In December of 2013, three things happened. One, I lost my cherished cat of eight years to Chronic Kidney Disease. Two, I posted the news at a forum called TanyaCKD Loss. And third, I received a sympathy email from a woman whose own cat had been diagnosed with stage 4 CKD two years prior. Out of those three events developed a friendship between two cat owners, brought together by our shared experience with one of the most top deadly diseases for felines.
There are two types of kidney disease. Acute Kidney Injury is a serious condition that, according to Tanya’s Comprehensive Guide to Feline Chronic Kidney Disease, usually comes on quickly and is often triggered by a specific event such as a cat eating something poisonous. AKI is usually treated at a vet’s office with intravenous fluids and other medications. If a cat survives this initial trauma, most or all of normal kidney functions can often be restored. In contrast, while Chronic Kidney Disease may also appear unexpectedly and require IV treatment, it’s a progressive disease (which means it’s not possible to regain lost kidney function). With CKD, the goal is to maintain the remaining kidney function for as long as possible. This was the situation in which both Marlo, my penfriend from Florida, and I found ourselves with our cats.
Prior to the fall of 2006, I had never owned cats. I grew up with only dogs. Later, as an independent adult in my thirties living in a series of rentals, I chose to own guinea pigs. I never considered cats because they seemed aloof and temperamental. If I petted them too long or in the wrong spot or in any other way crossed them, they were likely to swat, scratch, or bite me. This didn’t seem like the foundation for a lasting relationship. Yet now my husband and I own three cats, thanks to a stray who showed up in my yard and adopted me.
In contrast, Marlo has owned cats all her life, since she was a little girl. “I think the reason why I like cats is because I am very timid myself and non aggressive and I relate to them, better than dogs. With dogs, you have to show them that you are Alpha and train them and all sorts of intimidating things! But cats usually just seem so much more peaceful and laid back.”
Back in the fall of 2006, I was living in Beatrice, Nebraska. (My husband asks me to point out that the proper pronunciation of the town is different from that of the woman: be-AT-riss rather than BEE-uh-triss.) Cats would regularly show up in my yard. I’d feed them and offer my garage as temporary shelter. But that was it. My then-boyfriend and now-husband, Andy, had allergies, so bringing cats into my home was out of the question. Also, at that point cats hadn’t yet wiggled their way into my heart. The homeless cats themselves seemed fine with the arrangement. All continued their travels within a few days, except for a kitten whom a neighbor adopted. But then a muted calico showed up under my bushes and seemed to make herself at home there. One neighbor even decided to go door to door asking everyone if they knew who owned the cat. Inspired by my neighbor, I invited the stray into my enclosed back porch.
Let’s now check in on Marlo. She was actively looking for a cat to adopt when she found The KNIGHT. When she saw his picture online at Petfinders, he resembled a previous cat of hers that she had really liked, and so she thought it worth the three-hour trip to check him out. Her brother wanted a large cat, and so it was a point in The KNIGHT’s favor that he tipped the scales at twenty pounds. When Marlo and her brother arrived at the shelter and saw The KNIGHT, she realized he was fat rather than large. Marlo was not deterred. When let out of his cage, The KNIGHT immediately began to investigate the room and the other cages. The lady corralled The KNIGHT, picked him up, and handed him off to Marlo. ”It was love at first hold!! He gave me kitty kisses and was so affectionate, I knew the three hours had not been a wasted trip.”
Back to me and the stray calico. After allowing her into my porch, I felt obligated to search for her owner. Andy and I talked to local vets and put up flyers, but no one came forward to claim my visitor. Serious conversations began cropping up between Andy and me. Winter was just around the corner, and I didn’t feel right about turning her out. Andy checked into allergy medicines, and I had a firm talk with our guest. I told her that she might never be allowed to roam our entire house. Moreover, Andy owned a dog and I owned guinea pigs, and she had to be nice to them because they were here first. With all that said, I invited her into the living room and my life was changed forever.
The KNIGHT is a Flame Point Siamese, which Marlo explains is a mix of an Orange Tabby and a Siamese. Marlo says the motive for this pairing is that Siamese are smart but don’t have the best personalities, whereas Orange Tabbies are super likable. “Put together? Very pleasing combo!” But The KNIGHT was less than pleased during the trip home. “We definitely were keeping him,” Marlo explained, “because we were not making that trip to take him back.”
