Apr 30, 2017

Does catnip alleviate anxiety?

My favorite recent photo of Fox. He poses.
I'm a cat person, if that isn't obvious. I've had cats, or they've had me, since I was ten and my mother brought home an abandoned gray striped tabby named Samantha.

Since my dear Spike passed away a couple of years ago, Fox has been managing the critical feline household responsibilities on his own. Although he retains some shyness, probably some residual trauma after his difficult kittenhood on the streets of Los Angeles, Fox is a sweetheart of a cat, mellow and affectionate. I'm constantly grateful that I adopted him, and I'd do it again in a heartbeat. Even though he's had one serious illness after another.

First, there was the flute thing

When Fox was only three, he started having problems urinating. He kept tracking back and forth to the litter box, meowing loudly, eliminating only tiny bits of urine each time. I immediately took him to the vet, who diagnosed an infection and gave him antibiotics. The symptoms went away for a couple of days and then returned. After several vet visits, courses of antibiotics and continually returning symptoms, the vet referred me to a specialist. An ultrasound revealed thickening in Fox's bladder and the specialist diagnosed FLUTD (pronounced "fluted"), which is Feline Lower Urinary Tract Disease. Which I later realized isn't actually a disease, but an umbrella term for a number of urinary disorders in cats. (I'm a librarian and did a lot of research on FLUTD at the time.)

Poor little Fox had a miserable summer. A former feral street kitten when I adopted him, he was utterly terrified of the vet, and there were many visits and many vets. During one of the later vet visits (I think it was the ultrasound) Fox was so frightened that the vet couldn't get him out of the cage in the lab, and I had to go back and coax him out. He didn't claw anyone or anything, because Fox doesn't do that; he just dug in and refused to move.

FLUTD mostly affects male cats because they have extremely narrow urethras. If it gets really bad, a vet can do a realignment surgery called "perineal urethrostomy" (I wrote it down in my address book at the time so I could research it) that creates another opening that the cat can pee through. It's not a great option, since many cats who have the surgery develop complications and infections. I was fortunate that the specialist told me honestly that Fox wasn't a good candidate for the surgery. Which would have cost five to six thousand more dollars. I'd already spent about three thousand that summer on the many vet visits, tests and meds — the ultrasound alone cost several hundred. I would have paid for the operation on credit if it would have saved Fox's life: he was my responsibility, I loved him very much, and he was only three years old at the time. But it wasn't just the specialist's recommendation that made me decide against it. That operation felt wrong to me.

So what happened, you may be asking? (Or maybe you're not interested in bizarre cat illnesses and have stopped reading, but I'll continue anyway.) The specialist gave Fox a pain medication called buprenorphine (I wrote that down in my address book, too) and of everything they tried that summer, it was this particular drug that made all the difference. It got Fox totally stoned and calm, and son of a gun, the symptoms went away.

For the next couple of years, the same symptoms occasionally returned, and each time I asked my regular vet for that same drug for Fox, gave it to him for a couple of days, and he got better. Why did a sedative make Fox better? I don't know. Fox wasn't imagining the problem; he's a cat, and besides, the thickening in his bladder was visible in the ultrasound. But getting him stoned worked. My regular vet continued to bring up the surgery, and I kept saying no.

Interestingly, the FLUTD vanished entirely when Fox was five or six. At some point, he just never got the symptoms again. He pees just fine now, knock wood.

And then there was the patella

One morning when I woke up, I found Fox in a panic, huddled against the wall and refusing to walk. I rushed him to the vet. Diagnosis? Fox has a genetic defect in the patella in his right rear leg. No operation to fix it, the vet said. Essentially, ever afterward, Fox would occasionally hurt his knee, patella, whatever, and he'd limp a bit for a day or two, and then he'd be fine.

I thought it was a hairball

Skip ahead a couple more years. One day, Fox started making these noises that sounded a whole lot like he was trying to cough up a hairball. He'd never had hairballs before, but I went out and got Petromalt. Fox hated Petromalt and got upset every time I gave it to him (I smeared it on his paw so he would lick it off) and worse, it didn't work and the coughing continued. After a couple of days, I took him to the vet, who told me that it wasn't a hairball — it was probably something very serious, she told me, looking grim. She gave me a long and frightening list of horrendous things that could be wrong with Fox, including cancer, and recommended a medical procedure (expensive) that would involve anesthetizing him and getting a tissue sample from his lungs.

