Amber

When Love Grows Slowly: How a Shy, Unassuming Cat Changed My World

Amber

Falling in love with a cat is no different than falling in love with a person. Sometimes, it’s love at first sight. That’s what happened for me when I saw Buckley, the subject of my first book, Buckley’s Story: Lessons from a Feline Master Teacher, in a cage in the back of the animal hospital I managed at the time. I fell in love instantly.

Other times, it’s a slower process. Continue Reading

Sunday Purrs: what has your cat taught you about life?

Buckley_cat_office_chair

I have always believed that cats come into our lives to teach us. First and foremost, they teach us about unconditional love. But they also teach us to stretch and grow, to reach beyond our self-imposed limits, and to expand our consciousness.

I’ve been blessed that I got to share my life with the original feline master teacher, Buckley, and the original conscious cat, Amber. Both of these cats changed my life in ways I never could have imagined.

And both inspired books. Many of you have already read Buckley’s Story. I’m currently working on a new book which will feature Amber, and will be both a prequel and sequel to Buckley’s Story. You’ll be hearing more about it very soon!

Buckley’s and Amber’s lessons ranged fromContinue Reading

Allegra’s Baby

tortoiseshell cat with catnip toy

Allegra has a very special toy. It’s not fancy; in fact, it’s an ancient toy that actually belonged to Feebee, who has been gone for twelve years now. She dug it out of the toy basket one day, and apparently decided that it was going to be her “baby.” It’s a soft, plush little stuffed mitten with a tail that has a pompon at the end. She never actually plays with it, but yet, it’s clearly very special to her.

She picks it up and carries it around the house, chirping and singing and sometimes yowling. It sounds a bit plaintive, a sad little cry, as if she had lost something. The first time I heard it, I thought she’d hurt herself! As soon as I look for her when she does this, she drops the toy and stops, which is why I haven’t been able to get a video of her with the toy.

Amber had her own version of this special toy: a green and tan fuzzy mouse that I got for her when she first came to live with me. For the entire ten years that she was with me, that mouse was her special “baby.” Like Allegra, she’d pick it up, carry it around the house, crying and yowling. Amber would often sleep with her “baby,” something I’ve not seen Allegra do. Continue Reading

Coping with Unexpected Loss: A Personal Journey

Amber The Conscious Cat

When I had to let Amber go after a brief, sudden illness last May, I wasn’t prepared for the depth of my grief. It hadn’t even been a year and a half after I lost Buckley. Here I was, faced with grieving yet again.

It’s not like I hadn’t experienced loss in my life before. Most of us who’ve reached the age I’m at have had to deal with loss. I lost my mother in 1994 after a brief illness. I lost my soul mate cat Feebee in 2000 after a valiant seven-month battle with lymphoma. I lost my office cat Virginia in 2002 after a brief decline following a fourteen-year-long life with FIV. I lost my father in 2004 to heart disease and cancer. And as those of you who’ve read Buckley’s Story know, I lost Buckley after she was diagnosed with restrictive cardiomyopathy and given a very poor prognosis that she outlived by a considerable amount of time.

I had lots of experience with grief, and I survived all of these losses more or less gracefully. I learned that there is only one way to deal with grief, and that’s to go through it. There is no way around it. You can’t run from it.  I learned about the stages of grief. I learned that you don’t go through them step by step, but rather, that you sometimes cycle through them over and over, until, at some point, mercifully, you may find that you’ve reached the final stage, acceptance. But even reaching acceptance doesn’t mean that you ever really get “over” a loss.

So you’d think that with all this personal experience in grieving, I would have been better prepared to handle losing Amber. The force of my grief over losing her caught me completely off guard. And I realized, in the middle of the shock, the tears, and the pain, that I had never lost a loved one as unexpectedly and suddenly as I lost her. Twelve short days, from the time that she was mildly ill to the time that I had to let her go. I never expected her to not get better when I agreed to hospitalize her. I always expected her to come home.  Come home she did, but not in the way I would have wanted her to. Because of her poor prognosis, after four days of intensive care, I made the agonizing decision to stop treatment, bring her home, and spend the afternoon with her before my vet came to the house that evening to help her with a peaceful transition.

As with all my losses, there were commonalities. Despite the incredible outpouring of love and support from not only my ”real life” friends, but also my online friends,  there were times when I felt alone in my grief, disconnected from the world around me and normal everyday activities. I was physically exhausted most of the time – grief takes a toll not just emotionally,  but physically. I tried to take care of myself as best as I could, by trying to eat regular meals, getting some exercise, and staying connected with friends.  But it was hard.  Going out into the world was challenging – how could life be going on when my world had changed irrevocably?

