It was a game of cat and well, not mouse, but human chasing squirming cat in order to get her into the cat carrier. It was just an annual checkup at the veterinarian, but Tasha did not want to go into that blue carrier for she knew it only came out when she went there. None the less, we got her into the carrier and the door shut and drove the five minutes to the doctor’s office.
As we pulled our grey tabby cat Tasha back out of the carrier (how do they hang on to nothing when the carrier is upside down anyway?), the vet technician produced a scale. Hmmm, it seemed that Tasha had lost a pound. She had weighed about 15 lbs the visit before, so we figured this was a good thing and attributed it to her younger sister who loved to chase Tasha even tho the feelings were not mutual.
The doctor took a bit more concerned approach, and since Tasha is now considered an elderly cat at 12 years of age, he decided to do blood work. We didn’t mind at all. We’d lost our tuxedo cat Indy a couple of years earlier to diabetes and liver disease all because we found out too late when a simple blood test would have told us what was going on if we’d only done it sooner. Cats are so good at hiding their illnesses from us, an instinct leftover from living in the wild many years ago.
The blood work came back showing Tasha’s thyroid levels were elevated. One blood test is not enough to diagnose thyroid disease, so the vet suggested we wait a month and watch her and then repeat the tests. We’d gotten into the habit of watching our four cats closely to be sure they were eating and drinking after Indy died, for he had stopped eating and if only … well, lesson learned. We keep a chart on the fridge and mark down any time we see the cats drinking or eating. A review of that chart did show that Tasha was eating and drinking more than she had been.
After a month had passed, we went through the same ritual of getting Tasha to the vet. Sure enough, her thyroid was even more elevated and she had lost more weight. It was time to be worried. Tasha was hyperthyroid. It was making her heart beat faster and raising her blood pressure among other bad effects, so we needed to do something about it.
Our vet, Dr. Steven Pepper, explained the three options open to us. We could give Tasha pills twice a day for the remainder of her life. Have you ever tried to pill a cat? And twice a day? Forever? Egads. The cost would run between $400 and $600 a year as well. Tapazole controls the disease, but it is not a cure. Blood work is required on a regular basis (including the chase routine to get her to the vet). The tumor may continue to grow requiring even more medication. Plus there are side effects from the drug itself including vomiting, nausea, and anemia. All that didn’t sound too good.
Option two was surgery to remove the benign tumor growing in her thyroid which was causing the problems. Yet surgery was a risk in itself because of anesthesia. In addition, the tumor could grow back. The cost of surgery was higher – from $400 to $1200. In 80 percent of the cases, the cat may develop a tumor in the other side of the gland within two years necessitating a second surgery.
Option three was treatment with radioactive iodine. This would kill the tumor and spare the normal cells. It is a permanent solution. The drawbacks were price and finding a veterinarian who performed this procedure close to home. The cost ranges from $600 to $1600. However, this treatment is a cure for 95 percent of cats who choose it.
Cost was a consideration, but the health of our cat and her comfort was more important. We opted for the radioactive iodine treatment.
We are lucky in that the renowned Cat Thyroid Center run by Dr. Hal Ott and his wife Diana, a clinical chemist, located in Ruskin, Florida is just a 45 minute drive from our home. I even asked my own endocrinologist who treats me for hypothyroidism (an underactive thyroid) if he’d ever heard of them. He actually did know of the Center since he discovered it in doing research on places in Florida who treat for thyroid problems. The Center treats only cats and just once a week. They tell us that there is rarely a week that goes by that they aren’t treating cats from all over the country.
First of all, we needed to do a bit of homework. Tasha needed a chest x ray which, because of her sweet nature, was no problem to get. We had the blood tests already done. We called the Center to set up an appointment, and we were expected in just ten days.
We were due at the Center at 9 AM, so we got an early start. Getting Tasha into the carrier this time was no problem. We’d been talking to her for the previous week explaining what we had decided, what was going on, and what treatment would be. We described it as a stay at a resort since except for one injection that was pretty much what it would be. As we drove to the Center, Tasha became more and more curious about what was going on, since she had never been this far from home nor taken a car ride this long. As we drove up to the Center, her name was up on the marquee along with three other names as the four patients to be treated this week. What a welcome!
Dr. Ott examined Tasha and determined that the size of her tumor was a 3 out of 10. That would help him customize the dosage of radioactive iodine just right. This factor was one of the biggest reasons we were so impressed with the Center: the fact that they customize the treatment to the patient which would then leave the thyroid functional afterward so that in most cases no additional treatment is necessary. In addition, Tasha had lost even more weight so now weighed only 11.11 lbs., down from 15 lbs. just a couple months prior.
