(Note: Parts of this were posted previously to my Livejournal as well. I’m playing catch-up over here to get to Story At Hand, as it were.)
About a month ago, Eric, my little chow hound who’d scarf up stray cornflakes I’d drop on the floor, my little orange dude who’d dive into the trashcan to find choice rancid leftovers, suddenly became fussy over his food. It manifested in the weirdest way, too: he seemed reluctant to chew. He’d nibble and lick very daintily at his food, and then spit out large chunks of it, almost as if chewing hurt his mouth.
Concurrently, I noticed that I was refilling the water dishes a lot more frequently than I ever had. I didn’t think too much about it; Portland was going through a heatwave, and not only were both cats drinking a lot more, water was also evaporating somewhat faster than it normally would.
But that chewing thing, man. That worried me. Eric has always had bad teeth; I’ve often described his breath as “doom and destruction,” and that’s been true ever since he was a little kitten. So I was all “Oh shit he needs another dental” and hauled his furry butt into the vet, even though he’d had an annual exam just a couple weeks before.
The orange menace hadn’t lost any weight—on the contrary, he’d put on a whole six ounces since his checkup in early August. His temperature was perfectly normal, and his heart sounded good. His teeth looked a bit gross, but we knew that already, but the vet hadn’t thought it serious enough to warrant an immediate teeth cleaning.
But. But. While wrestling with Eric for the blood draw (and of course the poor monkey doesn’t get the fact that if he just sat still instead of leaping for freedom and glory, it’d be over much sooner; if there were one thing I could communicate to my cats during vet visits, that would be it), the vet noticed that his kidneys felt enlarged. Eric had also peed himself during the course of the Blood Draw Olympics, and she noticed that the pee was unusually dilute as well.
And all of a sudden, the dip in his appetite and rise in water intake clicked together into a picture that made a lot of sense. I mean, not to rule out his teeth, because they do need to get cleaned, too. But yeah. Suddenly, the specter of chronic renal failure raised its ugly head.
Got the bloodwork back a few days later, and it was bad. Not as horrible as it could be, but Eric’s levels of blood urea nitrogen (BUN) and creatinine were extremely elevated—classic symptoms of chronic renal failure. His BUN was 88 when the normal range for a healthy cat is 14-36, and his creatinine was 3.8 when the normal range is 0.6-2.4. BUN and creatinine are waste products normally processed and filtered by the kidneys, but if the kidneys are damaged enough, these waste products end up hanging out in the bloodstream instead of being excreted.
His blood phosphorus levels were normal, though, which was a relief, because phosphorus is a mineral damaged kidneys have an especially difficult time excreting, and hyperphosphatemia (excess phosphorus in the blood) leads to all sorts of problems, up to and including calcium absorption abnormalities and hyperparathyroidism (production of excess parathyroid hormone).
The vet recommended going to VDIC, a company specializing in advanced veterinary diagnostics, to get an ultrasound of his kidneys. The vet and I were worried and perplexed at the young age (Eric’s only 7, and shouldn’t be showing bloodwork values like that for at least another 7 or 8 years) and the fact that his kidneys felt swollen. And away I hauled the Great Orange Kitty to have his kitty belly shaved and bombarded with INVISIBLE SOUND WAVES OF THE FUTURE.
And Eric once again proven himself to be an exceptional cat. Turns out he has a fairly advanced case of polycystic kidney disease (warning for the faint of heart: picture of hole-riddled kidney on that page). It’s an autosomal dominant genetic disorder that’s distressingly common among purebred Persians and Exotics, but very rare in muttly types like he. So hey, if he has to have renal failure, at least it’s HIGH-CLASS renal failure. He’s right on schedule, too: the average age for a PKD kitty to show symptoms of renal failure is about 7 years old. The very sweet ultrasonographer told me that Eric has no visible normal renal structures left in his kidneys, and doesn’t know how much longer he has left with us, realistically.
I’m going to go into the details of the diet modifications I have made and plan to make in another post, but I wanted close with the following heart-warming lessons that I gained from this little experience:
1. Even small, seemingly insignificant changes in cat behavior may indicate major illnesses. Anybody looking at Eric now wouldn’t know he’s as sick as he is: he’s energetic, muscular and happy, and his appetite is just about as good as it’s ever been, after that first initial dip that caught my attention. Now that I’m tracking his water consumption more closely, I’m astonished at how much water he’s drinking—he goes through at least six ounces a day, maybe a bit more, which is completely atypical for cats on nothing but wet food.
Here’s the most important moral of the story: Cats are astonishingly stoic, and by the time they’re showing signs of something wrong, it’s usually because something is really, really fucked up. Watch them carefully, and if their food or water intake goes through a noticeable change and it’s not due to something like a diet switch, your radar should go off and you should take your little bastard to the vet as soon as you can.
2. Once your cat is about 7 or 8 years old, have an annual blood and urine panel done. It doesn’t matter if they appear sick or not; the point is to establish healthy baselines for your cat so that if a serious deviation appears one year, your eye will be drawn to it much more quickly. I didn’t have a senior panel done for either of my cats this year because I’m in law school, and money is even tighter than usual, but once I found out that Hitlercat may have PKD as well (what with the disease being autosomal dominant and all), I ran her fuzzy butt back in for a blood analysis. And this isn’t the way it should be; the analyses should be something routine. I’m not saying you should go without food or miss paying bills just to get bloodwork done on your seemingly healthy middle-aged cat, but if you can at all afford it, you should git ‘er done.
3. Life has a way of biting you in the ass. I was fully expecting to have a solid 15-20 years with my little bastards, and I was counting on Eric to drive me crazy well into my 40s. Now, I’m savoring every purr and head-butt I get, and every scritch and cuddle and pet is loaded with affection and meaning. In the past couple of years, I haven’t been especially good about paying attention to my two cats or playing with them, especially once law school started and began to eat me alive, but that’s definitely changed over the last couple of weeks.
All I’m saying is: Savor your time with your cats while you still have them. Life gets crazy and you can start taking them for granted, but your lives will be so much richer if you make the time to spend with them.