In The Healing Art of Pet Parenthood, author Nadine M. Rosin, after losing her nineteen-year-old dog Buttons, writes:  “…being out in public felt totally bizarre, as if the world had come to an end because of some horrible disaster, life as we’d known it on the planet was over, but I seemed to be the only person who knew about it.” I’ve rarely heard this particular emotion of feeling out of synch with the rest of the world expressed better. I limited social engagements to activities with friends who understood my grief, and I’m fortunate that most of the people in my life are animal people, and they do understand. I simply didn’t have it in me to make polite chit-chat with those who didn’t.

I knew I’d make it through, just like I made it through all my other losses. But one year later, I also realize that this loss left me forever changed in ways the others didn’t. And perhaps it had to do with the suddenness of the loss.

With all my other losses, I’ve always had time to prepare for loss. While anticipatory grieving is difficult, I believe that it does help in the end – you have time to get used to the idea of eventually having to go on without your loved one. But Amber was a healthy, happy cat who had rarely been sick in her life. There was nothing that could have prepared me for this.   It was much harder, much more painful, and much more complicated than my other losses. With the others, I rarely second-guessed myself. I didn’t rail at the universe for having my loved one taken from me so quickly. I didn’t blame myself for decisions I made during Amber’s last two weeks.  I just grieved.

A year later, I can finally say that I’ve found peace. And I learned this, yet again: grief is a process. It requires being gentle with yourself as you go through it. It requires allowing those who understand to support you, and staying away from those who don’t. It requires courage to face the pain, rather than run from it.

Grief can be a transformational experience.  It rips your heart wide open, and you’ll never be the same. It’s up to each individual whether they’ll choose to let grief destroy them, or whether they’ll do the challenging and difficult work that will ultimately allow it to be transformed into personal growth and expansion.

To honor Amber, her love, and all she has brought into my life, I didn’t have any other choice except to let something good come from this devastating loss.

In loving memory of Amber, one year later

Amber The Conscious Cat

A year ago today, I had to say good-bye to Amber after a very sudden, brief illness. I was devastated. Nothing ever prepares you for unexpected loss. In hindsight, I’m grateful that she got to spend her final few hours at home with me, and that she died peacefully in my arms. At the time, those things did not bring much comfort.

A year later, the pain of losing her has dulled a little, but I still miss my beautiful girl every day. She was in my life for ten years, and they were some of the best of my life so far.

My love for Amber grew slowly. Unlike all of my other cats, it was not love at first sight with her. I had lost my first cat, Feebee, to his battle with lymphoma in April of 2000. He had been with me for almost sixteen years. I didn’t think it was possible to hurt as much as I did after he died. I had had other (human) losses in my life before, but nothing was as painful as losing him. There were days when I wasn’t sure I’d make it through.

What saved me during those dark days was my work at the animal hospital, my office cat Virginia, and the daily contact with all the feline patients we saw every day. But coming home to an empty house night after night was becoming increasingly difficult. 

A few weeks after Feebee died, Amber and her five kittens were brought to the animal hospital by a client who had found the little family in her barn.  Despite being emaciated and scrawny-looking, Amber’s eventual beauty was evident even then.  She was a dark tortoiseshell color, with an amber-colored heart-shaped spot on top of her head, which became the reason for her name.  Her kittens found new homes in fairly rapid succession. 

However, nobody was interested in the beautiful mommy cat.  She spent her days in the big adoption cage in the hospital’s waiting area, but with the constant inflow of homeless kittens that is typical for spring and summer, nobody wanted to adopt an adult cat. 

One weekend in July, I decided to take Amber home, “just for the weekend”.  I thought it would be a good way to try and see what it would feel like to me to have a cat who wasn’t Feebee at my house. I also wanted to give her a break from the abandoned feral kitten we had placed with her after her own kittens had all found homes.  The kitten was a rambunctious six-week old grey tabby, and Amber was becoming increasingly exasperated with his constant need for attention.  As far as she was concerned, she had done her mommy duty with her own kittens. 

After living in a cage for all these months, Amber was initially a little overwhelmed by having access to an entire house, and she spent most of that first weekend near or under my bed.  By Sunday evening, she had relaxed a little and started exploring her new environment.  I liked having her gentle and peaceful energy around the house, and I decided that she could stay a little longer. 

The wound from Feebee’s passing was still raw. I wasn’t quite ready to acknowledge that she was home with me to stay, so I told everyone that I was “just fostering her”. I had flyers all ready to go to advertise that she was available for adoption. Remember flyers? This was in the dark days before social media!

Somehow the flyers never got distributed. Three months later, I finally realized that she wasn’t going anywhere. 

My love for her grew over the years in ways that I never would have thought possible. She was my heart and soul. She reflected back to me the limitless possibilities my life could hold if I opened my heart and allowed things to unfold. She was my inspiration for so many things, including this site. She was the original Conscious Cat.

There are so many things I miss about her: the way she would curl up in my arms each night and sleep there for most of the night. The way she’d purr if you so much as looked at her. The way her tail would twitch when she got excited about something. I miss her gentle presence and peaceful energy.