After that, we reviewed the menu the Center had sent us in advance. Very much like a five star hotel, they had prepared a menu for “The Pampered Cat”, a gourmet feline restaurant. Fresh food and water were offered the patients four times a day. Since radioactivity is eliminated from their bodies via urine and feces, it is important the cat eat as usual, so anything to accomplish this is accommodated (except live animals!) The menu included sections for dry food, moist, canned food, gourmet/market fresh entrees, and dessert treats. We felt no guilt including one of Tasha’s favorites – tuna of the human variety – since it was actually one of the items preprinted on the menu! Tasha also loves freshly grated parmesan cheese, so this was obtained especially for her.
The Center had advised that we bring an item of our clothing that had been worn, so had our scent on it, to bring her comfort. My husband made sure to wear a shirt he had worn doing yard work which had become quite sweaty to send along with her. Since the shirt would become radioactive, it could not be returned. Nor could the toys we sent along with her.
The time came for us to leave, yet we did not have any fears for her care. Nor were we rushed. It was quite clear that everyone at the Center was genuinely concerned for the health and well being of all their patients.
The actual treatment was quite simple. Dr. Ott shaved a small portion of fur from Tasha’s flank. He then injected a saline solution with the radioactive iodine subcutaneously. The iodine would go through her system and target her thyroid so the radioactivity could do its job. Tasha was placed in her cage, and the fun began. All the cages faced a television set where videos were played, including Video Catnip. A parakeet in a cage was set there for live entertainment as were other pets such as gerbils or a fish tank. Bedding was changed four times a day, and there was plenty of hands on care. Even though Tasha was radioactive during this time, the technicians were able to handle her for brief periods of time. The Center called us immediately after the treatment and told us it went very well. We were free to call them as many times a day as we needed, and they would check on Tasha for us even though they did initiate calls each day. We could not visit her in person because of radiation safety regulations.
The isolation period was only two days. I believe the time is so short because the patients are content while they are at the Center. They are relaxed so they are eating and eliminating the radioactivity as they need to do. On rare occasions, a patient is held for three days. Tasha had her shot about noon on Tuesday and we picked her up Thursday morning!
At that point she had about 10 percent of radiation still in her body confirmed by scans using a Geiger-Mueller counter so we did have to take a few precautions. Patients who come from out of state cannot fly on commercial airlines for two weeks. We are so fortunate that we did not have to worry about this factor.
Cuddling face to face was limited to 5 minutes per person a day. However, Tasha could be within a few feet of us at all times. Washing our hands after close contact or petting became a habit. After all, the radioactivity was also in her saliva which is transferred to her coat via grooming. Tasha could continue to share litter boxes with her siblings. Scoopable litter is suggested, and a minimum of once a day scooping of the box is required. The cats could all sleep together if they wanted. The furniture or bedding that Tasha sat or slept on did not become radioactive. Her dishes could be washed right along with ours in the dishwasher.
The key factors for us to remember over the two weeks following treatment were to stay at least 3 feet away from her most of the time and limit the time we were face to face or had her in our laps to just 5 minutes a day.
At one month and three months after treatment, check ups with our own veterinarian with associated blood work to check on Tasha’s thyroid levels are needed. Tasha’s thyroid function is expected to improve by one month and be normal by three months. Therefore, we will not notice any change in her behavior immediately. However, Tasha may appear lethargic soon after, as her body adjusts to lower levels of thyroid hormone in her system. This is actually healthy and means the treatment is working!
Although Tasha’s treatment was just a week ago, I believe the only stressful time of the entire experience was the ride home. She wasn’t quite prepared for the long ride and did not know what to expect. Once we got to the front door of our home, however, she knew exactly where we were. She ran from room to room checking on her territory and each of her siblings. She remained rather hyper for the rest of the day. As the days have gone along, she has begun to slow down a bit. She’s even sleeping at my feet right now.
If I had this to do over again, I would still choose the radioactive iodine treatment. Even though she was away from home for two days, the staff made her stay as comfortable as possible. She really has no recovery time as you would after surgery. We don’t have to fight with her twice a day to give a pill. We just have to wash our hands a few extra times and not cuddle as much as usual for a couple weeks. All in all, not much hardship to deal with but with loads of positive benefits.
I just hope she doesn’t expect the Pampered Cat Restaurant to deliver.
Follow up to our story:
Nov 10, 2006: Tasha went for her one-month checkup and blood work, and her thyroid values were all completely normal. The treatment was a resounding success!!