fine, as cats do. But when she leaped into the air, my first instinct was to catch her, and she landed in my hands, fangs first.
I called my doctor and he recommended I get to a hospital. I cleaned, bandaged, and put ice on my aching, bleeding hand. I opted not to go to the hospital right away. I took a gamble the hand would be all right. My first priority was to get home in time to watch the final episode of The West Wing, my only TV addiction. After the show, I unwrapped my hand. It had swollen to the size of a baseball.
I ended up in the hospital with IV medication and a new motto: “Step away from the flying cat.” This illustrates that allopathic medicines are often necessary. It also confirms that doctors are the world’s worst patients. And television is bad for you. The hand healed perfectly, despite the warnings from the ER doc that I might lose some function. I also took the homeopathic medicines arnica and Traumeel, which I believe helped the healing process considerably.
A cat bite is a dire medical emergency. The bacteria in a feline’s mouth can cause serious infections in a human.
I began to learn big things about big cats years ago, when I worked at the Lincoln Park Zoo. I frequently stopped at their outside habitat before starting my workday. I was privileged to help care for a litter of adorable baby cheetahs there. Felines large and small are to me the cat’s meow. They truly are a force of nature. At times quiet couch potatoes, they have an underlying playfulness, speed, and power that they unpredictably display.
Lying in his enclosure, in a lazy, legs-akimbo position, the tiger was clearly sound asleep. Or so it seemed to an unobservant pigeon tiptoeing by. In a split second the pigeon was in the tiger’s mouth. The tiger’s paws moved so quickly, I barely saw it happen. I imagine the pigeon was equally surprised. I was stunned by the tiger as he then executed a standing jump up a sheer fifteen-foot wall, landing comfortably on a narrow ledge that would have better served as a perch for a housecat. His utterly athletic moves, dignified habits, and vivid stripes really were the definition of cool.
In Chinese culture the tiger symbolizes the balanced forces of yin and yang. I like that dynamic idea. I can identify with the tiger. One minute I am cozily surrounded by my pets and family, thinking I would be happy to sit there forever, and later that day I find myself leaping from a taxi, late for a flight to Cuba to give a lecture.
Zoo medicine teaches a lot in a rarefied, reactive atmosphere—it concentrates, distills, and magnifies all issues pertaining to the creatures there. They are captives and we control their environment, unlike in the wild, where nature plays a much bigger and more random role. When I started zoo work, scientific evidence about zoo animal medicine, surgery, and husbandry was in short supply. In a huge percentage of the cases, we had to extrapolate from empirical evidence—and find a way to resolve an animal’s issues quickly. It was a matter of life or death. The microcosm of the zoo taught me to see the intricacies in healing—the complex interactions that can occur to create a breaking point in health or disease.
One fall day, in the center of the zoo’s Big Cat house, two anesthetized felines—a tiger named Spot and a snow leopard named Kabul—were stretched out as if sleeping amid a hubbub of vets, techs, volunteers, media, and zoo personnel. As I walked by the snow leopard, I ran my hand down the length of his gorgeous tail. I appreciated how Mother Nature had given leopards this long, thick tail to protect them from frigid mountain climates. With a tail like that I would even brave Chicago winters.
Snow leopards’ tails are so thick and long they are able to wrap them around their face past the chin, making their own warm scarf.
There was no problem finding a vein on this feline. I recorded, “blood collection completed.” I felt for his femoral pulse inside the rear leg. Even through the thick fur you could feel the intensity of the life force in his pulse. The annual “house call” was in full swing. All the cats were getting their full examinations—blood draws, dental care, radiographs, and nose-to-tail examinations. It was essential care for the big cats and it was an exciting media event at the zoo.
These cats were generally healthy, but the tiger Spot had shown some lameness, and sure enough, her paws had light ulcers on the pads. The keepers thought the new cement on the floor of the outer enclosure might be too tough on Spot’s feet. The roughest areas of flooring were taken out and regular footbath trays of diluted Betadine were put in strategic locations for her to walk through to ward off infection and toughen the skin on the pads of her feet. Diluted Betadine is not only a good antiseptic, but also frequently used to strengthen injured footpads.
After the vet finished Spot’s exam, she was returned to the recovery area. An hour later, I accompanied the vet to do a final check on her, this time in her enclosure. As we neared, she rushed the bars, letting out a terrifying roar. My instinct to throw myself down on the floor and sink into the brickwork shocked me. This was primal fear, and also, just another day at the office.
Housecats’ tails are highly expressive—a seemingly innocuous flick of it can be an aggressive warning to another feline.
When a dog wags its tail it is usually, though not always, friendly. When a cat wags its tail, it could mean the cat is swearing. Even though she may be sitting in my lap and tolerating my exam, her whipping tail is telling another story.
To avoid being bitten by a cat, be alert to these signs: a whipping tail, flat ears (I call them the Chinese hat of irritation), raised fur, raised spine (Halloweenesque), growl, hissing, lying on her back and looking at you with dilated pupils (or flying through the air with teeth bared).