Allegra came to live with us about five weeks before Amber died, and she was a great comfort to me during this past year. Her joyful, kittenish presence and her quiet love helped my heart heal. Now that Ruby has joined our family, my heart, and my life, are expanding once again.

And Amber’s gentle spirit and eternal love are never far from me.

Allegra’s World: First Adoption Anniversary

Allegra's adoption anniversary

Today is a very very big day for me! It’s my adoption anniversary! A year ago today, Mom brought me home to live with her and Amber! I thought it was the happiest day of my life then, but every day since then has been even happier. I’m such a lucky kitten!

I was a little nervous that day, when Mom came to get me at Great Falls Animal Hospital, where I was staying. Oh yeah, and if you’re wondering how it was possible that Mom was able to resist my considerable cuteness and wait six whole days after first meeting me to bring me home – well, I got myself in a little trouble at the animal hospital. When the foster mom I had lived with before brought me there so more people could see me and so I could find a home (and didn’t that work out just beautifully!), the nice people at the animal hospital wanted to give me a good exam. And let me tell you, when  the woman in the white coat tried to stick something up my rear end, I wasn’t having any of it. I whipped my head around and bit her! That’ll teach her to stick things up unsuspecting kittens’ rear ends!

Unfortunately, humans have a whole bunch of stupid laws, and one of them says that if a cat bites a human, she needs to be quarantined and watched for signs of rabies for 10 days. Even though I was current on my rabies vaccination, Mom couldn’t take me home until the end of that quarantine period.

But finally, the big day arrived. As I said, I was a little nervous, but mostly excited. Mom had already told me that I would have a big sister. I looked forward to meeting her! I don’t think Amber was as excited about me coming home as Mom was, she hissed at me a lot and ran from me that first day. I didn’t let that upset me, and instead, proceeded to explore every inch of my new home. There was so much to see! The best part was that there were these huge big windows to look out! I could see birds and trees and people walking by, it was so cool!

By the time it got dark that first day, I was pretty tired from all the exploring. Mom said that she and Amber were going to bed, and showed me where that was. She said I was welcome to join them. Amber added “but remember your place, you’re the new kid here. I always sleep in Mom’s arms, and that’s not going to change just because you’re here now!” At first, I wasn’t sure whether I wanted to join them, but as the house got really quiet and dark, I jumped up on the bed with them. I wanted to be close to Mom, but I didn’t want to disturb Amber, so I crawled under the covers and wedged myself against the back of Mom’s legs. Oh, that was so nice! I felt warm and safe. I drifted off and dreamed happy kitten dreams that first night in my new home.

Amber and Allegra opening case of cat food

Things only got better. By the second day, Amber and I were already in cahoots, helping Mom unpack a case of cat food.

Amber teaching Allegra

By the third day, we were hanging out together. Amber taught me lots of stuff about how things are done in our new home.

Amber and Allegra birdwatching

I really came to love my big sister very quickly. We didn’t get to spend nearly enough time together. She got really sick and died just a few short weeks after I came home. I still miss her, and I know Mom does, too.

I never thought I’d find such a wonderful Mom and such a wonderful home. Every day I think it’s the best day ever, and it just keeps getting better and better! I am the luckiest kitten on the planet!

Living and Working With Cats

For the last fifteen years, I’ve been fortunate that cats have not only played a fundamental role in my home life, they’ve also been a significant part of my work life.  And I wouldn’t want it any other way.

It all started with two office cats at the veterinary hospital I managed.  First, there was Virginia, who I fell in love with at my initial interview despite the fact that her introduction to me involved claws and runs in my stockings.  She ruled the office with an iron paw, assisting me with paperwork, often by sitting right on top of it, and kept me in line with frequent swats at my mouse hand.

Several years after Virginia went to the big office in the sky, Buckley took over as office cat.  In addition to supervising my work and making even the less glamorous aspects of my job more fun through her joyful presence, she had another job at the clinic—to provide comfort to the animal patients and to distract their worried owners. There were times when she disappeared from the office, and when I went looking for her, I found her on the bench in the waiting room, next to a client waiting for news about a sick pet, cuddled up to the person, asking to be petted, and making them smile through their worry. Other times, she curled up next to a recovering cat or dog in the treatment room.

When I left my job at the animal hospital to start my Reiki practice, Buckley came home to live with me and Amber.  She quickly took on the job of Assistant Reiki Practitioner and helped me with the (human) Reiki clients I saw in my home office.  She became an active participant in the healing session. She would get up on the Reiki table and often curl up next to or on top of the client. I realized after a few sessions like this that she intuitively knew where extra energy was needed. I often skipped treating the areas Buckley laid on during a session and concentrated on others instead. I knew my little healer kitty had it covered.

