Feline hypertrophic cardiomyopathy (FHC) isn’t a sexy disease. There’s no glitzy public relations campaign to inform the public, and there’s little money for research. However, FHC is a tragic disease often taking the lives of young cats.
In 1990 basketball sensation Hank Gathers suddenly collapsed on the court and died. That’s how this disease sometimes works in cats; sudden death in a young and seemingly healthy individual is the only symptom.
At least when a cat dies suddenly, it doesn’t suffer – though the shocking loss suffered by owners is profound. Other cats with this disease may go into heart failure or have a stroke-like episode at any age. The prognosis for these individuals is worse than dismal.
“What’s really scary is it’s possible this disease is occurring more often,” says Dr. Mark Kittleson, a cardiac veterinary specialist at the School of Veterinary Medicine at the University of California – Davis. The only data on how often FHC occurs is anecdotal. For example at busy Blum Animal Hospital in Chicago, at least one cat a month succumbs to sudden death, according to Dr. Sheldon Rubin. “It’s possible some of these cats may have eaten something toxic or have had feline heartworm – but based on the necropsies (animal autopsies) I’ve done, the overwhelming majority have a heart problem. We see this all the time.”
Certainly, cat owners were once guilty about not being as diligent as dog owners about taking their pets to the vet for regular exams. Young cats are now commonly being diagnosed before their second birthdays when on general exams a rapid heartbeat and/or heart murmur is detected. The recent advent of cardiac specialty vets using the same ultrasound equipment that’s used in human medicine makes an accurate diagnosis possible.
However, so little is known about treating FHC that even early diagnosis may not matter. Here’s what is known. Simply put, FHC is a disease of the heart muscle. One chamber of the heart, the left ventricle, is particularly affected. The growth of the muscle prevents this chamber from relaxing enough to fill normally with blood.
Kittleson says doctors have identified more than 100 specific kinds of hypertrophic cardiomyopathy in people. In cats, it seems two general types of hypertrophic cardiomyopathy occur. One type is clearly genetic. In fact, Kittleson was among those who first confirmed the genetic link in Maine Coon and American short hair cats. Persians are also affected. Though the specific gene hasn’t been identified, it seems there’s plenty of evidence to add Devon rex and Ragdoll cats to the list. The second kind of known FHC is generally diagnosed somewhat later in life and occurs in all breeds as well as mixed breed cats. There’s likely some sort of genetic predisposition in this form of the disease, but exactly what that is remains a mystery.
“There are likely many specific forms of the disease as there are in people, but we haven’t figured that out yet,” Kittleson says.
The appropriate treatment for the disease depends on who you speak with. Dr. Jan Bright, a veterinary cardiologist and internal medicine specialist and professor of cardiology at Colorado State University College of Veterinary Medicine – Ft. Collins, has written extensively on her research to treat FHC with a drug called a calcium channel blocker. Other veterinarians, including cardiac veterinarian Dr. Michael Luethy in Northbrook, Ill. prefers another class of drug called a beta blocker. Luethy says that people on beta blockers tend to feel good. “I’m concerned about quality of life issues, so these cats feel good and never realize they’re sick.”
Bright notes, “The human literature indicates calcium channel blockers improve heart function, and that’s been my experience so far in dispensing calcium channel blockers for cats.”
Bright and Luethy agree they would like to see more studies to prove or disprove which drug is an answer, if indeed either drug is effective enough to make a difference. As of now, Kittleson says he might as well flip a coin about which treatment to use. Bright and Kittleson both agree that either current drug treatment for FHC may have no impact whatsoever on a significant number of cats.
That’s why Dr. John Rush, a cardiac veterinarian at Tufts University School of Veterinary Medicine – North Grafton, Mass., began to try a class of drugs called ACE (angiotensin converting enzyme) inhibitors on cats with FHC. ACE inhibitors decrease blood levels of hormones that stimulate scar tissue in the heart, preventing the retention of sodium and water, which would aggravate heart failure.
“I think most of my colleagues would agree this has some use for cats already in congestive heart failure or with a very large left atrium,” says Rush. “It turns out the drugs are pretty well tolerated, and may reduce thickness – which would be a good thing for any cat with even moderate disease. Maybe an ACE inhibitor could be used in conjunction with a calcium channel blocker; there’s so much that we just don’t know.”
