An Ambassador For All Cats, Steve Dale Loses Best Friend

Today, I’ve lost my best friend. Even in death Ricky has helped to dispel one more myth some people have about cats. I’m a guy, and I’m proud to say Ricky was my best friend.

My mother left a voice mail message that Ricky, our Devon rex cat, was again being featured on Animal Planet’s program “A Pet Story.” I knew I’d be receiving an onslaught of email. It happens every time they rerun the show.

Ricky had also been featured on “National Geographic Explorer,” CNBC “Pets: Part of the Family,” PBS, a Canadian TV show called “The Pet Project,” and on virtually every local TV station in Chicago. Just because this kitty belonged to a famous pet journalist doesn’t explain why Ricky had more face time on TV than some politicians – he also appeared with me many times on my own radio programs. It’s because Ricky was a virtuoso piano player, and he could jump through a hoola hoop (or over prone children or dogs doing a ‘down/stay’) in a single leap. I taught Ricky these and other tricks to prove you can train a cat.

From the time he was a kitten, we socialized Ricky by taking him places. Like all Devon rex cats, he only had a single coat of soft hair. In fact, there was so little on the top of his head, he looked like an ad for Rogaine. His elfin triangular face was framed between his oversized ears. As a kitten, he was mistaken as a “deformed Chihuahua,” and a teller at a bank once thought he was a wind-up toy.

Sure his unique look fascinated TV producers, but it was Ricky’s personality that was a clincher. Ricky actually learned to look at the red light of a TV camera. And he loved the attention, from TV directors or patrons at a pet store. Imagine walking into the pet store to find a cat sitting on a table playing a children’s piano.

An older man pulled his wife close and said, “Listen Gladys, he’s playing ‘Melancholy Baby’.”

She retorted, “Harry, you’re losing your hearing. And she began to sing. ‘You are my sunshine, my only sunshine…'” Ricky wasn’t playing that tune either. No matter; he made two folks happy. And what a pro he was. At another Petco appearance, they positioned Ricky right smack back between the budgies and the gerbils. Despite those mind-boggling distractions, he never missed a note.

Teaching Ricky was easy. He’d purr as I clicked the clicker, and then as I presented him a treat for playing a few notes on his piano.

It was three years ago that I took then one year old Ricky to see the vet for a routine physical, and we toted his piano. After all, the office staff wanted to enjoy a private performance from their maestro client. It was on that visit that my vet heard a heart murmur, which later led to a diagnosis of hypertrophic cardiomypathy by a cardiac specialist. It means Ricky’s heart muscle in the lower portion of the heart is thicker than it should be. Because of the thickening, the heart cannot relax well or fill up with blood, as it should. If the disease is diagnosed early, as it was with Ricky, cats with this disease have a chance at least a few years of prolonged life with medication.

The good news is that Ricky never realized he was sick. I dutifully returned to the cardiac veterinarian for ultrasound checks, and while the disease was progressing, it seemed a slow progression. Ricky pretty much trained himself to jump on my shoulder and actually “ask” for his daily dose of heart medication.

Anyone who ever met Ricky pretty much agreed he was a unique kitty. Even people who feared or disliked cats enjoyed or at least tolerated Ricky. He loved people, especially children. All 8 lbs., this little dude ran our household. He called the shots. When other dogs visited, he instantly let them know he was king of the castle. It didn’t matter if he was pushing around a 50 lb. dog. All that teaching I did had a downside, Ricky was always learning. He learned to open doors and the doggie cookie jar at the vet office that goes “woof” if you open it. He’d munch on a dog biscuit and then toss one down to his waiting subjects – the dogs below.

On Monday June 3, ironically only a few hours after “A Pet Story” was rerun on Animal Planet, Ricky had what amounted to a massive heart attack.

I know by reading the email that Ricky touched thousands, changing their image of what the potential of cats can be. But to me, he was simply my best buddy. He followed me everywhere. When I went to the bathroom, he was on the other side of the door waiting for me. He slept at my side every night. The connection we had is tough to articulate – but let’s just say we made Lassie and Timmy look lame. Ricky spent hours on my lap as I wrote stories. It’s very difficult to write this one without his help.

I realize the anecdotes filling the life of any pet can fill a book, but in his short time on earth, Ricky’s chronicles could easily fill two books. Here’s my favorite: If Garth Brooks could perform in Central Park, I thought Ricky could play piano on the front steps of our condo building. At one such outdoor concert a 10-year-old boy with Down’s Syndrome walked by. He was enthralled by the piano-playing feline. He stared at Ricky for several minutes, and then spontaneously he began to giggle. We’re not talking little giggles here. I mean full-blown belly laughter.

His mother quietly said, “Billy’s father passed on two weeks ago. Everyone tried to get him to talk, to react.”

Just then, Billy, who was still in stitches, began to pet Ricky. Then Billy sat down and snuggled with Ricky now purring in his lap. I don’t know what secrets Billy shared, but he whispered to Ricky for several minutes. Just before he and his mom departed, Billy looked at Ricky and said, “I loved you,” and then he kissed Ricky.

Ricky was a very small cat, but the hole he left in our hearts is enormous. Our house seems empty without him. And at least for now, our lives seem empty too.

The Winn Feline Foundation has established ‘The Ricky Fund’ to honor Steve Dale’s beloved Ricky. Proceeds will benefit research to better treat and ultimately prevent feline hypertrophic cardiomyopathy, the heart disease that killed 4 1/2 year old Ricky. Hypertrophic cardiomypathy is not an uncommon disease; it’s the most frequent cause of ‘instant death’ in cats.

The Winn Feline Foundation is a not-for-profit organization that awards grants and other monies for feline health studies for pure and mixed breed cats. Find out more about The Ricky Fund at or check out the Winn Foundation website at

Checks should be made payable to the Winn Feline Foundation. And it’s very important to note ‘The Ricky Fund’ on the memo line of your check.

Send to:
Winn Feline Foundation, Inc.
c/o “The Ricky Fund”
1805 Atlantic Avenue
PO Box 1005
Manaquan, NJ 08736-0805
Or, you can call (732) 528-9797.

“Robin and I set up this fund with Winn to make a difference. If you can help us to do that, we would be most grateful. Our gratitude is unlimited – thank you.” -Steve Dale


Note: This article is copyrighted by Steve Dale and can be used as source material and for reference only. It cannot be reprinted verbatim. Please contact Steve Dale at if you have any questions.


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