Amber provided a contribution of a different kind to my home and work life.  She was a wise old soul in a feline body; she was my touchstone.  Her peaceful presence provided love, comfort and grounding for me in ways that no one or nothing else could.  When I began to think about starting a blog, she provided the creative spark, and The Conscious Cat was born.

And now it looks like Allegra is continuing the tradition.  She recently took on the position of Assistant Reiki Practitioner Trainee.  As you can see in the photo above, she takes her job very seriously.  At just over a year old, she’s still a little too rambunctious to be allowed in the room during treatments, but she helps me get the room ready.  She enthusiastically greets my clients and provides kitty therapy by letting them pet her and giving kitten nose taps, so that by the time they get on my table, they’re already a little more relaxed than they were when they first walked in the door.  She loves being in the Reiki room after a session and really seems to gravitate toward the energy.  I think as she matures, she will carry on Buckley’s legacy.

Sharing your life with cats, doing work you love, and doing it with the cats you love – it doesn’t get any better than this.

Allegra’s World: Big Girl

It’s been a while since I last wrote here, and I need to catch you up on what’s been happening in my world.  Yesterday was my almost birthday – I’m eleven months old now!  I’m almost a big girl!  I don’t really know what birthday means, but Mom says next month, when it’s my real birthday, we’ll have a little celebration and there will be presents.  I think I know what presents are – I think it’s the new toys that have been appearing here occasionally.  I can’t believe there might be more!  Wee!!!

Since I am a big girl now, I’ve been trying to act more grown up, too.  Well, maybe not quite grown up, but I am trying to be a good girl.  Mom says I’ve been doing really well with some of the things we’ve been working on together . I didn’t realize we were working on them together, but whatever – let her think that!  I may just be a kitten, but I’m still the one who decides what I do, make no mistake about that!  Anyway, I let her pet me for longer and longer periods of time now, and I don’t nip at her near as much.  I really don’t know why I even still do it, but it’s like I have all this extra energy that needs to be discharged somehow, and nipping is a way for me to do that.  It’s like I don’t really want to do it, it just happens.  I think Mom understands that, and she knows I’m not nipping at her to hurt her.  I love that she gets that.  I love her a lot, and I’d hate for her to think that I’m doing it on purpose.  I also don’t like that she simply walks away from me when I do nip at her, so I’m starting to put two and two together.  I’m a smart kitten!

I’m learning to be brave, too.  When I first came to live here, loud noises, especially the big trash trucks that go by our house every day, would send me running for safety under the sofa.  Now, I just watch them go by from the window – I know they can’t hurt me.  I still don’t like the noise of the lawn mowers that come every other week.  Why do humans need to have their lawns mowed anyway?  Don’t they know it scares little kittens like me?  Last week, I discovered a cool new spot to hide when scary noises happen (I still haven’t been able to make Mom stop what she calls thunderstorms – she keeps explaining to me that she has no control over the weather, but she seems to control so much else in our house, I’m not sure I believe her – after all, she can open cans!).  Anyway, I went behind the shower curtain in the downstairs bathroom.  It was nice and dark and I couldn’t hear the loud noise from the thunder as much down there.  When Mom found me there, she started to cry.  Turns out that this was Amber‘s safe place, too, and I guess seeing me there made her miss Amber a lot right then.

I can tell that Mom still gets sad a lot.  I don’t really know what to do when that happens, I’m just a kitten, but I want to help her!  So sometimes when she’s sad, I curl up next to her and just sit with her, even though that much closeness is still a little bit overwhelming for me, but I do it for my Mom, because I know it makes her feel better.  I know she’d like me to do more of it, and I will, but on my own time.  I love that Mom understands that.

Anyway, that’s all.   It’s time for a nap now, and maybe I’ll dream about this birthday that’s going to happen next month!  More toys!  Wee!!!

Allegra’s World: Amber is Gone

A lot of things have changed around here since I last got to write on here.  It’s been very confusing.  I’m just a kitten, and I’m not sure I understand it all.  I knew my sister Amber wasn’t feeling well.  The way I knew that was that she didn’t hiss and growl at me when I harassed her.  Mom said to leave her alone, but I kept trying – I just wanted her to play with me!   I thought she’d feel better for sure if she would just play with me!

Then one morning, Mom put Amber in a carrier, and took her away.  Mom was gone all day, too, and when she finally came home that evening, Amber wasn’t with her, and Mom was really upset.    I didn’t understand why Amber didn’t come back with her.  Mom said something about Amber being very sick, and having to be in the hospital so she could get better.  I didn’t really understand what any of that meant, I just knew Mom was upset, and I wanted her to be happy.  So I did the best I could to amuse her, doing my usual kitten things, and that night, I stayed in bed with her all night long for the first time.  I think she liked that.