Remembering with sparkling clarity what had happened with the FLUTD, I opted for a less aggressive approach. The vet and I went through a checklist of the most likely issues that could be causing Fox to cough like that. The least serious was food allergies, so we tried special food, and that didn't work. Another possibility was asthma. Did you know that cats in Los Angeles get asthma more often than most other cats because of the smog?

The vet prescribed a respiratory drug for asthma called theophylline, and that worked. Fox's wracking fits of coughing lessened, and as time went on, it was clear that we had figured it out without an operation. For years now, Fox's coughing is mild for most of the year, during which I don't drug him. In spring and sometimes summer, he has wracking coughing fits, and I pill him. Or actually, usually Daniel pills him, because Daniel is better at it. Fortunately, Fox allows us to pill him. He hates it, but endures it. Theophylline makes him hyper, but at least it helps him breathe more easily and cough less.

Theophylline, like buprenorphine, is a drug for humans and it's not cheap. The last time I bought a vial of theophylline, it was about $80. It does last us awhile, though, since we don't give it to him every day.

And then there's his latest. I'm sure you're on tenterhooks by now

Very recently, Fox stopped eating and clearly felt terrible. Thinking that his kidneys were failing, which is what happened when we lost Spike, I rushed Fox to the vet. (Maybe that should have been the title of this post: "... and I rushed Fox to the vet.") The vet also thought it might be kidney failure, a common cause of death in older cats, and she prepared me for the possibility. But the blood work revealed something else: Fox's blood sugar was way over 300. It was diabetes.

I had two choices: euthanizing him or treating him, and I was told up front that treating a diabetic cat is not cheap. Even though I'm poor, I chose the latter option because I just wasn't ready to say goodbye to Fox. He's twelve now, and even though he's gotten quieter and less active over the years, he's still such a sweet cat and a good companion. I also assumed that he would be relatively easy to treat because he's so mellow, and I was right. Honestly, I wouldn't have made the same decision if it had been Spike, who was a holy terror and would have raised hell if I'd tried to inject him twice a day.

Honestly, I do not enjoy preparing syringes and giving Fox insulin shots, but knowing that it's this or losing him makes it a clear choice. I gently pull up the scruff of his neck to inject him and he doesn't seem to feel it. He never gives me a hard time. Thank God for Youtube, which has several videos I watched repeatedly on how to inject a cat.

And yes, of course, insulin is expensive. The tiny bottle of insulin that I have in the fridge right now for Fox cost $241, although fortunately, it lasts awhile. The little syringes cost $30 per hundred. I prepare a few syringes at the same time. (Insulin has to be refrigerated, but it will keep out of the fridge for about twenty days, which is a long time.) How I wish I could add Fox to my health insurance.

For me, the hardest thing about having a diabetic cat is "The Curve." It's an all day thing where the cat's blood is tested every two hours by using a lancet to poke the capillary in their ear, or if absolutely necessary, their little paw pads. Testing is much worse than the insulin shots, and much harder on the cat. Since it is very expensive if the vet does the test, I invested in an AlphaTrak testing kit that you can use for either cats or dogs (the kit was $45, and a container of 50 test strips is about $50) and I do "The Curve" myself, with the vet's permission. It's seven tests over twelve hours. I send the test result numbers to the vet and she tells me if the current dose of insulin is correct.

Again, Youtube has been a lifesaver. There are several videos on how to test your cat's blood. A tiny flashlight helps me to see the capillary in Fox's ears. Or it helps my son Daniel, who, bless him, did the tests for me last time. I think it's easier for Daniel to see it because he has 20 20 vision, and I don't.