Most feline health issues, such as urinary tract infection, diarrhea, asthma, and vomiting, can be a response to stress. If the stress trigger can be isolated, the cat can often be cured. If the trigger can’t be found, the stress will continue to exacerbate the conditions.
Cats don’t like water. Not true. Some cats love water.
Turkish van, Bengal, and Egyptian cats like water so much they will jump in the bath with you.
Cats at my clinic don’t mind walking on the underwater treadmill. They definitely prefer not to be thrown into water, but in the treadmill, the warm water comes up gradually while they walk on the treadmill, and most felines feel comfortable.
FOLLOWING THE GOLDEN THREAD
I DIDN’T HAVE ANY clue that after becoming a conventional veterinarian, I would become an acupuncturist and then veer into alternative medicine. My trajectory has been as exotic as the animals I have cared for.
My astrological sign is Pisces, so watery Seattle suited me well the summer I was a zoo intern, in my final year of vet school. With the constant rain, the ocean to the west, and the lake on the east, Seattle gave me an island feel. My small apartment had a white welcome mat that quickly became dun-colored from me tromping in and out with my mud-caked zoo work boots.
My second week at the zoo, Dr. Collins told me a baby Sumatran tiger had been born the night before. I don’t think there is anything cuter than a tiny Sumatran tiger. The minute I saw the furry baby, named Songkit, meaning “woven with a golden thread,” I was overcome with love and concern. Evidently the tiger mother was not nursing the baby very often and was overcleaning the enclosure—clearing away the bedding and every shred of warmth-giving substrate that the keepers put on the floor. This cute little gal was getting too cold. The zookeepers had to warm Songkit, add extra bedding, and return her to her mother. This unfortunate scenario was repeated for a few days.
Eventually Songkit had to be removed from her mother’s care because she was not gaining weight. It is possible that Songkit’s mother had never learned the right way to care for a baby, because she was an orphan.
The hospital staff took over Songkit’s feeding. They worked out an appropriate formula and we all took turns. Until I had my own children and heard their cooing noises, Songkit’s little fuff-fuff-fuff noise was my favorite sound on earth. Baby tigers only use that noise when their moms arrive—perhaps it translates into “I love you, I want your attention, and I’m hungry.” I was in love with a baby tiger.
A week later, Dr. Collins said there was a situation he needed to discuss with me. With me? I was just an intern. Was I in trouble? I sat down in his office and he outlined the problem. Apparently a holiday weekend was coming up and construction needed to be done at the zoo. The issue was that the baby tiger needed to be cared for, but many zookeepers would be out of town. Could I take the tiger home with me for the long weekend?
In my head, I went into high-gear mommy mode and imagined the minuscule striped carnivore tucked in a blanket in my arms, in my garden apartment, fuff-fuffing. I pictured myself hand-feeding her with a bottle.
Dr. Collins interrupted my reverie. “The feeding protocol is extremely complicated,” he said, “but we’ll give you formula and detailed instructions about everything you need to do. I have to warn you, though, even with that, there will be some trial and error involved.”
“Yes, well, I’m a trial-and-error kind of gal,” I said.
“Great,” said Dr. Collins. “We’ll put everything together for you. And by the way, Barbara,” he said, “Songkit is one of only five hundred Sumatran tigers left in the whole world, so be sure to return her to us alive.” I tried to smile, but I was panicked that he was entrusting me with this priceless living being.
And so it was that a tiny tiger came to stay at my apartment. Matt, my wildlife biologist boyfriend, had traveled to Seattle for the long Fourth of July weekend. Needless to say, we didn’t go to any fireworks display, and soon Matt was as much in love with Songkit as I was. We all rough-housed and acted like a tiger family. Matt, Songkit, and I slept on the floor. It seemed more natural for her to cuddle up and sleep next to us, and we didn’t want her to fall off the bed or to leave her alone in the crate. I only wished someone had phoned me in the middle of the night. Then I could have said, “Hang on a sec, my baby tiger just fell asleep on my arm.”
Songkit loved to romp on the carpet and cuddle on the couch for her meals. She was a kitten but her body felt like a small bear. She had fuzzy, big floppy feet; a chunky torso; velvety ears; sharp teeth; dull claws she rarely used; and a long, soft tail.
The tricky part was her diet. Obviously, her mother’s tiger milk would have been ideal, but we had to make do. We battled Songkit’s diarrhea, distended abdomen, and discomfort. The formula recipe was mostly protein with an equal amount of fat and carbohydrate and a small amount of vitamins and minerals. According to Songkit’s response, we adjusted the ingredients. Dr. Collins and Harmony, the head tech, provided excellent advice. This is an excerpt from my records just before Independence Day weekend.
REASON PULLED: maternal care, but infant temp 96.0 and low weight with decreasing weights over 3 days. Dehydrated.
FORMULA: Modified San Diego “Dr. Nelson Tiger Diet”
4 TBLS Casec powder
20 ml corn oil
190 ml pedialyte
mixed above 1:1 with esbilac (one can)
add 5 drops per quart milk of lactaid.