Amber didn’t come back the next day and the next, and I got used to having Mom to myself.  I actually kind of liked it.  Even though it was a little boring not having Amber here to taunt and harass, it was nice to have Mom’s undivided attention.  I showed Mom that I liked it by purring for her, and rolling around on the floor so she’d pet me.  I could tell that it pleased Mom when I did that, for those moments, it seemed like she felt a little better.  But I could tell that most of the time, she was really worried  and scared.  I wish she’d explained more to me what was going on, but I guess it was just too hard for her.  I just tried to be my normal kitten self, and tried to make her smile.

Then Amber finally came home. I was excited!  But something wasn’t right.  Amber wasn’t in a carrier, Mom was just carrying her in a blanket.  I thought Mom would be happy to have Amber home, but she seemed really sad.  I may just be a kitten, but I do pick up on Mom’s energy.  Amber walked around the house a bit, and when she got close enough to me so I could catch a whiff of her scent, I couldn’t believe my nose.  Pew, did she stink!    She didn’t smell like the Amber I remembered!  She had a really weird smell, like she’d been to a place where bad things happen to kitties.  I hissed and growled at her.  That upset Mom so badly that she put me in a separate room with my toys, litter box and water bowl.  I didn’t understand at all.  I hadn’t done anything wrong!  But it was okay, the room had big windows and I spent my time in there watching the birds and squirrels outside.   Even though I’m just a kitten, I knew something was really wrong, or else Mom wouldn’t have locked me away, and so I made the most of it.

When Mom let me out of the room a couple of hours later, Amber was just lying on the loveseat and not moving at all, not even when I bopped her on the head.  Mom was crying.  She said something about Amber being gone, but I didn’t understand what that meant.  I’m just a kitten.  All I knew was that Mom was really really sad, and I hated that.  The next day, Amber disappeared again.  She hasn’t come back, and Mom has been sad ever since.

I guess it’s up to me now to take care of Mom.  That’s a pretty big job for a kitten who still needs to be taken care of herself, but I think I’m up for it.  I’m managing to coax smiles out of her every once in a while.  I like it when Mom smiles!  I’ve heard her say to someone that I’ve become “much more affectionate” since Amber left.  I don’t really know what that means, all I know is that I’m starting to get more comfortable in my new home, and around my Mom, and it’s easier for me to let her pet me for longer periods of time, and to sleep with her in bed all night long.  I think she likes that.

One thing I really love is all the different names Mom has for me.  She calls me Allie, Allegrina, Legra-Girl, Leggy and more.  One name she calls me a lot is “Allegrano.”  Her voice always gets louder than normal when she calls me that.  Whenever she calls me all the other names, she sounds really sweet and loving.  I’m a pretty smart kitten, and I don’t think it’s a good thing when she calls me “Allegrano” in that tone of voice.  It makes no sense to me, though.  I really don’t understand why it’s not okay for me to eat stuff off of Mom’s plate, or to bite her hand when I’ve had enough of her petting me, or to attack her ankles when she walks down the hall.  I’m just being a kitten – those things are fun!  But I’m trying to learn – I want to make Mom happy.  And she’s a really cool Mom – she plays lots of games with me!

Anyway – that’s what’s happening in my world and….oh – sorry, gotta go.  Big squirrel sitting on the deck outside.  BIG squirrel.  Really  huge.  Wow!  I could take him!!!  I know I could!

Virulent Systemic Feline Calicivirus

Guest Post by Dr. Fern Crist

Virulent Systemic Feline Calicivirus – What Do We Really Know?

When Ingrid called me to tell me that Amber was making occasional odd gagging noises as if something was stuck in her throat, but that she seemed fine otherwise, I was certainly not expecting Amber to die within ten days.

Two days later, Ingrid told me Amber’s appetite was decreased, and she was throwing up a little bit, gagging a little more but still seemed generally fine.  My brain went on yellow alert, but not red.  After all, Amber was still eating and keeping nearly all of it down.  Her abdomen was not painful.  Most such events resolve on their own, and since Amber gets very stressed with hospital visits, the benefits of getting her checked out had to be weighed against the stress of the hospital visit.  It seemed wiser to “just watch” for a little longer.

Non-specific symptoms

But after a few more days of “she’s not worse but she’s not better either,” I hit my limit of “let’s keep an eye on it,” so into the hospital we went.

I didn’t think of calicivirus right away when I first examined her.  I could hear that her airway was narrowed at some point in her throat, and like Ingrid, I thought she might have a foreign body stuck there.  Cats will sometimes vomit a little if they cough hard enough, so the occasional little “urp” didn’t concern me too much at the time.  She had no fever, and her labwork and x-rays showed nothing significant.  We decided to look down her throat and hope we could pull out an offending object.

