by Marcia Hill Gossard ’99, ’04 Ph.D. | Photos by Henry Moore Jr.
As we walk into the WSU Veterinary Teaching Hospital, I can hear my cat’s meows getting louder and a lot longer. The last one seemed to have lasted 20 seconds. I start to wonder how any cat can possibly meow that long without taking a breath.
“It’s okay, we’re going inside now,” I say in a futile effort to calm Thomas, our domestic short hair gray tabby. He has been meowing almost nonstop ever since we left the house.
“Hey there, Thomas,” says Stephen Short, the patient service representative at the veterinary hospital check-in counter. He has greeted us this way nearly every month for the last 2 years. “What can we do for you today?”
“Thomas is here for his monthly shot,” I say.
After he checks us in, we take a seat and wait. A few minutes later, a veterinary student walks across the lobby with a giant file folder nearly 3-inches thick under her arm. “Are you here for Thomas?” I asked. “I can tell because of…”
“The size of the file?” she asks, finishing my sentence. We both laugh. She can tell we are regulars. Mandy is a fourth-year veterinary student and will be the one giving Thomas a quick exam today. Over the years we’ve seen at least 2 dozen students.
When we walk into the exam room, I see they have put a cat pad over the stainless-steel table to make it more comfortable. I always hate to tell them that Thomas’s favorite spot is the beige plastic scale that is pushed up against the wall. He walks out of the carrier I brought him in and makes a beeline for the scale.
“Oh, that’s great,” says Mandy, who then can easily check his weight. She starts to give him a brief physical exam.
“He doesn’t like his temperature taken,” I say.
Mandy laughs again. “I was told that,” she says. “Because we see him so often, I don’t have to take it if he looks well.”
She listens to his heartbeat, which is hard to hear with all the purring, and feels his stomach. He lifts his giant paw in protest. Thomas, a polydactyl cat, has an extra toe that looks like a big thumb. When he opens is paw, it is a baseball mitt. Like catcher Johnny Bench of the Cincinnati Reds, nothing can get past his giant paw, or the extra claws.
“Everything looks good,” she says. “I’ll be right back with the doctor and his shot.”
“Okay, Thomas, we are in the home stretch now,” I say.
The Day Thomas Came to Stay
More than 2 years before in late summer 2016, Thomas showed up on our doorstep, thin and asking for food. We’d known Thomas from around the neighborhood for years. Many mornings, he would run down the sidewalk and greet us when we walked our son to elementary school. Hearing his meow and giving him lots of affection felt like part of our daily routine. For 4 months, he came every day to our back stoop for a bit of wet cat food.
What we hadn’t known was that Thomas had been living outside for nearly 7 years. By the winter of 2017, Thomas was wanting to come into our house to get out of the cold. We contacted his owners and decided to adopt him formally. He was 13 years old. He hasn’t left since.
A Dire Diagnosis
Thomas had only been inside our house for a few days before we realized he was very sick. He spent the first 3 days sleeping and barely ate or drank anything. He vomited nearly every day. And he had diarrhea, something I’d never seen in any of the cats I’d had before.
We took Thomas to the Small Animal Community Practice at the WSU Veterinary Teaching Hospital.
“Initially, we gave him a dewormer to treat for common parasites and examined a fecal sample to look for uncommon ones and found none,” says Community Practice veterinarian Dr. Cariann Turbeville. “When these did not help, we tried an antibiotic that would help if he had an overgrowth of bacteria in his small intestine, then a probiotic to reestablish his good gut bacteria.”
But Thomas didn’t get any better. And now, the likely reasons for his symptoms were dire.
“The 2 most common diagnoses for his diarrhea were inflammatory bowel disease or lymphoma, an intestinal cancer,” says Community Practice veterinarian Dr. Raelynn Farnsworth. But to confirm which it was meant taking a biopsy of his intestines. “We know how invested Marcia is as Thomas’s owner, but she did not want to put him through a lot of invasive diagnostics.”
Because the procedure was invasive and knowing definitively was unlikely to change the course of action, we opted to treat him for inflammatory bowel disease based on his symptoms alone. While the disease is not curable, it is often managed with diet. With a new plan, we visited the pharmacy to get our prescription food and went home, hopeful that it would help.
But after several months, Thomas seemed to be getting worse. He would sleep for days, wake up and urinate wherever he was. He was litter box trained, so I took that as a sign to us that he wasn’t feeling well.
One afternoon I came home, and he had vomited everywhere. I’d had cats all throughout my life, and I knew this was not typical. Thomas was suffering.
A Medication Miracle
With tears streaming down my face, I called Dr. Farnsworth. I knew I couldn’t let him suffer any longer and putting him down seemed like the most humane thing after watching him in pain for so many months. I had been tracking his good days and his bad days. I counted he was sick for 20 out of 26 days.
“Bring him in before you decide,” she says. “We can try giving him a steroid shot and see if that makes a difference.”
Giving steroids to treat a cat like Thomas are a last resort when other treatment options have not worked. I was glad for the glimmer of hope she was offering me. But when we came for our appointment, they also told me the risks. Cats who are treated with steroids often get diabetes, sometimes within weeks, explained veterinarian Dr. Robert Dyke. Steroids can also cause heart disease in cats. Or they may only work for a short time.
For us, the option was to put him down, or to try the steroid with the hope that he would at least have a few months with a better quality of life. We were willing to accept the risks.
Within days after getting the shot, Thomas was a new cat. He was playful, affectionate, and started behaving like a healthy cat. And Thomas’s delicate thin frame and extremely long legs belie the kind of cat he is in the cat world. At 15 years old, he chases other cats out of our yard. If they don’t leave, Thomas won’t back down from any fight. A few months ago, he caught a mouse.
But we’ve had ups and downs. Some days Thomas still doesn’t feel well, but he is better more often than not. Kindly neighbors have tried to feed him because he’s still so charming from his living-on-the-street days, so we had to order him a special medical tag that said “Bowel Disease. Do Not Feed” to make sure he’s only eating prescription food. And every month Thomas visits the veterinary hospital for the steroid shot called Depo-Medrol to relieve his symptoms.
“We got lucky; the empirical treatment worked,” says Dr. Farnsworth. “It accomplished what our goal for Thomas was, which was to improve his quality of life without expensive diagnostics.”
Back at the Veterinary Hospital
Today we are seeing Dr. Turbeville. She’s amazed by how well Thomas is doing. “Steroids often stop working over time,” she says. “For them to work for a year and a half is exceptional. For them to work for 2 years is really rare.”
“He has a strong will to live, this one,” I say petting Thomas on the head while he sits on the scale.
The other Community Practice veterinarians agree. “He’s exceeded my expectations,” says Dr. Dyke.
“He’s on his eighth life,” says Dr. Farnsworth.
Marcia Gossard is the editor of the Advance newsletter and senior writer in the WSU College of Veterinary Medicine. Her dog Louie has learned to tolerate Thomas, and they mostly pretend the other doesn’t exist.