Rush adds, “Hypertrophic cardiomyopathy is a disease in need of a press agent. We really need to better understand this disease process to ultimately prevent so many tragic deaths.”
Author’s note: My cat, Ricky, suddenly died of FHC on June 3 at the age of 4 1/2. As a legacy, my hope is to encourage further research so fewer cats will succumb of this disease which is arguably the number one killer of cats under the age of six and the reason most often responsible for instant death.
The WINN Feline Foundation is a not-for-profit that awards money to study feline health issues. They’ve established ‘The Ricky Fund;’ proceeds will benefit research to learn how to better treat and ultimately prevent feline hypertrophic cardiomyopathy. Checks should be made payable to the Winn Feline Foundation. It’s important to note ‘The Ricky Fund’
on the memo line of your check.
Winn Feline Foundation, Inc.
c/o “The Ricky Fund”
1805 Atlantic Avenue
PO Box 1005
Manasquan, NJ 08736-0805
Call (732) 528-9797 or give directly at a special ‘Ricky Fund’ site through WINN Feline Foundation, www.winnfelinehealth.org/news.html
Recent Pet Book Reviews
Recent pet book releases include titles by four of the most renowned authors of pet books, as well as choices for kids and for those who are determined to talk to their animals. There’s lots of good reading here:
“If Only They Could Speak: Stories about Pets and Their People,” by Dr. Nicholas Dodman (W.W. Norton & Company, New York, NY, 2002; $24.95). Dodman, who founded the Tufts University School of Veterinary Medicine Behavior Clinic, is arguably the most successful pet book author in recent years. His titles include “The Dog Who Loved Too Much,” “The Cat Who Cried for Help” and “Dogs Behaving Badly.” Can dogs actually become jealous? He’s a scientist, he’s not supposed to think so – but Dodman has the courage to say “yes” animals do have feelings. Most importantly, he explains through real-life examples what to do when your pet is stricken with the green-eyed monster. Dodman is a great storyteller, and his real-life examples are more than merely helpful, they’re entertaining to read. Dodman is arguably ahead of his time and 20 years from now will be considered one of the great pioneers of his era.
“The Good Life: Your Dog’s First Year,” by Mordecai Siegal and Matthew Margolis (Simon & Shuster, New York, NY, 2002; $25). Siegal is the dean of American pet writers. He single-handedly created pet sections in bookstores by proving years ago that dog training books can sell. Margolis, who has teamed with Siegal on many books, is the former host of “Woof! It’s A Dog’s Life” on public television and is known as Uncle Matty. If there is a puppy season, this is it. There are tips on housebreaking, crate training, puppy chewing and all those other common puppy plights. The chapters are broken into time frames, like when you first get the dog, called “The Puppymoon” and then three to five months, “Days of Wine and Noses.”
“Complete Kitten Care,” by Amy D. Shojai (New American Library, New York, NY, 2002; $16). Shojai is undoubtedly the most prolific pet book author of our time. She’s a darn good reporter, and in some of her recent titles, including “Pet Care in the New Century” and “New Choices in Natural Healing for Dogs and Cats,” she’s merely a conduit for the latest information on subjects. However, she’s also a feline behavior authority, and aside from using experts as sources, she weaves her own views into this book. And that’s what makes this such a fun read.
Meanwhile, the tips are helpful – particularly for first-time kitten owners – with information on everything from brushing and nail clipping to how to give your cat a pill. She also reveals which vaccines might be best to match your cat’s lifestyle.
“The Other End of the Leash: Why We Do What We Do Around Dogs,” by Patricia B. McConnell (Ballantine Books, New York, NY, 2002; $25.95). No wonder dog trainers revere MConnell’s techniques and insight. McConnell, a certified applied behaviorist, is an adjunct assistant professor of zoology at the University of Wisconsin, Madison, co-host of “Calling All Pets,” a syndicated radio program and former co-host of Animal Planet’s “Petline.” There are lots of those obligatory dog training tips here, but far more important is a philosophy. McConnell describes in science we can all understand why dogs respond the way they do, and more importantly, why we want to treat dogs like we do. For example, it’s perfectly natural for chimpanzees, people and other primates to snuggle and hug those we love. But canines don’t hug and have to learn to appreciate our goodwill. College credit should be included for those who read any of McConnell’s books.