It wasn’t until I saw her larynx that I first thought, fleetingly, of calici.  The edges of her larynx were very swollen and her air passage narrowed at that point.  We passed tubes down her trachea and esophagus anyway to be sure, and found no foreign body.  The only real finding we had was laryngeal edema (swelling around the larynx), which can be caused by allergic reactions, many viruses, and a host of other things.  Laryngeal edema is quite often a transient problem in the cat, for which a cause is never identified, but in nearly all cases the cats recover as long as the edema is treated.  We treat strenuous breathing when present because it can lead to the potentially fatal development of lung edema.  So we gave her steroids and fluids, the standard approach for acute laryngitis.  Having seen such cases before, I fully expected her to be much better the next day.

When she wasn’t, I began to seriously consider other possibilities.  And here’s where the calici comes in.

Felin calicivirus (FCV)

Feline calicivirus (FCV) is an important and largely preventable respiratory disease in cats.  It is included in what we consider the “core” vaccination protocol for every cat.  If you’ve ever seen the inside of the mouth of a cat with regular old calici, you’ll understand why.  It’s nasty, very difficult to treat, and some cats are even euthanized because of the terrible pain it causes them.  And that’s the “good” calicivirus.

Calicivirus is an RNA virus (a virus that has ribonucleic acid as its genetic material).  RNA viruses can mutate (change) easily, which means that new strains pop up from time to time.  It likes to set up shop in cat mouths and noses, and is then passed on through pretty much any body fluid.  Calici does not die quickly when exposed to air, so it can be transmitted by such normal actions as petting one cat and then petting another.  Virus shedding is common in cats with no symptoms at all.  Cats with symptoms can have any combination of fever, conjunctivitis, ulcerations in the mouth, sneezing and snotting, and often feel totally miserable.  Some cats will develop inflammation in the joints, kidneys, or other organs.  This creates a variability of symptoms that makes diagnosis tough, and again, this is for the “good” calicivirus.

Virulent feline calicivirus

In 1998, a particularly nasty strain of calicivirus was described in California.  There have been a number of similar occurrences since, which appear to be arising independently.  What this implies about the mutating ability of the calici virus is just plain scary.  These hot strains have been designated “Virulent Systemic Feline Calici Virus” (VS-FCV), although it is misleading to give them all one name, since each is probably a new and different mutation of the virus.  They do have characteristics in common, however.  Their mortality rate is much higher than that of the usual variety, reported to be as high as 67%.  Most of the affected cats are obviously very sick.  Many develop swelling (edema) in the legs and face, because inflammation of the vessels allows circulatory fluids to escape.  Major organs can be hit hard, including the lungs, pancreas, liver, and GI tract.  Often multiple organs fail, leading to death.  Adult cats are typically hit harder than kittens.

To date, there have been fewer than 20 documented outbreaks that I am aware of.  These occurred in California, Nevada, Pennsylvania, Massachusetts, Indiana, Tennessee, North Carolina, and the United Kingdom.  They have been verified by genetic analysis, possible because these mutants are genetically different from the garden-variety calici.  In each case, the outbreak was contained and over quickly.  And to date, there have been no outbreaks reported in Virginia.  But here’s the problem: we really don’t know how many times this has happened.  We wouldn’t, because the less dramatic cases would not get the attention and research that the horrendous outbreaks have.  Most likely, a lesser problem would be treated symptomatically and never diagnosed.  Cats get sick every day with diseases that we never identify.  Most of them just get better; but some of them die.  Unless there are many victims who are simultaneously very ill, a mutant viral event probably will not be recognized for what it is.

Since a successful parasite does not kill its host, it is nearly inevitable that eventually, a less virulent form of “virulent calicivirus” will appear.  And being less fatal, it will be much harder to spot.  A quieter calici mutation might not resemble the popularly reported VS-FCV strain as much as we’d expect.  An affected cat might, for instance, have only one or two organ systems affected enough to be a problem, and may or may not have swelling of the face and limbs, and may or may not have oral ulcers.  After all, the definition of a mutation is that is different.

Could early diagnosis have made a difference?

With Amber, the unusual combination of laryngeal edema with pancreatic or GI dysfunction is what led me to ask whether calici might be the culprit.  Initially, there was no edema or fever, but we eventually saw both.  We had multiple organ failure, including cardiac; we had effusion in the chest and abdomen; evidence of pancreatic involvement; and we found no other explanation. Amber had a positive PCR (polymerase chain reaction) test for calici, but that does not necessarily mean that calici caused her disease process.  We did not do a genetic analysis.  It might have been just an ordinary calicivirus which had nothing to do with her disease.  We’ll never know for sure.

Had I considered calici sooner, could I have done more to help her?  I believe the answer is definitively yes.  There are antiviral drugs purported to help in these cases; I might have used those.  I might have hospitalized her earlier in the process, and maybe kept her from going past the point of no return with drugs to suppress immune-mediated damage.  Monitoring in the hospital would have allowed faster intervention as different systems were affected.  Her surprise development — a hidden heart condition which had never shown up on Amber’s regular bi-annual check ups, but was revealed by the combination of disease, steroids and fluid therapy — would have been detected earlier and managed better.  She might have survived, and she might not have.  But she would, perhaps, have had a better chance.