With a cat now living with me, I had to figure out many things. Foremost was a name. When we discovered that she was front-declawed, Andy quickly dubbed her Lucy Clawless in honor of the star of the TV show Xena: Warrior Princess. Then, of course, there were cat supplies to buy. Beyond that, building a relationship was the priority.
Marlo named her cat The KNIGHT. The name came up because when she wrote about him at the TanyaCKD forum, she had joked about him being Knight in “tarnished” armor, instead of shining armor, because he had chased a mother raccoon from their home and she thought that was rather ungentlemanly of him. “But then I changed that, because he really is my Knight in Shining Armor and then one of the members of Tanya’s group started writing his name in all caps and I liked it like that, so I copied her!”
One of Lucy’s most amazing qualities was that she listened to my admonitions. I told her she would be confined to one room because of Andy’s, and she never complained. (And because she never did aggravate Andy’s allergies, we stopped worrying about what we would do with her.) I told her she must be nice to the other pets, and she was. She quickly realized that our dog Barnaby was not a threat. And right from the start she was only mildly curious about my guinea pigs. One day Andy took the top off the cage and took the chance of trusting her; occasionally she would jump into their cage, sniff the guinea pigs, and jump back out. Given that she did chase squirrels, rabbits, and birds outside, this was no small feat.
Another of Lucy’s qualities is that she did not adhere to my stereotype of cats. She was affectionate, liking to sit on my lap, on my back, and on my stomach. She enjoyed being near me, and would follow me from room to room. In other ways, however, she was what I expected of a cat. She had her catty moods. She needed to be by herself at times. And she did occasionally bat at me. But in general, she was much more affectionate and obedient than I thought a cat could be. My dad once made the observation that perhaps she doted on me so much because of her background as a stray. In any case, she was exactly what I needed at that time, and I quickly grew to depend on her.
I asked Marlo to tell me about how she and The KNIGHT had bonded. She noted that initially there’d be times when he would get mad and try to bite her. He seemed to miss his former owner and so she gave him some space. But he adjusted. Now he doesn’t bite. He loves to sit outside in the sunshine right by the house. She talked about how one day The KNIGHT had “ginger in him and wanted to go exploring,” and so they headed outside. Marlo had to go really far with him, because he didn’t want to go home. Finally, after they had covered a lot of ground and he was getting tired out, he allowed them to stop.
When I asked Marlo to share a special moment between her and The KNIGHT, it too involved a stroll on a cold day. “The KNIGHT wanted to go for a walk in the woods with me and he always shows me something beautiful. This day, I was truly impressed. With his paw lifted in the air, just like a pointer dog, he turned toward a group of trees in the distance. I looked that way and there stood a stag and several deer. It was exhilarating seeing them there and they were staring at me and The KNIGHT who was still pointing in their direction. Until that point, I didn’t even know that deer even lived in this little patch of woods behind our home. The KNIGHT had flushed them out.”
On the flip side would be the funny or embarrassing moments. Any time Lucy used her litter box, she’d sprint back into the living room and begin to yowl while she stared at walls. Her reaction seemed akin to how my childhood dogs would rush around the house after a bath, barking and shaking wildly. When she had to start taking an appetite stimulant, Lucy both made me laugh and feel sad. Without fail, she’d “quack” for a while before diving into her food. But then as the pill began to lose its effect, Lucy would become irritable. The pill never seemed the ideal option, but it kept my finicky girl eating in her senior years.
Marlo told me that one of The KNIGHT’s most embarrassing moments happened the day she got him. Her brother was driving the car and Marlo was in the back seat next to The KNIGHT’s carrier, and The KNIGHT started to drool heavily. Marlo had never seen a cat do that. “We had been on the road for two hours and I thought it just had been too much for a senior cat. I kept telling my brother, ‘He’s going to die. We aren’t even going to get him home!” Her brother reassured her, saying The KNIGHT was probably just car sick. About that time, The KNIGHT backed up in the carrier, squatted, and pooped. Marlo knew then that her brother was right, but it wasn’t necessary for her to tell him. “My brother knew too for a certainty in about one minute. For the next hour as we drove with all four window open on a hot summer day!”
In the summer of 2013, after Andy and I returned from our annual vacation with my family, I noticed that Lucy seemed to be showing physical and behavioral changes. Naively, I interpreted these changes simply as signs of old age. When she relapsed a few weeks later after having x-rays showed her as having been cleared of a minor infection, I took her to the vet with the expectation that nothing major was amiss.