And now, the catnip

Fox loves fresh wheat grass, the kind you can get at the checkout counter at the pet food store. He delicately sniffs it and chews on it. But even though Fox likes dry catnip and catnip toys, I never got him a live catnip plant; I didn't think he'd be interested. Silly me. Daniel bought Fox a catnip plant for the first time last month, and oh my god, Fox was obsessed with it. He chomped on it until it was ragged and drooping and most of the leaves were gone, and then he stood guard over it and slept next to it. It was hilarious.


And here's the interesting part. It's spring, the worst time of the year for Fox's asthma, and after we gave him the live catnip plant, his coughing decreased. Significantly.

Why? The catnip can't possibly be helping him breathe, can it? The only thing I can think of is that when Fox is stoned, he's relaxed and less anxious, just like when he has a bad coughing fit and I stroke him and tell him I love him and everything is okay, and it always seems to make the coughing fit shorter. Like when he had FLUTD and the only thing that helped was getting him stoned.

Whatever. I thought it was interesting that catnip seems to cure feline asthma. At least for Fox, whom I'll acknowledge outright is a weird cat.

What inspired this long description of feline illnesses, you are probably asking yourself if you're still reading this thing, and I'll tell you. It's Fox's birthday tomorrow (or my estimate of when he was born). He's going to be thirteen years old. Way back when he was three, the specialist told me Fox probably wouldn't live to be an old cat. I think making it to thirteen is pretty damned cool.

Happy birthday, my dear Fox.

2 comments:

drnanamom said...

Happy Birthday Fox!
I know the work to keep a diabetic cat alive is hard but as you say, it is worth it. I had a diabetic dog, Liliane and I get what you are saying about 'The Curve' but I was so glad I treated her diabetes. I still miss her even with the lovely Georgie to keep me company. Your weird cat is wonderful. Keep up the good work cat angel.

Lamounier said...

Billie, what a great, informative post. I had never heard of catnip. In fact, I had never heard of a lot of stuff you talked about. Again, a great, informative post. And your effort to take care of your Fox is beautiful. Happy birthday to him.

I have recently discovered the pleasure that is to have a cat. I adopted a cat that a friend of mine found in the parking lot of the company he works at. I named him Borrão (Blur, in Portuguese) and he is like your Fox, very mellow. He was around eight months old (according to the vet) when I adopted him. He was sick, some bacteria he got on the streets, but he's been better since.

Borrão is very anxious and needy. He wants to be with me at all times, but I have a long-distance relationship, so every other weekend I'm not at home. I noticed that he pulled out his own fur whenever I spent some time away, so I decided he should have a permanent company.

Even though he is mellow, he does not like to take medicine. When I traveled to visit my mother and took him with me, I gave him a pill to sedate him. It was a disaster, because (1) it didn't taste good and poor Borrão kept producing mounts and mounts of saliva. I had to force his mouth open again to give him a cookie he likes. It worked. And (2) he didn't get any calmer. For all its worth, the pill had the opposite effect and left him totally awake and alert.

After I came back from the trip, I heard that a colleague of mine had rescued a pregnant female cat who gave birth to six kittens. I adopted one of them and named him Rabisco (Doddle, in Portuguese). He was very young when I took him, only seven weeks old. My colleague said it was ok to take him because the mother was already "rejecting" the kittens.

For the first thirty seconds, Borrão welcomed Rabisco into the house, but (I guess) after he smelled Rabisco's genitals and realized it was a little boy he got very angry. I was so upset, I had never seen that side of Borrão. I had to keep them separated because Borrão was so aggressive I feared he would do something to the kitten when I wasn't around.

On the third day, I grabbed the cats and laid on the couch with them. Borrão clearly didn't like it, but they were distant enough that he conceded. They fell asleep and about thirty minutes later I was bored. I wondered how I could get up without scaring them and I began to whistle. That. Was. Magical. Borrão woke up and started meowing and licking Rabisco, very concerned for him. I was all "what's going on?" and kept whistling. I have it recorded. It was as if I had pressed a button and suddenly Borrão cared immensely for that little kitten. At first, Rabisco was somewhat afraid, but now they are best friends. A friend of mine told me that Borrão probably understood my whistle as a cry for help from the kitten.

Now Rabisco even nurses off Borrão, and Borrão lets him. It's hilarious.