Ingrid asked me to write this article in hopes that we can help make cat owners and veterinarians alike more aware that mutant caliciviruses are capable of creating disease scenarios such as Amber’s, and that this may be more common than we realize.  Mutant caliciviruses don’t have to be the total train-wrecks reported in the news.  Having the possibility of calici in our heads earlier in the process may save some lives.

This is not an alarm call, and it is not intended to inspire fear.  You should not lock yourself in your house, nor avoid the vet, or anywhere else where another cat might be found.  You should not give up adopting kittens.  Diseases will continue to appear, as they have throughout history, and though most never affect most cats, some cats will get sick, and in rare cases, the outcome will be devastating.

But if you see symptoms similar to Amber’s, perhaps this story will encourage you to wonder whether it could possibly be a case of a more-than-commonly virulent strain of calicivirus.  If the answer is yes and you intervene early, your cat may have a better chance than Amber did.

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PS:
I should mention that there is a vaccine available labeled for protection against the virulent calicivirus.  This vaccine was developed from one of the mutant strains; however, since each mutation arises independently, there is no way to know if it would be protective against any new mutation.  It is a killed vaccine, requiring the use of an adjuvant, which we think may play a role in the rise of injection site tumors; and it is a new product, so time has not yet shown if there may be other risks with it.  We don’t even really know how prevalent virulent strains are at this time.  So – would I vaccinate my cat against VS-FCV?  Absolutely not. In my mind, the risk of vaccinating with a product as new as this, with such questionable efficacy, far outweighs any benefit likely to accrue.

Amber’s Last Two Weeks

This past week of tributes to Amber, and all the love, support, kind words and cyber hugs you’ve offered through your comments and notes, have provided great comfort for me during this difficult time.  Thank you, all of you, from the bottom of my heart.

Throughout this past week, I’ve been getting a lot of questions about exactly what happened to Amber.  Even though it’s difficult to write about it, I’m hoping that by sharing the sequence of events of her disease process, I may help other cats who may present with the same, or similar symptoms.  I am not a vet, and I’m writing this from my vantage point of being Amber’s mom – a mom who is still grieving.  Dr. Fern Crist has promised me an article on the calici virus which we think caused Amber’s illness.  It will run here on The Conscious Cat in the next few days, again, in hopes that it may raise awareness about this virus.

I’ve also gotten a lot of questions about whether I need to worry about Allegra getting sick, too.  While there are, of course, no guarantees, the answer is almost definitely no.  The most likely scenario is that Allegra might actually have been the carrier of the virus – chances are that she had a mild form of the disease when she was younger (her medical history is a bit sketchy, and she was also over-vaccinated, so who knows), got over it, and is now immune, but was or is still shedding the virus.

On Sunday, May 2, Amber was stilll fine.  She was starting to get to know her new little sister, who, at that point, had been with us for almost a month.  She had a full breakfast, and spent the day doing all her normal, happy Amber things – napping in the sunny spots, looking out the window, cuddling with me while I was reading.  When I offered her dinner that evening, she didn’t seem very hungry, but ate about half of her meal.  Later that evening, I noticed her making some gagging noises – as if something was stuck in her throat perhaps.  She was breathing fine, and she even purred for me, so I thought maybe some hair had gotten lodged in her trachea, and that she was eventually going to be able to clear it herself.  We went to bed that night, with Amber curled up in my arms, as she had been almost every night since she came to live with me on July 29, 2000.

Unfortunately, the gagging didn’t stop overnight.  She ate a few bites of her breakfast Monday morning, and then went to one of her favorite napping spots for her morning nap.  I called Fern to run these odd symptoms by her, and we both agreed that I would just continue to keep an eye on Amber.  If things got worse, Fern would come and take a look at her.  Things didn’t change much throughout the day, but the gagging got progressively worse throughout the night (why is it that anytime a pet gets sick, things always get worse overnight?).  I didn’t want to take her to the emergency vet.  I knew that her situation wasn’t life threatening, but I also knew that she was very uncomfortable.  To compound things, she also vomited a couple of times overnight.  By Tuesday morning, it became clear that she needed to be seen by a vet.  After examining her, running bloodwork and taking a series of x-rays, we still weren’t any closer to diagnosis.  Fern was hearing high-pitched sounds in the back of her throat, like her airway was constricted or partially blocked.  She also thought she saw some redness and swelling at the back of her throat, but without getting a closer look, there was no telling what was going on.  And in order to take a closer look, Amber needed to be sedated.  There’s always a risk with sedation, but the bigger risk seemed to be to not know what was going on, so I agreed.  The good news was that the exam revealed no tumors or foreign bodies, but her larynx was severely swollen, making it tough for her to breathe.  The treatment would require steroids and supportive fluids.  Normally, I’m not a fan of using steroids because of their longterm side effects, but in this case, something was needed to knock the inflammation down and make Amber more comfortable quickly, so again, I agreed.  Thankfully, I’m able to give injections and fluids myself, so she could come home with me.