I was so wrong. What had been a minor heart murmur had gotten worse. The vet said she might live for another year. The news left me shaken. A year? I wanted more time! I vowed to make every moment count. But a few days later we were back at the vet again, and Lucy was diagnosed with chronic kidney failure. This time she was given just two weeks to live. Oh, to have a year!
The problem with Chronic Kidney Failure, and a reason it’s called a silent killer, is the symptoms don’t usually appear until a cat is in crisis mode or has crashed. And, even if one could identify the symptoms, there are simply so many that pinpointing which ones signal kidney failure is almost impossible. Tanya’s Comprehensive Guide to Feline Chronic Kidney Disease provides a detailed list here: Symptoms
Lucy’s initial symptoms were appetite loss, hovering over her water bowl, and some unusual eating habits. This cat who normally wanted nothing to do with any human food except chicken was grabbing at my pizza and trying to drink my root beer. At the time, those quirks made me laugh. In hindsight, they make me cry because they no doubt were signs of a failing body.
Then one weekend, she just stopped eating, and we decided to take the extreme step of having a feeding tube installed. But rather than improve, she just got worse: inability to hold up her head, nausea, dehydration, stomach acid, along with general discomfort and pain. We tried fluids and other medical interventions, but nothing helped. Tanya’s Comprehensive Guide to Feline Chronic Kidney Disease provides a detailed list here: Treatments
All of this stressed Lucy and changed her personality forever. Her days of talking with me through her meows and purrs were over. She stopped curling up in my lap during the day and sleeping beside me at night. Lucy retreated to quiet and dark places, especially those near water. When I found her soaking herself in her water fountain, we had to put the fountain in storage for her own safety. My nights became restless as I listened for every sound of her moving about, because I didn’t know where she might end up or how she might inadvertently harm herself. Tanya’s Comprehensive Guide to Feline Chronic Kidney Disease provides a detailed list of issues here: Key Issues
During this time, I stumbled across the website, Tanya’s Comprehensive Guide to Feline Chronic Kidney Disease. Marlo found the site when The KNIGHT had completely stopped eating on his own and was in the worst stage of CKD. She was determined to learn how to help him. She read Tanya’s pages all night long, and joined the Assist Feeding Group (in which she is still an active member). When The KNIGHT had a dental cleaning, his condition improved dramatically. That doesn’t happen with all cats with CKD, but it did happen with The KNIGHT. He went from stage 4 to stage 1 and started eating again. He’s much better now but Marlo still stays with the group because she wants to know how to help him more if she can.
My hopes that Lucy might experience a similar miracle ended on December 22, 2013. She stopped being able to use her litter box. She threw up all her fluids and food. She laid down beside me in our library, her paw clinging to my hand, and for four hours in the middle of the night I watched her slip away. At 6:30 it was clear that she would not recover and that death was imminent, and so my husband and I rushed her to the emergency vet to end her suffering.
When did Marlo first suspect that there might be something wrong with The KNIGHT? He was always robust and in really good health. Either that or hid illness well. When The KNIGHT vomited one day, that was different. He had never done that. And then, like Lucy, he stopped eating all together. Marlo took him to a who that told her he’d be dead in two weeks. “When I heard that, I cried. That is when I found Tanya’s site and got much better advice!” The KNIGHT is still alive and well. He’s now about eighteen years old.
In January of 2015, at the North American Veterinary Conference in Florida, DEXX Laboratories, Inc. announced the news of an upcoming kidney function test. It promises to transform the way veterinarians diagnose and treat kidney disease in cats and dogs, because it’ll allow the disease to be diagnosed months or even years earlier, which would greatly expand treatment options. This test will come too late for Lucy, but maybe someday one of our current cats will have her life greatly prolonged because of it. Here’s the article about the news: New IDEXX Test Detects Kidney Disease in Cats and Dogs Months or Years Earlier than Standard Screening Technologies
Marlo and I remain in contact to this day. We enjoy sharing news of our lives, as well as antics of our cherished cats. For her, The KNIGHT is an excellent companion. “I couldn’t want for anything or anyone better. I thank the Creator and feel very blessed to have him.” As for my Lucy, I thank her for opening up my world to animal welfare, and for showing me that I was all wrong about cats. I pray to one day see her at Rainbow Bridge.