“The Pawprints of History,” by Stanley Coren (The Free Press, New York, NY, 2002; $26). Coren is a psychology professor at the University of British Columbia and a top-selling author, despite what his colleagues may think. The general public loved his book “The Intelligence of Dogs,” though he was severely criticized by his colleagues for his formulamatic quotient to determine dog smarts. He followed with “Why We Love the Dogs We Do” and “How to Speak Dog,” both fascinating reads about the canine mind. This book is a fascinating glimpse into a history that you’ve not likely heard about before. He features stories of legendary characters and their dogs. Examples include how Florence Nightengale’s life was saved by a chance encounter with a mutt and how Napoleon Bonaparte’s revolving dogs impacted his life. It’s astounding how Coren learned about these captivating stories – like how one “tall dog” went down with General Custer at Little Big Horn.
Do you have only ten minutes to sit in the sun, or need a bathroom break? These books are good choices for picking up and then putting back down until next time.
“Is Your Pet Psychic?” by Richard Webster (Llewellyn Publications, St. Paul, MN, 2002; $12.95). This New Zealand author claims he can teach you how to communicate telepathically with your pet; he’s not only talking dogs and cats here. There’s a snail and a bearded dragon lizard pictured on the back cover, suggesting these creatures have something to convey too.
“Animal Voices,” by Dawn Baumann Brunke (Bear & Company, Rochester, VT, 2002; $15). This author interviewed many of the best known animal communicators (the fancy term for pet psychics). Supposedly, the author was a skeptic when she began this book, and now she’s sold on the idea that we can talk to the animal – and that our pets are always reading our minds. This might explain why they sleep so much.
“The Encyclopedia of TV Pets,” by Ken Black and Jim Clark (Rutledge Hill Press, Nashville, TN, 2002; $19.99). On “Baretta,” Robert Blake was said to be jealous of Fred the cockatoo (played by a bird named Lala). Given recent events, this seems more possible than ever. Of course, you can’t totally blame Blake when his winged co-star received more fan mail than he did. When Blake forgot to reward Lala with sunflower seeds, she’d chase him around the set. The book includes vintage classic TV pets including Arnold the pig from “Green Acres” to Lassie. Contemporary examples are Marcel, the monkey friend of Ross on “Friends,” and the warlock-turned-feline Elvis on “Sabrina, the Teenage Witch.” Descriptions are based on the animal’s trainers’ point of view and behind-the-scenes recollections.
“Emergency Animal Rescue Stories: One Woman’s Dedication to Saving Animals from Disaster,” by Terri Crisp (Prima Publishing, Roseville, CA, 2002; $14.95). Natural disasters don’t only displace people. Crisp has personally rescued pets from fire, floods, earthquakes and hurricanes – and she writes about those adventures. The good news is that most her compelling tales have happy endings.
These books are for kids; they’re generally recommended for four- to nine-year-olds.
“The Little Big Book of Animals,” edited by Lena Tabori and Katrina Fried (Welcome Books, New York, NY, 2002; $24.95). What is more amazing than a talking dog? A spelling bee. This 352-page volume is filled with tons of great stuff for kids like animal jokes, animal facts (Elephants can’t jump), animal songs , (“B-I-N-G-O”), classic literary excerpts (such as “Black Beauty”), science stories (“Koko the Gorilla’s Pet Kitten”), poems (“The Owl and the Pussy Cat”), recipes for cat and dog treats and instructions on creating a butterfly garden.
“Lucky Boy,” written and illustrated by Susan Boase (Houghton Mifflin Children’s Books, New York, NY, 2002; $15). This first-time author writes a sweet story. It features the Gustins, who were not bad people, just a busy family. They simply had no time for their dog, Boy. Just like people, dogs can get bored and lonely. But every dog has its day – and then one day Boy began to make a difference.
“Kitten Training for Kids,” by Sarah Whitehead (Barron’s Educational Series Inc., Hauppauge, NY, 2002; $11.66). Ever wonder why kitty high-tails it for under the sofa when the kids appear? As if their fast movements and loud high-pitched voices aren’t scary enough, a cat being dropped or tail being stepped on quickly teaches too many cats about little people. This book explains how kids can develop a trusting relationship with kittens. There’s also a section of general care.
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 [email protected] if you have any questions.