(Nelson diet had H2O and KMR. No lactaid.)
Currently, d/t diarrhea, mix with 1:3 with Pedialyte
Schedule for feeding: 7am 10am 1pm 4pm 7pm 10pm 1am
AMOUNTS: 40ml per bottle—30ml pedialyte. 10ml Formula
PLAN: Once able to handle a change will EITHER increase volume or concentration. At 1 month of age—29 June—should be able to go to 6 feedings a day.
After the intense and wonderful weekend, I brought Songkit back to the zoo. I continued being one of her “moms,” and I enjoyed watching her grow. Soon she became too big for me to safely go into the cage with her, even though I was a foster mom. Tigers establish territory by fighting with their mom, much like a teenage girl. Whoever wins gets to stay, and the other moves on. I knew which one I would be.
After bottle-feeding Songkit, I took a greater interest in the subtle and intricate life of big cats. Back in Chicago, I spent time watching the tigers. One tail flick can mean, “Don’t walk by me. I am holding this space sacred for the moment.” An hour later, an ear twitch can mean, “Come on over and let’s wrestle a bit.” This kind of conversation between cats is critically important in the housecat. If you have multiple cats, you may not understand what is really going on between them. They may look calm and relaxed lying in the same room, near the single litter box. But little twitches and tail flicks are saying things like:
“Why can’t I go to the litter box?”
“If you do, I’ll attack you.”
“But I really have to go.”
“Too bad, I will let you move when I feel like it. And don’t try to get to the water bowl either.”
Often the cat who does the pouncing is not the one who is actually in charge. An in-charge cat may not need to pounce. The underdog cat (“undercat”) may need to pounce to try to gain some respect. Trying to understand felines in human terms doesn’t work.
The saying that cats have nine lives seems true to me. They have an uncanny ability to heal themselves. I once treated a four-week-old stray kitten that was brought to us critically ill with a profound anemia. Her packed cell volume (PCV), which measures red blood cell amounts, was 4%, which is not a number compatible with life. Normal values are 25–45%. I examined the cold, almost lifeless little fuzzball. Her heartbeat was barely audible, her eyes tightly closed. The techs and receptionists stood nearby, blinking, holding their breaths. Everyone was emotionally involved.
There was something in the firmly shut little eyes that made me feel this petite thing was still fighting for her life. Her only chance would be a blood transfusion, warmth, and love. We certainly had lots of love in that room. I desperately hoped she could heal herself of whatever had dropped her blood cell count so low.
The other vet on duty and I both knew it seemed futile. But we agreed to work on her together. With lots of luck and a cheering section, I managed to get an IV catheter into the thread of a vein. After that, she did it all. We warmed her, gave her the blood transfusion and medications, cuddled her, and stroked her. Many vets, including me, believe human touch will markedly improve a kitten’s recovery. When she finally opened her determined eyes later that day, we could see she was going to make it. I believe she used up a couple of her nine lives to survive, but she’s going strong and still has a few left.
FACTS ABOUT CATS
A cat’s nose has ridges like a human fingerprint and each nose print is unique to each cat.
Because of the shiny tapetum lucidum that reflects and amplifies light at the back of their retinas, they can see with only one-sixth of the light humans need to be able to see.
They can run up to 30 miles per hour.
A cat’s own purring can be medicinal to them because of the frequency it gives off to the cells nearby. Humans can also benefit from the healing power of a purring cat sitting in the lap. It is believed that cats use their own purring to make themselves feel better when they are sick.
A cat’s body is perfectly designed for stealth and hunting. Sharp claws and teeth, a Velcro tongue, flexible spine, muscles that can spring their bodies seven times their height, fabulous night vision, and a fourteen times stronger sense of smell than we have.
Cats are sensitive to medications and anesthetics. I think twice about giving strong meds such as chemo and certain sedatives to a cat. I am also careful about more common medications such as anti-inflammatories. A cat liver doesn’t metabolize medications well. If doses aren’t carefully monitored, medications accumulate in their bloodstream and can reach toxic levels.
Integrative medicine is ideal for cats because of their delicate systems. A healthy diet can decrease the need for medication. But when intervention is needed, I opt for treatments with minimal side effects.
The biggest problem with oral meds is how to get a cat to take the prescription. One great solution has been to use homeopathy for cats. The doses are small, easy to administer, and go undetected by the acutely sensitive nose of the feline.
Another fabulous modality for cats is acupuncture. Initially, I wondered if acupuncture for cats would be as effective as acupuncture for dogs. But I have found that cats respond rapidly and strongly to acupuncture. Just a few needles can work wonders.
Yin, a Siamese cat, was brought to me because she would vomit several times a day and was wasting away. With a minor diet change and her first acupuncture treatment, she went from being at death’s door to being a feisty, normal cat again.
Yin is doing well now, and I rarely need to treat her. Occasionally, I give her an acupuncture treatment and her periodic flare-ups subside. When I come into the exam room, she is dramatic. She complains bitterly, hissing and growling, but she calms down quickly once the needles are in. It seems as if her protestations are an act, to appear as tough as a tiger.