She seemed to be feeling better on Wednesday, and I started breathing a bit easier.  Meanwhile, Fern had done some research on this odd presentation of symptoms, and thought this might be a variant of a particularly nasty strain of calici virus making its way through the cat community.  This calici virus was appearing in other cats that had similar symptoms:  laryngitis, followed by inflammation and swelling in other parts of the body, including pancreatitis.  The way to treat a virus like this is with supportive care.  We thought we were on the right track, and the virus just needed to run its course and work its way out of Amber’s system.

By Friday, she wasn’t any better.  Fern stopped by my house to take another look at her, and still didn’t see anything that would lead her to think that it was anything other than a virus.  We decided to see how Amber would do through the weekend with continued supportive care.

She had a quiet weekend, but she was clearly uncomfortable.  Every afternoon, she’d rally and have a brief period of renewed energy, which gave me hope that things were starting to turn around.  She’d walk around a bit, jump up on the back of the loveseat and look out the window, and then go back to resting comfortably on her favorite sunny spot on the sofa.

However, by Monday morning, it was clear that not only was she not getting better, she was getting worse.  That’s when we took her to the internal medicine department at the Hope Center for Advanced Veterinary Medicine.  Ultrasound and other examinations revealed that she had fluid in her chest and abdomen.  An echocardiogram showed that she was in congestive heart failure – an underlying heart condition we were not aware of complicated matters, and the steroids and fluids she had been given had pushed her heart too far.  She spent the next three and a half days in intensive care.  She was given intravenous fluids, concentrated nutrition through a nasogastric feeding tube, and antibiotics for a complicating bacterial infection.  Thankfully, I was able to visit her twice a day.  It was hard to see her so sick, but she responded to me each and every time I came to visit, and she even purred for me at times.   I tried to cling to the hope that she was going to get better.

Ultimately, the challenge of needing to treat her with aggressive fluid therapy without pushing her heart too far proved to be too much.  On Thursday morning, after she seemingly had a good night, she took a turn for the worse, and while there was more that could have been done, her prognosis was so poor that I decided to stop treatment and take her home.   Her wonderful doctor at the Hope Center agreed that this was the right decision.

Amber and I spent the next few hours together, just soaking up every last little bit of togetherness that we could.  For most of that time, she was curled up in my arms, in our favorite spot.  Fern would come later in the afternoon to help her make the final transition.

I was still having a hard time with my decision.  I knew the decision to stop treatment was the right one, given the circumstances.  I wasn’t so sure about my decision to euthanize that afternoon.  Perhaps there was still a chance she would get better on her own?  Miracles have been known to happen.  Maybe I could have one more night with her?  Fern told me that if I waited too long, fluid would continue to accummulate in her chest, and she’d die miserably, would, in effect, be drowning in her own fluids.  Of course I could not let that happen.  But Amber seemed so happy to be home, and she seemed comfortable.  She just didn’t seem that sick!  She walked around the house, as if reclaiming her space again, then settled on her favorite spot on the loveseat.  She seemed content.  She even purred for me!  When I went into the kitchen a little while after she came  home to open a can of food for Allegra, Amber jumped off the loveseat and walked into the kitchen, tail held high in the air.  I coudn’t believe my eyes.  I offered her some food, and she even sniffed at it, but then turned away from the dish.  Still, the fact that she was interested enough to come into the kitchen….  it seemed like a glimmer of hope.  A little bit later, a friend came over to say good bye.  She brought flowers for me.  I laid the flowers on the coffee table while my friend talked to Amber.  Amber jumped off the loveseat, then up on the coffee table, to inspect the flowers.  My friend and I were speechless.  How could she show this burst of energy when she was supposedly so sick?  Seeing her so interested in what was going on around her made it really difficult to believe that her body was being ravaged from the inside and that I needed to let her go.

However, as the afternoon progressed, her breathing became a little more labored.  She was still comfortable, though.  She climbed into my lap, and curled up for another nap.  She purred some more.  And yet, her breathing continued to worsen.  At around three o’ clock, I called Fern and asked her to come in a couple of hours.  Only two more hours left together.  My heart was breaking, and yet, at that point, I knew I had no choice.

I will always treasure those last two hours.  Gradually, I began to feel more at peace.  I got a sense from Amber that she, too, was at peace.  When Fern arrived, Amber was lying on my chest, sleeping lightly, and occasionally lifting her head to look into my eyes.  Since she still had her catheter from the hospital, we didn’t even need to disturb her.  Fern gave her the final injection, and Amber passed peacefully, looking into my eyes until the last moment.